Game Name: The Walking Dead (Season 1) (2012)
Developer: Telltale Games (makers of Sam and Max, The Wolf Among Us)
Platform: PC, MAC, PS4, PS3, XB1, XBox360, Mobile
Categories: Single Player, Traditional Adventure, Morally Gray, Quick Time Events, Low Interaction, Story-Driven, Survivor-Centric, Decision Adaptive
May Appeal To: survivalists and apocalypse buffs, casual gamers, zombie fans, comic readers, protective fathers, and those desiring a quick stroll through a depressing story
May Repulse: those that have had quite enough of the zombie craze, “hardcore” gamers, QTE haters, virtual item hoarders, kleptomaniacs, the squeamish, the nauseous, the religious, and anyone otherwise sensitive to murder, child death, or mutilation
Comparable To: subdued item collection/combining and a smidge more wanton destruction than Sam and Max, not as enchanting/compelling as The Wolf Among Us, tighter and more focused than Heavy Rain, more heartfelt more engaging and less emaciated-butt-kicking than The Walking Dead show, mostly in-line with The Walking Dead comic’s cadence and is distilled to key points in a brand new story
Learning Curve: hit the onscreen buttons
Game Length: 12 hours unless you restart episodes to make a different dialogue option
Difficulty: somewhere between “not putting your right shoe on your left foot” and “turning the television on in the dark”, though just as forgiving if you mess up
Mastery: you could give it multiple playthroughs to witness the marginally different paths, I suppose
Story: The apocalypse happens and our protagonist -a black man named Lee- avoids a prison sentence by extricating himself from a mangled police car, casting off a set of handcuffs, and takes to the suburbs in search of temporary sanctuary and a better life. I specified Lee’s race because it was both a shock to see the industry personify a black character beyond typical tropes (Barret from FF7, the Sgt. from Halo, CJ from GTA5, Shaq in Shaq-Fu?) and that Lee’s conversations are infrequently influenced by bystander reactions to him leading a meek, light-skinned girl named Clementine around as they carve out a journey among a rotating cast of fellow survivors.
The concept of mismatching is quickly tossed out the window, however, as it becomes wholly evident that the two develop an inseparable bond -one that may surpass a traditional father/daughter relationship. They’re best friends, war-time compatriots, and seeing as only about 10 other people apparently live, you can only guess at how emotionally important one is to the other. I felt and strengthened this connection as a player and dare say that the struggle to preserve her child-like purity and health colored decisions I would have made differently in her absence. The zombies, guns, and car wrecks are only background noise to finding an option that would hopefully leave her unpolluted and on top after the dust settles. Relatively, you’ll likely not get too attached to the fate of periphery characters in exchange for the bargained continuation of Lee and Clementine’s status. “It’s Okay, that’s Okay. The girl is still safe…. We’ll carry on”, you’ll say.
In standard The Walking Dead comic fashion, we’re not exploring the cause of this catastrophe or seeking a cure but merely salvaging resources and relationships, alike. The zombies are not the true enemy here – which is a strength of like-minded source material. Instead, the shambling abominations are the crucible where the bell curve of humanity is ground up until morality is a lofty precept undermined by base instinct and the narrow band of sediment representing earthly attachments lying just below the surface. What is love worth? What is life worth? How long do you hold on? Who do you choose when it comes down to the line? The acquaintances that flit in and out of your life become temporary shadows in the night. The lingering gaze when you hand them the last energy bar. The horrified glare as you leave them to die -these are the only reminders that your paths had indeed crossed towards some unspecified destination and indeterminate resting place. You once shared a common goal with these folks you knew so little about, but they’re plucked from your journey through one means or the other, by your choice or another’s. That’s what this story chooses to showcase, above all else.
With a degree of sadness I have to report that this season, alone, does not bestow a sense of finality or solace to the trials you undergo, though the more optimistic of us will see indicators that everything turns out alright in the end.
Presentation: The art style is TTG’s second strongest suit behind the storyline: although the hand-drawn inky outline and vivid colors have become their trademark default, it is moreso appropriate in this case due to The Walking Dead origins as a comic book series. I had a hard time picking screenshots since the altering camera angles, scene blocking, and action bits were all picturesque and cinematic. The ugliness and gore does have a romanticized flare when compared directly to the lumpy grit of the comics, though the simplified design somehow makes the Zombie Apocalypse attractive and digestible yet repulsively chilling at the same time. The Sound Effects are good but the Music pales like a bloodless corpse compared to the show. I *get* the intention of horror soundtracks, mind you, but this is grating in a bad way.
Unique Features: In hindsight, Lee’s criminal history didn’t completely subvert the association of black men to incarceration, though it’s pretty darn unique to have him as a main character portrayed in both a humanizing and positive light. I spent a small time researching this and the only others that fell in the category of “black, named, playable, well-intentioned protagonist with speaking lines” could [maybe] include Coach, Rochelle, and Louis (Left 4 Dead), Sheva (Resident Evil 5), Sam B (Dead Island), Quico (Papo & Yo), Sazh (FF13), and Jacob Taylor (Mass Effect). I excluded a lot of fighting games, sports games, and games where you can alter your skin color, so it’s not comprehensive by any means. Interestingly enough though, the first three I mentioned are zombie games so maybe all it takes is the complete and utter breakdown of civilization for minorities to be considered relatable?
Gameplay: You’ll often find yourself in a pattern of Search, Story, Quick Time Event until the game is over. Sometimes the player simply needs to hold ‘W’ (forward) for 15 seconds as Lee sneaks up on a character (there is no penalty for letting go and no criteria for failure) and honestly, the scripted events are some of the least interactive I’ve ever run across. For example, the most complicated (and common) QTEs in the game are when you’re prompted to tap ‘Q’ until a meter depletes and you hit ‘E’ to finalize, unless the times where you center the cross-hairs on each of a hoard’s collective heads [with a wide margin of error] count. The on-screen prompts are clear and evident and I suppose the controls are practical. In terms of gamey-ness the next feature to stumble out of the basement moaning would be the enclosed areas where you must open a handful of cabinets for the tool that will obviously progress you down the track of survival -whether or not you choose to click other icons that trigger Lee’s mumbling protestations on their varying degrees of uselessness. Traditionally, these icons would be open-ended invitations for other adventure games to insert witty dialogue galore (it’s the primary reason for playing Sam and Max, after all) but these extra triggers aren’t warranted for this mood and seem obligatorily attached to make it feel less of a movie and more of a game.
Additional Comments: You do ultimately shape and command the story, in no small part to the timed dialogue responses that bear impact on both the mood of your weathered band of blood-soaked comrades and the specifics of their individual demise. Many situations are a lit fuse in which you speak or act under duress. And though the gravity of your situation seems heavier due to frantic beratement and dramatic pacing, I assure you that the potential boons of these pressure-cooked knee-jerk responses aren’t wildly different at key junctures. Still, I bought into the presentation and felt an organic tether to my personal choices. It’s just well executed.
What I Liked: Clementine is too effin’ adorable. The graphics, the camera, the overall story. The choices are framed in a particularly effective way that engage the player and breathe life into the characters. On first glance there may seem too little time for proper character development, but there is so much inferred with a simple look and a curse word that I’d argue the realism of actual human cooperation with complete strangers. The episodic nature of this series is a fantastic analog for the periodic releases of comics -a great way to translate the source into a video game format.
What I Disliked: Lee. Can’t. Run. Animations can be a bit choppy (too many ease-ins, keyframe, ease outs) and the ending doesn’t strike me as the most complete that could have been offered. The loading screens are too frequent and unattractively low-resolution. The auto-save system never truly defines at what point you will resume and the difficulty of the game is a bit too watered-down for my taste (though the forgiveness for mistakes is appropriately timed for “redos”). Story-wise, there weren’t many high points and it felt like we were being spirited downhill the entire time (at least to me, it did).
Glitches Experienced: Straight out the gate the game would not start for me and cited “the walking dead 101.exe has stopped working” as a hard crash upon startup (I use Windows 10). For those who need it, the game had to be in compatibility mode for 98/ME and Run As Administrator from ‘walkingdead101.exe’. I also noticed small visual blips like models flinging themselves a few feet ahead and then back to the location right before loading a new area, and spastic limb flailing that occurred maybe three times total. Something else that was a bit more persistent: I had obnoxious music/audio stutters during instances when the next scene was loading, when I accidentally hit a button that wasn’t designated for movement, or when I alt+tabbed to a new window. This became enough of a bother that I expected an instance maybe once every 30 minutes.
Hours I Played: 12 hours on the dot
My Personal Reaction: I had a great time. It doesn’t challenge the player in terms of taboo subject material though you must navigate a few encounters you’re likely to not have experienced in this medium. It’s a nice llittle distraction that builds up a snowball of worry the further you go. The suspense is suspenseful, there are some unexpected moments where your heart may flutter, and the introspective approach to a zombie scenario within the framing of being a surrogate parent *not* hell-bent on violence is markedly worthwhile. My feeble actions felt appropriately futile yet paramount to a virtual character’s well-being, and that’s just not easy to capture. Lee and Clementine’s relationship is simply a dynamically forged codependency that I can not -will not- forget.
Noob Tips: Stick with your choices no matter how ill-informed or unlike your personality they are. Some situations are simply a shit sandwich that someone has to bite. (The doubt you harbor directly mirrors Lee’s POV and this may increase the gaming enjoyment.) You can also escape to the main menu during the rolling credits for each episode -upon Continuing, the next will start. The same can be said of the ambiguous saving system, and feel free to jump out after a loading screen occurs.
Depth and Replayability: Certain checkpoints in the game have different people arriving and leaving from your group. Although much of the story has identical events and outcomes, some players might find these options and nuances to be worth exploring. Due to the small digestible nature of the game’s episodes, I’d say that this gives it Medium to High replayability (though repeated playthroughs are bound to have a negative impact on the perceived pacing and “mystical” quality of your one “true” original).
Suggested Value: This game was a Steam gift whose complete seasons are currently going for $25 (thanks Matthew). At $5 a pop for each 2 hour episode, I’d say that aligns to the entertainment/value ratio you get from your traditional “dramaction” movie -which is specifically what this thing feels like. I have not played or reviewed season 2, so I can not communicate if this is the tip of an iceberg or a disappointing franchise started correctly.
Where to Buy: Steam, Gamestop, most common retail Outlets, and https://www.telltalegames.com