To break up a bit of my recent Mass Effect Trilogy monotony, I finally buckled down to get through The Walking Dead. I played the first 15 minutes or so long ago, but never got around to playing it in earnest. (On a side note, I'm still probably only a quarter of the way through ME3, but what a big lot of wasted potential that series feels like right now...)
Anyhow, back to zombies and seriously bad situations. The Walking Dead was in many of the conversations around Game of the Year in 2012. Telltale has had major hits like Sam & Max and Monkey Island, but also some huge misses like Jurassic Park. They are trying very hard to keep the Adventure game alive, and I for one am glad for it. My first compelling PC gaming experience came in the form of Quest for Glory (the beautiful, at the time, VGA remake), so I have a soft spot in my heart for that style of game.
In some ways Quest for Glory is quite similar to The Walking Dead. A game based on the point and click adventure, but with some added action-y bits to keep players engaged. You spend the majority of your time interacting with the environment, and trying to piece things together to move on in the story, but you also have to do some good old-fashioned Zombie killing. And who doesn't like that, right?
But you know all this, and that's not what I'm here for. Is The Walking Dead truly GOTY material, or is it a bit of trickery, inviting emotional involvement that leads to an overrated gaming experience?
The story is as engaging as a video game story gets. It manages to coax out emotional responses to levels rarely seen in gaming. Sure, people will rant and rave about the death of Aeris, but it did not have the emotional resonance of the fate of Duck and his mother. The Walking Dead just has a mix of great voice acting, engaging visuals, and storylines that hit home. If there ever WERE a zombie apocalypse, you could see these very events taking place.
However, The Walking Dead falls short of pure brilliance for one reason - Episode 5. (Fair warning, if you ignored the SPOILERS declaration, here they come!) The story up to this point had wound around in interesting ways. The journey to the motel. The cannibal family. The train. The doctor. All the episodes, up to this point, had a balanced blend of tragedy and hope. There were horrible things that happened in every episode, horrible decisions that had to be made. Save Carley or save Doug? Shoot Duck yourself or make Kenny do it? But in the final episode, it seemed to devolve into basically punching me in the groin repeatedly. The hope was gone, and despondency was all that was left. By the end, I realized I just spent many hours playing a game where basically every character I liked died horribly.
In the words of Josh Baskin, "what's fun about that?"
Let's compare it to A Game of Thrones, for instance (I'm sure there are many fans of that show here.) Let's say, for the sake of argument, they kill off Arya, Tyrion, Sansa, Jon Snow, Daenerys, Bronn, Samwell and Bran. Would you want to keep watching?
I sure as hell wouldn't. And in the end, that's kinda how I feel about The Walking Dead. Cruel because it has to be, but it just takes it all too far. It's a game that was excellent for about 80% of the run, but got too wrapped up in its own cruelty to be truly great.