Release Date: December 11, 2012
Systems: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC
Developer: Telltale Games
Metacrtic Score: 94 (PS3)
I have something of “love/hate” relationship when it comes to “The Walking Dead”. I became aware of the comics when “zombiemania” was at it’s peek, and red the first few trades back-to-back as soon as my local library got them, but stopped soon after that even though I did enjoy them. But I can not stand the TV show. At all. I have tried getting into it and always end up abandoning it around the mid point of season one. So I came into Talltale’s game a fan of the franchise, but not a huge one. I also came in having never played a point-and-click adventure game before. So this was a game based off a comic I’m mostly ambivalent over, made because of the popularity of a show I hate in a genre I know know nothing about. So how was the game? With the exception of a few technical issues, this is one of the best games I’ve ever played and is hands down my favorite piece of zombie fiction ever made.
You play as Lee Everett, a recently incarcerated man on his way to prison the day of the zombie out break. Due to either extreme luck or misfortune the police car crashes leaving Lee with a busted up leg and in need of help. You make your way up to a neighborhood were you find 8-year-old Clementine alone in her tree house. The two of you decide to team up and together the two of you will go through the games five episodes, with Clementine acting as your moral center as you makes a series of harder and harder decisions.
The games story does so much right that i’m pretty sure I could write an entire Theses Paper on video game storytelling using only this game as a lens. Here is a small list of topics I want to talk about , but may not get too as I don’t want this review to run longer than they normally do:
1. The Illusion of Choice
2. How to Properly Handle “Moral Choices” in Gaming
3. Race and Gender Diversity in Gaming
4. How to Properly Write and Handle a Child in any form of Media
5. How Levity and Happiness can Add to a Dark and Bleak Tone or Atmosphere
6. How to Properly Pace a Story.
I could talk about each one of these topics at length and still find more I wish I had said. Most of my conversations about the game are just me saying “Oh, yeah, one more thing that made this game awesome…” fallowed by nonstop gushing over how great the game is. So, let’s see how many of these topics I can talk about before this review reaches 7,000 words or more…
The Illusion of Choice
I don’t think it’ll be controversial to say that there are no rationally thinking gamers who actually expect any game to give them complete freedom. No matter how much the developers talk about how all of your actions matter, we all know that at some point there will be cut off. At some point the story tell is going to have to tell their story and will have to fin a way to void whatever your decision if it goes against the story they want to tell. Telltale Games found probably the best way to handle this I’ve ever seen.
In every episode there are big decisions that will alter part of the game. For example, in Episode Two, at the very beginning you can choose to save some one or let them die. If you let them die, they will keep the zombies off you for long enough for you to do what you need to do. If you choose to help them, you will have less time. However, most of the rest of the choices you make more effect the tone people take with you. However, even when you make a choice the game doesn’t like, the developers still found a way to reward you, rather than punish you. For example, in Episode One you can chose to save a man or save a kid. In my second play through I was doing the opposite of what I did the first time, so I chose to have the man. The man still dies, but I didn’t feel like the story was contorting itself to make it happen. The reason he died felt real, just in a different way it felt real when I saved the boy previously. Most of these rewards come in the shape of a line of dialogue that may be different, (for example, when I tried to save the man, his father didn’t hate m as much for not saving him), but the characters will recall what you did and mention it in latter episodes.
Another amazing way the game hides it’s own limitations is by how well written the static dialogue is. For example, in one of the latter episodes, the group is with two new comers. The Group is voting on something, and one of the new comers says “don’t we get a say in this?” They say this no matter what, but depending on what you’ve done and said, it’s the characters tone and the implication of the line that changes. Every line you have no effect over is like this. It all fits in with the chooses you make. In the end, we all know this has as much real chose as a “choose your own adventure” book, but it did always feel like I was choosing my own adventure. I felt like my actions were mine, and mine alone.
How to Properly Handle “Moral Choices” in Gaming
By now “moral choices” in games are a boring machinist that no one does right. The problem with them is that the games force you to either be Jesus or Satan an there is no room for middle ground. Until now I thought “Mass Effect” had the best use of this kind of system, keeping the “good” and “bad” meters separate, so you would doing one bad thing wouldn’t effect how good you were and vise versa. That was before I played this game. See, there are no “moral choices” in “The Walking Dead”. There is only the choices that sick, hungry and fearful people have to make when they have no idea when they will be fed, give medicine or be able to sleep with out the far of death looming over head.
Like I said earlier, episode two opens with you choosing to either help some one or let them die. I have yet to be able to save them. I know that sounds awful, but knowing that if I did my people wouldn’t be able to eat made me unable to help them. In almost any other game this would have been coupled with a “you gained negative karma” message, but “The Walking Dead” is smarter than that.
You are told constantly that characters will remember what you’ve done, but the came never really praises or condemns your actions. The one times the game does call you out for your action, it’s easy too justify yourself. It’s easy too see the character you’re talking too as some one who’s mind has been lost due to experiencing so many personal tragedies. But…the game still has a way of making you feel guilty for doing “bad” things. For example, in one of my play through I killed a man right in front of Clementine. Knowing she saw that made me feel more guilt than killing everyone in Megaton in “Fallout 3” ever could.
Race and Gender Diversity in Gaming
Lee Everett is one of my favorite playable characters ever, and this game also two of my favorite NPC’s as well, in both Clementine and a late game addition, Omid. Lee is a black man, Omid and his girlfriend are Middle Eastern and Clementine is a 8-year-old girl. And For those who argue against adding diversity “for the sake of it”, do you know what is lost because of all of this?
Not. A. Damn. Thing. Each of these characters go against stereotypes, but none of them are here too do just that. These are all well rounded characters, who are likable and relatable, and the fact that most of the cast is made up of minority’s doesn’t effect that in anyway, shape or form. The race of each character never matters, but is never really ignored either. For example, Omid’s girlfriend, Christa asks, “who even likes Civil War history other than old white guys?” to witch Lee responds that he does. Lee and Omid use this too bond over, but there not bonding over how cool it is that two non-white people like a “white guys thing”, they bond over liking the same stuff, but it was Christa’s own racial bias that made Lee think to ask about it. The race of the characters help too inform them, not define them, and the same goes for the sex and gender of the characters.
A Desperate Attempt to End the Story Part of this Review so it Doesn’t Become Too Long
What sells the tragedy of the game is that it is a tragedy. We watch people we care about lose those that they care about, but only after we see that they do care about each other. We see these people, maybe not at their highest, as there are no “good times” in the apocalypse, but we see happiness an hope, and that makes the fear more palpable, the sadness more bitter. We see grief stricken people losing their minds and we feel for them because we understand their grief. Everything in the story from the pacing, to the fact that it’s not one long stretch of emotional torment adds up to make this one of the most effective experiences I’ve played through. The story of Lee and Clementine is going to stay with me, and that’s something I can’t say for a lot of video games. This may not have the action of “Bioshock: Infinite” or the tense stealth encounters of “The Last of Us”, but in terms of story telling, this is a great addition to stable of games showing how to do tragedy right (although it is kind of odd that all three of these games are in some way Father-Daughter stories).
The game play has a pretty simple set up: you uses the right stick to move, the left stick to look around, and when you come across an object you can interact with, you use the face buttons to look at, touch or use and item from your inventory. For the most part this keeps the game play at a slower pace as you can take your time and talk to people or spend time looking for an answer to whatever puzzle you’re working on (though the answers here are mostly straightforward). Every once in a while though there is an action set pieces and these range from “ok” to “i kind of wish this wasn’t a part of the game”. When it’s one or two zombies or people you’re fighting, these sections are ok, but not what you’re hear for. It’s when you’re fighting big groups that the limitations of the control scheme become clear, and you are made all too aware that this wasn’t built as an action game.
It also doesn’t help that the game has some really annoying lag issues. Most of the time it’s tolerable, only a split section delay after you make a choice, as if the game has to load the appropriate content, but in the more action heave parts of the game this becomes a real frustration. I died a couple of times due to the game lagging and not responding to my orders. And in one section on my second play through the lag got so bad the game became a slide show. Luckily I wasn’t in any danger when this happened, but these kind of bugs are just unexceptionable.
If my overly long rant about how much I love the games story didn’t tell you already, the main draw of the game is definitely it’s story, and thus the best part of the game play is when you are making those hard choices. Most of the time you are only given a shot time to respond, adding to the stress of the situation, and at the best of times this gives you the same kind of adrenaline high as a really good horror game. Even when your input doesn’t matter much, the game always makes you feel it does.
Game Play: 4.5/5
Music and Sound:
This game has some of the best writing and voice acting i’ve ever had the privilege of playing through. There was not one character with bad dialogue or a bad voice actor. Unfortunately the issues with lag kind of pop up here too. Almost every time I made a decision the game would lag a bit, throwing off the lip syncing. This would only last for a line, then the game would align itself properly. This was never a huge issue for me, but seeing every time did end up annoying me.
What didn’t bother me was the games soundtrack. The song that closes the season is one of the saddest songs I’ve heard (and for bonus points, the violin riff reminds me of “Firefly”. Reminding me of “Firefly” is always a plus) and perfectly suits the game. I ended up adding the games soundtrack to my youtube “soundtracks” play list though I don’t think i’ll listen too it much as the whole thing is just too damn sad.
Music and Sound: 5/5
Overall Score: 4.8/5
Who is this game for:
If you every wanted to know what a good David Cage game might look like, play “The Walking Dead”. If you’re not sick of Zombies, play “The Walking Dead”. If you want an easy go-to reference for how good video game stories can be, play “The Walking Dead”. If you want to en up feel dead inside because you are overwhelmed by emotions you didn’t think a video game could give you, play “The Walking Dead”. If you like video games, play “The Walking Dead”. That’s really all there is to say folk. This is one of the greats.