TellTale’s new adventure game series is off to a great start.
Yes, The Walking dead is a mouse-based adventure game, much like TellTale’s other recent productions, but it presents in an entirely different way. I come to this game with no prior Walking Dead experience. I’ve never read the books, and I’ve never seen the show, so I’m assuming there is some stuff I’m missing here—but it’s still pretty clear, even if I was a bit confused about the timeline: The world is having a zombie problem, and the protagonist is stuck in the middle of it. This is a new story, which doesn’t reuse characters or situations directly from the book or show, except that it’s in the same world, during the same disaster. It may intersect with the main Walking Dead story-line at some point, but I wouldn’t know to see it.
The game begins in a police car, in which the protagonist is being driven out of Atlanta as a prisoner. It’s during this transit that the outbreak seems to occur, and after a terrible high-speed car accident, our hero finds himself out in the woods, surrounded by shambling cannibals. While the characters never use the word ‘Zombie’—I think ‘Walker’ is the term used in this franchise—it’s pretty clear what they are.
The story is not just about fighting zombies though—which is what I assumed, not having experienced any Walking Dead before now—rather, it’s a very dramatic story (at some points even melodramatic) about people struggling to work together to survive. The protagonist has to play a mediator and caretaker while making difficult decisions about who deserves his help. There are moments of brief action, even sequences in which the player has to hit certain buttons on loose timing, or aim the cursor at a Walker in order to survive. The penalty for failure is low, however—one simply must try again after receiving a ‘you have died’.
Players used to playing FPS games with an inverted y-axis might have a little trouble here, as I did. When it zooms into first-person view to aim at the monsters, my natural inclination to reverse the y-axis made me miss my first shot a couple times. The entire first episode takes about two hours to get through, including time to figure everything out, as it’s not lacking in click-sequence puzzles. If you already knew what to do, you might get through in less than an hour
Those brief moments keep the excitement up, and keep the player on his/her toes throughout, but the real game is in the conversations. Every time the protagonist speaks with another character he has decisions to make, and he can’t dally either. There are usually three or four choices of what to say, and only a few seconds to decide which one to use. If time runs out then the game moves on without the character saying anything. They’re not meaningless choices in a dialog tree designed to get everything out of the NPC however. Instead the player is establishing relationships, building trust, and choosing sides in disputes. The way each character treats you later in the game will, in a major way, be dependent upon what you said to them earlier. In addition, there are several moments where plot-altering decisions must be made, and they’re not clear morality choices. A couple of times, for example, the player must decide which person in the group to try to save from the walkers, which has a big effect on who will remain in the party of survivors, as well as how other characters treat you later.
The player can decide how much feedback they want from the interface. If you don’t like having all the select-able items highlighted for you, you can turn that off. I liked it on, since it’s not a completely open game (you can’t investigate everything, only what’s important), so not having it on sometimes means using the mouse cursor to hunt across the screen for clickable things, which I find annoying. If you like that sot of thing, however, go for it. There is also a decision-making feedback option, which has the game showing you notes about what you have changed with your decisions in your relationships. For example, you might be talking to an NPC, and after asking about their kids, you’ll get the message “This character will remember that you showed interest in his family”. I liked that option also, but it can be turned off separately. All these decisions the player is making even cleverly reflect in the ‘next time on’ sequence that plays at the end of the episode, showing characters in the next episode who might have died, or hearing characters say things which only make sense because of the decisions the player made in this episode.
In addition to all this great storytelling, the game is beautiful. The 3D models are clear and well-animated, and the cel-shading looks great. It’s one of the best examlpes of ‘make a 3D game look like a comic book’ that I’ve ever seen. It really gets the feel of the comics-style illustrations across.
At the end of the episode, a final interesting feature appears: A simple chart shows a list of the major decisions that the player had to make, the ones that drastically affect the future of the story, and compares those decisions to everyone who has already finished the episode, giving the player a percentile score to see if they went the way most other people would have. I was surprised to see that few of the decisions were close to 50%—most of them had a clear bias one way or the other.
Overall, the first episode of The Walking Dead hits all the right notes for a great interactive narrative. Anyone who enjoys clicky adventure games, The Walking Dead comic or television show, or who just likes to see great examples of the artform should absolutely pick this one up, and if the quality here is any indication of the remaining episodes, a season pass (essentially a pre-order for the all of the episodes) is good investment.
The first episode of The Walking Dead is available now. The second episode is expected to be released in June 2012.