Adventure games are undead
I've been a fan of Adventure games since the somewhat early days. Games such as Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island and Discworld captured my imagination and my love for storytelling and packaged it up into a mystery that I truly felt part of. They gave me agency and solving the puzzles in the early adventure games was truly a pleasure (most of the time).
More recently, when I look at the work that Telltale Games has put out, I've been a little disappointed. The jump to episodic gameplay and short development cycles has hit the genre hard, and the result has been not very good adventure games. Examples such as Back to the Future and Jurassic Park are obvious ones, but even looking back to the most recent Sam and Max series and the Tales of Monkey Island I realized that the output was never five star. Don't get me wrong, I loved those games at the time, but looking back now I realize that my love for them was nostalgia of the good old days.
I was surprised to hear such a buzz surrounding The Walking Dead. Obviously the TV show has been super successful, but such a positive praise for a Telltale Game is virtually unheard of. So I decided to check it out for myself, and was pleasantly surprised. I've broken the game down into a few key areas that I'd like to discuss:
Not only is most video game writing not good, but it's mediocre at best. I'm a huge critic of game writing because there's so much that's still to be learned. Sure, many games are moving away from cutscenes and flat out exposition, but it's still rare that the writing is so closely linked to the gameplay.
The Walking Dead is an example of excellent writing that achieves 2 things: Giving the player agency and providing intrigue. The story for the game is as gripping as the TV show. Immediate questions that pop to mind are: who is my character? How did I get into this situation? Where am I going? The agency is provided by the cleverly devised dialogue options and feedback system. Each time you make a decision or achieve a key plot moment there is a feedback marker on screen hinting that there will be an effect to your actions later on. This sort of system paired with good writing enabled me to truly have dilemmas about which dialogue option to pick, unlike the system used in Bioware's RPGs.
There are surprisingly few puzzles for an Adventure Game, but that's ok. The puzzles that the game does have throw a shout out to games from over a decade ago where all of the clues are in front of you, you just have to piece them together. I particularly loved the section where you're barricaded into a pharmacy. More of these type puzzles please!
The scope of the game feels just right. It doesn't matter that it's heavy on dialogue in comparison to puzzles, since it does story so well. The parts where you do get a puzzle are super fun because of the build up. And that fact that each episode is around 2 hours long...so what?
The Walking Dead TV series (I can't speak for the comic books as I haven't read them) sets out to achieve an atmosphere which is less about fighting through waves of zombies and one surrounding fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of the future, fear of those you don't trust. The TV show showcases great atmosphere by pushing the zombies to the back of the stage and letting the interactions between the characters take the focus. The Walking Dead game does the same, and achieves everything the TV series sets out to accomplish.
Most of the first episode takes place on a farm in the country or locked up inside a pharmacy, not fighting zombies. You get to spend time with characters, form relationships...develop suspicions. The most dramatic part of the whole experience isn't when you're chopping off a zombie's head with an axe, it's when you're forced to make decisions about the people you've built a bond with, or grown suspicious of.
Often the decisions appear clear cut. From you're perspective there's only one possible solution. However, upon deeper thought, there are pros and cons to each decision, with the prospect of that decision carrying forward to future episodes, you don't want to mess up.
I'll be honest, I wasn't gone on the art at first. That cell shaded 3D look had distinct markings of an art style that was intended to disguise cheap and low poly artwork. I must say that the style grew on me throughout the game and by the end of Part 1 I actually quite liked the style. The animation on the other hand left a little to be desired. Clunky movement and cheap animation is something that Telltale have been known for, this game is no exception.
Overall, I was blown away with the impact The Walking Dead had upon me. Sure, the combat sections weren't very exciting, sure the art was something that could have been improved upon and sure the achievements are awful because they're all progression related. However, it strikes me that Telltale have finally found a structure that works for episodic Adventure Games. Funnily enough, that structure focuses more on story than it does on puzzles. Developers should remember that games which have a huge story component need to hit the nail on the head in terms of atmosphere and storytelling, and this game does just that.
Hold on to those writers Telltale!
I can't wait to play the rest of the series.