An Emotional Rollercoaster
You don’t need me to tell you that Telltale’s The Walking Dead is a big deal. Since its release in 2012, the game has received a slew of accolades from gaming press and fans alike, not just because of its ability to tell an excellent story, but because it does so in a way that overcomes many of the narrative hurdles that video games have traditionally faced, and I can honestly say that every bit of the praise it’s received is deserved. In the game you play as Lee Everett, a convicted murderer on his way to jail, when the police car he is riding in hits the reanimated corpse of a man and swerves off of the road. Escaping from his fate as a prisoner, Lee gets another opportunity at a free life, but in a world where the dead are coming back as “Walkers” and civilisation is in tatters. He quickly meets Clementine, a young girl separated from her parents who it falls upon Lee to protect, and soon he finds a variety of other people doing what they can to try and stay alive and look after the people they hold dear.
Video games and nerd culture have had a fascination with zombies for a long while now. In the case of games specifically, zombies have been a godsend for writers and designers, providing them with an excuse for having hundreds of easy-to-kill enemies who can be casually offed with no negative moral implications, but I find myself as one of the many who have been affected by “Zombie Fatigue”. It’s not just that there are too many zombie games out there, but that the way in which zombies are being used has gotten boring. In most good zombie fiction, the zombies aren’t really the point; the shambling undead simply serve as a means to present a world where society has crumbled and humans can easily turn into monsters, both literally and figuratively. The focus is on the people living within that world and how they react when presented with such circumstances.
Seeing a mindless hungry monster turn against a random person is somewhat disturbing, but what’s more disturbing is when that person is someone you care about, and when ordinary human beings will turn against each other just to avoid that monster. As much of a reputation as it may have gotten for being pulpy B-movie material, zombie fiction has the potential to uplift us by showing how people can pull together and keep each other safe, even when the world is crumbling around them, or horrify us by showing a world where killing, suffering, and strife are rampant, and where normal people will act ruthlessly and selfishly if it means they can hang onto their own lives for a few more minutes. The Walking Dead understands this, and goes in both of these directions.
Mechanically, The Walking Dead is pretty standard adventure game, but as the long-time stalwarts of the genre that Telltale are, they manage to implement these mechanics with a great deal of elegance. There are typical adventure game puzzles throughout, but nothing that is too convoluted or long-winded. There are also very occasional shooting sections which aren’t much more complex than pointing and firing, and other gameplay scenarios where you will have to quickly click between objects, or hammer on a button to fend off walkers. These moments help provide a sense of tension and disarray to scenes, and the game manages to scatter them sparingly enough across its playtime so that they don’t become worn out. The gameplay here may sound simplistic, but that’s only because the focus is on the story specifically, with the dialogue menus being perhaps the most important part of the game’s feature set.
Among other things, the story the game presents gives it a quality that has been rather lacking in video games as a medium; it feels human. A lot of games over the past decade or so have been concerned with presenting worlds that are grim, gritty, and more mature, but far too often they’ve ended up presenting an over-the-top adolescent version of “Grim and mature”. The Walking Dead stands in defiance of that, giving us engrossing characters that feel like real people, and a story that doesn’t try to elicit reactions through the grandiose, but by just being well-written and making use of that important thing video games have long disregarded, subtlety.
In another game, a hero with a dark past might manifest as a gruff-voiced “badass” who is constantly scowling at everything around him. This can be great for creating a certain kind of story, but it’s not exactly the mature thing it’s often presented as. In The Walking Dead, Lee is just a modest and friendly guy. He’s a naturally amicable character, and that’s what makes it all the more difficult to face up to the fact that he has done and may continue to do things that cause problems for the people around him. In fact, a key theme of the game is its rejection of a morally black and white world. There’s no clear line between good guys and bad guys, your relationship with likeable characters is complicated by the fact that good people don’t always do the right thing, and characters who may appear immediately dislikeable are not the evil villains you’ll find in many other games, but human beings who are the way they are for relatable reasons. There’s much about the characters that isn’t instantly obvious, and the journey of discovering more about the men and women around you is an enthralling and emotionally gratifying one.
This more nuanced idea of morality and personal identities extends to your decisions within the game. Most games that incorporate player choices within the story often boil down your options to “Do you want to do the good thing or do you want to do the bad thing?” and again, in certain contexts this can make for a fun experience, but for games that are serious about their story I’ve often found the more meaningful and interesting choices to be those that don’t have a clearly defined “Good” and “Bad” answer. The Walking Dead is a series of choices in this vein. You have to think pragmatically, act considerately in your interactions with others, and judge right and wrong very carefully.
Often, there are no perfect answers, just some you may consider better than others, and try as you might there’s no pleasing all of the people all of the time. The game doesn’t skew your bias when considering options by attaching “Good” and “Evil” points to your selections, instead there is a greater meaning in your decisions that comes from the fact that you have compassion for the people they affect, and that sometimes your relationship with them, their well-being, or even their life hang in the balance. There is no guarantee that any of these characters will stick around either. While many games, and even most fiction out there, consider killing a main character a rare and sacred ritual, The Walking Dead lays out a rule set where no character is safe, and exits from the story can come swiftly and unfairly.
Choices are made harder by the fact that the ones that matter most often come at times of panic and chaos, and even in general conversation you only have a limited time to pick your responses. It’s a simple but effective technique to keep you thinking on your feet, and occasionally making decisions that you may later come to regret. Your struggles in the world are also complicated by some of your actions having clear but unintended consequences, and the paths you choose to take in the game aren’t just part of a fantasy world, but reflect something about you as a person.
I found in spots that playing The Walking Dead could be an emotionally draining experience, but I mean that in the best way. The game doesn’t aim for a “Grimdark” aesthetic , there are plenty of moments where you connect with characters in a positive way and gain a genuine appreciation for the people around you, but the flip side is that these people who you come to care so much about are trapped in a bleak and unforgiving world that truly makes you feel for them. The story unfolds in an amazing fashion, and every decision you make, from the biggest to the smallest, feels like it really has significance. The Walking Dead manages to strike an emotional chord which makes it an unforgettable experience, and it’s easy to see why so many have come to call it an experience that has helped redefine what we can expect from stories in video games.