Friday, August 31, 2012

The Walking Dead

Please note: There will be spoilers up to and through Episode 3.  If you haven’t completed The Walking Dead Episode 3 and are sensitive to spoilers, you should probably avoid this piece.

At some point in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, I realized something.  It was something I always vaguely suspected, especially after reading a couple interviews with the developer regarding this game, but midway through Episode 3, it was confirmed.  Nothing in this game happens purely because this is the zombie apocalypse and thus, shit happens.  Telltale wrote TWD in a very deliberate manner.

Case in point: Carley.  I met this gal in Episode 1, and will gladly admit I took a liking to her.  It had nothing to do with the fact that she was mildly attractive, for a virtual character, or that later on there were clear indications that her and Lee were developing something a bit romantic.  It was the fact that she was reliable, and easily the most sensible person in the group, other than Lee himself.  She didn’t blow up at people at the slightest provocation like Larry, she didn’t allow her feelings to override her sense like Kenny often does, and she was mature and level-headed, something Lilly and Ben could learn a thing or two about.  Throughout the game, it was hard not to rely on her for advice and support, and that’s a sign of a masterfully crafted character.

Now she’s dead.  Because someone could not cool their fucking head, Carley took a bullet to the head.  There was no time to mourn or bury her.  We promptly moved on.  I was angry about it.  Really angry.  And that someone suffered the wrath of my anger very quickly.  Other people died that day, and ultimately, our group shrunk quite a bit.  Tears were shed over their deaths; there was a lot of sadness, buildup and moping.  But not Carley.  Her death came quickly and suddenly, and then we were off.  I felt like I was the only one who cared that we had lost one of the most valuable members of the group.
Carley's got your back.
Later, someone mentioned to Lee that they noticed that he cared a lot about Carley.  That was when I knew.  There was no way to save Carley.  How could there be?  Telltale had set this up from the beginning.  She was my friend; my support.  And if she’d stayed alive, there’s a good chance she would have eventually been my lover, too.  So it only makes sense to off her just when the player is starting to realize they might be relying on her too much.  It was devastating, and it was effective.  It made me take a closer look at how I view my relationship with the other characters.  How those relationships could be used against me.  Well played, Telltale.

Here’s to you, Carley.

It was when I felt compelled to write the above piece that I realized that The Walking Dead is truly an excellent game.  In an industry where good writing really isn't that high on the importance scale, Telltale shows that a game doesn't have to be graphically impressive, particularly expansive, or—surprisingly—brilliant or innovative from a gameplay perspective to still be great.  Rather, The Walking Dead subsists on only two things: story and execution.  What few things it does, it does phenomenally well. 

The zombie apocalypse has never been portrayed in video games quite as well as it’s being portrayed here, where it’s not the dead that are the true threat; it’s the living.  Lee and the group are living in a brutal world.  A world where you’re worried less about zombies knocking down your door to eat you as you are bandits knocking your door to kidnap your loved ones and steal your precious food and supplies.  As one character presents it, it’s not about whether you’re a girl or a boy, whether you’re young or old, or whether you’re smart or strong.  All that matters is that you’re alive.  It’s not a story about those who died and yet continue to walk the earth.  It’s about those who survived, and the lives they lead.

The Walking Dead is split into five episodes.  As of this writing, only three of them have been released.  Every episode feels longer and more fleshed out than the last; while the first episode takes at most an hour and a half, it took me most of the evening to get through Episode 3.  Every episode is preceded by a recap of the previous adventure, and concluded by a preview of the next episode.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something catches your eye in the preview and suddenly you can’t wait until Telltale releases the next arc.

Gameplay in The Walking Dead is pretty typical of the genre, though for an adventure game it’s pretty light in adventure game tropes.  In normal gameplay, you walk around environments and interact with specific objects, sometimes pocketing them for later use.  You can also talk to characters.  There are generally two types of dialogue in The Walking Dead.  During cutscene dialogue, you’re usually given a set of options to choose from (including silence), with a timer that keeps things moving.  Characters tend to make a note of your choice of words during these sequences.  Then there’s more laidback, conversational dialogue not unlike what you’d find in many RPGs, that often focuses more on world-building.  During more intense scenes, the game makes heavy use of various forms of Quick Time Events.  Usually they’re pretty well-designed, but they also have a way of sticking out from everything else.
This is an okay-looking game.  It makes very heavy use of cell-shading, which occasionally manages to make the game look like a comic book in motion.  There’s nothing particularly detailed about the visuals.  Most of the texture work, for example is mediocre—even on the PC—and the object modeling is sometimes a bit crude, but honestly I never found this even slightly distracting.  I was convinced that the cartoonish nature of cell-shading would interfere with the game’s serious tone, but you get over it pretty quickly.

At the end of the day, I must reiterate that like many adventure games, The Walking Dead doesn’t set out to amaze you in the ways you typically expect a game to do so.  It’s gameplay and graphics are competent, but won’t amaze most people.  What will amaze most people is the game’s phenomenal presentation, which—in and of itself—is enough to keep me coming back for more.  It's an 8.5/10 now, and it can only get better from here.