Writing and characters propel this zombie tale
Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead offers a refreshing change of pace for the zombie genre. Like Robert Kirkman’s long running comic book and its TV series adaptation,The Walking Dead focuses on characterisation, story and the state of human morality in the wake of a zombie apocalypse over the mindless slaughter of hordes of the undead. Sure, there’s still a bucket load of zombie violence, but it’s a slow burn with moments of intensity that lends itself well to Telltale’s brand of adventure game storytelling.
Its first episode, titled “A New Day”, introduces us to protagonist Lee Everett, a convicted murderer. Whether he committed the crime or not is open to debate, but the zombie apocalypse soon puts a stop to any jail time in the most explosive manner imaginable.
A convicted criminal trying to prove his innocence – even in the end of days – is certainly ripe for cliché, but The Walking Dead takes Lee’s execrable past in some interesting directions, particularly regarding the player’s thoughts on the matter and the moral choices it introduces as a result. Unlike other Telltale Games, The Walking Dead places a heavy emphasis on player choice. You may not know Lee but do you choose to lie about his past or not, even when the world’s gone to hell? Your decisions can change other character’s perceptions of Lee, and even affect their trust in future episodes. Your group certainly won’t be too happy with you if they find out you’ve been lying the whole time, even if you thought it was the best thing to do.
There are some tough choices like this to make throughout The Walking Dead, sticking you in between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. Tonally, this is right in line with the comic books, and its strong writing and excellent voice acting goes a long way to heightening the impact of your choices. You’ll often have up to four dialogue options to chose from, and in its most tense moments a timer will appear to exacerbate things even further. You’re often asked to save one life over another, left to face the consequences of your decision from either side.
It may be a standard trope in most modern RPGs, but using player choice as a storytelling method in an adventure game goes a long way to involving the player in the narrative. You can impact the story and that’s an empowering tool that draws you into the unfolding events and the characters therein.
The only downside to this is there’s no real payoff to your decisions as of yet. Being the first episode of five leaves a lot of threads hanging in the balance for future instalments, and it remains to be seen how effectively implemented your decisions will be in the long run. It’s certainly something to look forward to, and there should be no need for trepidation just yet.
Particularly in regard to Lee’s relationship with Clementine, a small girl he finds abandoned and left to fend for herself. While some of the minor characters throughout The Walking Dead are less defined and open to stereotype, the growing bond between Lee and Clementine is a superlative facet of this first episode. This is a game heavy with dialogue, and how you to choose to communicate with Clementine helps shape Lee’s ever-growing characterisation. You know her parents have perished but do you tell her and upset her, or give out false hope? Even cussing in front of her causes a moral dilemma thanks to the meritorious writing. You quickly grow attached to these characters and “your” Lee over its two hour playtime. It’s exciting to see where their relationship will go from here.
The rest of The Walking Dead sees Telltale trying their hardest to distance themselves from the deplorable Jurassic Park. While Quick Time Events still make an appearance, they’re thankfully few and far between. Most of the time you’ll have full movement of Lee, able to walk around each environment and interact with other characters and a multitude of objects. There’s some adventure game puzzle solving to be done but it’s fairly basic. Asking you to find batteries for a radio isn’t the most challenging, and the fact the character you’re doing this for doesn’t know that a radio needs batteries to work is even more mind numbingly dumb. It remains at its best when combining zombie killing with this puzzle-solving thought process – as is evidenced in a memorable scene inside a motel parking lot.
After all, the fine art of zombie massacring is displayed here in all its glory. You’re only hitting a button to bash a zombie’s brain in with a hammer but there’s a tactile feel to it that lends itself well to the brutality of each kill; the game’s cel-shaded art style complementing the visceral nature of each skull-cracking shot. It can look drab at times, and some textures are disappointingly low-res, but its comic book stylings offer a nice diversion from the usual Telltale formula.
It’s just a shame it suffers from some dreadful performance issues. Cutscenes are hampered with awful slowdown, often freezing the game completely for one to three seconds at a time while the audio carries on in the background. Turning the shadow quality down to “low” fixed these issues, but a patch would be welcome, even if there’s little hope of fixing the low audio quality; an unfortunate staple of recent Telltale releases that lamentably dampens the superb voice work.
Nevertheless, A New Day is a fantastic introduction to this five-part series. Most adventure games move at a slow pace, but The Walking Dead is oftentimes relentless in its action, pumping up the tension with genuine panic. Its dialogue is superb and really gives credence to the choices you make, and we can only hope Telltale makes good on its promise to have these decisions mean something, and to impact the world and the way other characters view you. There are some rough edges but there’s also a ton of promise. It’s exciting to see where it will go from here.