The Importance of Life: One Experience of Playing The Walking Dead

by frypan, last updated 17 Aug 2012 06:15


I’ll come right out at the start and admit that playing this game has restored some of my confidence in gaming as a whole, and the place of narrative in games. My comments should therefore be viewed as coming through somewhat rose tinted glasses. Also, I enjoy the zombie genre in spite of its absurdities, so there is an inherent bias in what I say.1Nevertheless, I hope that the comments provide some elucidation on why I really like this game, and what it has done. Also note that I have played both the first game, "The Walking Dead Episode One: A New Day" and Episode Two: Starved for Help

Grabbing the Player’s Attention

The game starts in the back of a police car, and does some interesting things to introduce the player to the story and game play concepts. The conversation mechanics are the main aspect, something I’ll discuss below, however the game also introduces the story as well, in a manner that hints at all the horrors of the comics and TV series.

I was pretty much grabbed at this point. The main character is enigmatic enough to allow a player to infuse them with a bit of themselves, and the sheriff driving the car is real enough that he is instantly empathised with and seen as more than a tutorial contrivance. That’s not bad for the opening few minutes, a time when I often struggle with a game, and this time I was able to settle in with ease.

Character and Survival

The manner the sheriff is brought to life is only a start, as all the characters are extremely well realised. Most importantly, a child that Lee (the main character) meets early on is, in a pleasant change from the usual, being believable and likeable.2 I immediately found my vestigial nurturing instincts kicking in, and I wanted to save this person. Same goes for a whole range of characters, even those that are visibly flawed or antagonistic. They all feel real and it hurts if one of them is lost.3

This is essential considering the genre as set by Kirkman, who wrote the comics. Characters have different personalities that give them life, and while this allows for favourites much in the manner of Bioware games or the comics, all have inherent worth that makes keeping them alive a priority. This is also another pleasant change from movies and the like where most characters are simple fodder for the undead.4 Like the graphic novels, the characters are given enough life that they have importance, and every decision made is done so with the thought of how to keep these people alive. It was almost as if the adventure game genre was designed with this game and characters in mind.

Conversation and Consequences

The genre is critical as it is perfect for a conversation-based game. The conversation stakes are high, as many players will be aware of the brutality of the TV shows, comics, and the genre in general. At no time did I feel totally at ease, and I was constantly aware that a decision may come back to bite me later on. While by the second game it is revealed this is often an illusion, it is a compelling one. The narrative path through the game is fairly fixed and narrow, but the conversations have impact for the player’s relationship to the NPCs. Also, the NPCs themselves seem to change, and the player is forced to redefine relationships as circumstances evolve.

More importantly, the decisions reflect some fundamental themes raised throughout the comics and TV series, such as “how far would you go to stay alive?” Weighty stuff, even if the effects are no more varied than many of the choices in RPGs such as Mass Effect. One choice in the second game is particularly evocative, and had me close to tears as the decision was so powerful and confrontational.

With the character and relationship emphasis in mind, occasionally the player is informed that a character has noted their choices, and that this will have some effect later down the line. At first, I tried to power game these, and even started the game a couple of times before giving up and letting the story play as it would. It was simply too hard to predict the right choice, with even good deeds or intentions having unpredictable responses at times. For instance, an early conversation requires that the players introduce themselves in a manner that would suggest a white lie is appropriate, and it is not clear what effect that might have. That lack of knowledge adds to the suspense, especially as it seems a bit more complicated than simply “be nice to the NPC” to progress.

More importantly, conversations in critical moments are timed, and there are a couple of particularly intense moments involving these. I hated them, as I was forced to make important decisions without introspection, but this had the effect of intensifying the moment and putting me under some very appropriate pressure. It is possible to go back to an auto save for these, but I was rarely even tempted as the game kept me in the moment and moving ahead to see what happened next. Also, with it being difficult to see long-term consequences, most choices are not transparently or immediately pass or fail conditions.

In this, the timing, pacing and narrative of the story seem to complement each other, another benefit of the genre, which usually veers from quiet spells to sudden violence. You don’t feel the need to talk too much when under pressure, and when there are respites the game gives opportunity to discuss matters with companions.

That said, common sense does dictate many responses, but the alternatives are usually quite plausible with the odd “dick” exception. There is enough here I think to consider the impression of choice to be believable. For an adventure game it manages to create a very potent illusion.5

No Win Situations

Mass Effect 3 take note, too: this is how you do no-win situations. Not only are these presented in a manner consistent with the genre, but effort is made to make the consequences felt emotionally and the choices plausible. I was reminded of the contrast in the conversations - first with Ash in ME1 after Virmire, and then in the way ME3 missed any real discussion after Mordin’s death. The Walking Dead aligns itself closer with ME1 in this regards, as people's deaths always matter, even those not part of the party, and so it works.

The Gameplay: Bad News?

Game play is simply horrid, but this is surprisingly a good thing. The controls in the few violent moments are clumsy, as befits the scramble for survival by untrained survivors, so I actually didn’t mind the feeling I was flailing around at these times. Conversations and movement are a bit more tricky, but I put up with them and am not sure if some of these can be rebound on the keyboard, something that might make the game play a little more smoothly. However, it does not generally break immersion. Again, like the violence, the feeling of fumbling is in some ways quite apt for the genre.

Many other actions are terrible though. Press button to move car/cupboard etc are too remiscent of quick time events, something I loathe on a visceral level. They are simply not gaming, even in this particular case. That is a personal preference, but I imagine other folks might feel similarly.

There is one possible exception that I hesitate to raise as it is quite a spoiler. However if I am right about the mechanics of the scene, Telltale have done a far more effective job of confronting a player with the effects of violence, than any of the shallower attempts made thus far. This is one to discuss with folks once some have finished the game.

Puzzles are not much chop, but they do reflect the issues inherent in an apocalyptic scenario. One puzzle, involving batteries for a radio, is ludicrously easy, but at a thematic level it reminds the player of the world they inhabit. This applies throughout the game, and while it might be possible to pick apart the actions of the survivors, this is one of the more interesting aspects of the genre as a whole. Discussion centres on the plausibility of what the characters do, and the resources available to them, rather than, at least for me, the apocalyptic premise which is undeniably always ludicrous.6

Where To Next?

I’ve played through the first two games and there is a feeling of continuity that I like. Multiple play throughs may reveal that there is less importance to the decisions I have made, but the narrative, and the expression of player intent should be examined separately. While the narrative does not seem to branch, the conversations and attitudes of survivors do. In this, the player is given freedom to express their attitude in a meaningful way. Even some of the more obvious tropes of the genre play out well as the player is given the chance to ask how they would act under the circumstances. In this regards, the table of player choices that pops up at the end of the game is interesting. For the first time ever I paid attention to such things, and reflected on the implications behind them. If I only ever play through once, I feel it was time well spent for this alone.

As an advance of the zombie genre the game seems the perfect vehicle to explore such things and I really hope that we see more like it. The generally positive reviews may help, and the fact the game is so cheap. I could happily play more of this, especially as the zombie genre is ripe for more meaty topics such as social commentary.7 The Walking Dead has already tackled some important issues, and the end of the second game raises even more. This depth and feeling of verisimilitude is not bad for a game set in such a bizarre milieu.

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