Ever since winning Spike TV’s 2012 Game Of The Year award, Telltale Games has been topping yearly ‘best of’ lists like crazy. Yet, with all the press, there’s still a fundamental question to be answered: what’s so good about the new Walking Dead game series? It’s just a tie-in, right? How can a licensed, downloadable title be anything more than a cash cow?
As it turns out, Telltale Games had an answer. The studio, while previously known for its mediocre, licensed work (CSI, Back To The Future) has finally done something remarkable. They’ve crafted an episodic series that manages to be engrossing, heartfelt, and most importantly: fun. When it comes to player experience, this serialized approach breaks boundaries in the realms of writing, communication, and level design.
Telltale has single-handedly changed the way people will perceive interactive storytelling for years to come. All in all, these five ‘episodes’ perfectly capture the tone and aesthetic of the comics, ultimately providing an unparalleled narrative experience.
At its heart, ‘The Walking Dead’ is a digital choose-your-own-adventure. The main draw is in decision-making. The game asks you questions, by way of plot advancement, and you’re tasked with answering them. You’ll be choosing from two to four prewritten dialogue choices, but they’re surprisingly inclusive. You’ll be hard-pressed to think of another way to address the given situation. As great as it is to make these decisions, the real magic is in seeing them play out. It’s classic cause-and-effect, and it’s incredibly well-implemented.
One clever feature notifies you of every choice you make, intentional or otherwise. This is a great way to see the complexity of the narrative system that Telltale has created. Even subtle, nonchalant conversations can change the way that characters perceive you. Overall, it’s still just a series of multiple-choice queries, but it works damn well for the story and subject matter.
As I’ve described thus far, ‘The Walking Dead’ is less of a game, and more of an interactive film. Fans of Quantic Dream’s excellent title ‘Heavy Rain’ should feel right at home with this type of gameplay. Yet, there’s much more than just making simple choices. The description of the series as a “choose-your-own-adventure” places extreme emphasis on the word ‘adventure.’ When you’re not making dramatic, life-or-death decisions, you’ll be spending the time exploring the game’s world and solving smaller challenges.
The five episodes are absolutely jam-packed with puzzles, but not in a way that sacrifices the seamless narrative of the game. These challenges aren’t presented as meta-games, but instead as authentic problems to be faced by the protagonists. Breaking into an abandoned house or rescuing survivors might require a specific set of tools be used in a certain order. If that sounds difficult to you, it’s really not. Unlike some puzzle games that require arbitrary, seemingly random solutions (Lego, I’m looking at you), ‘The Walking Dead’ excels at giving you just the right hints. All in all, the solutions are generally clever and make credible sense as you discover them.
While gameplay is extraordinarily important to the medium, Telltale Games has also mastered sound design and storytelling. The series’ narrative stands with the best that video games have to offer. The writers at Telltale have accomplished this by imbuing the five episodes with something that’s often overlooked in the medium: authentic human emotion.
Characters react with genuine, well-crafted dialogue. They speak with conviction, motivation, fear, heart, comedic relief, and more. It all depends on the situation, and it always fits.The longer you keep these figures alive, the more you’ll feel attached to each one of them. You’ll feel sympathy and compassion, frustration and worry. It’s a poignant combination that speaks volumes to the possibilities of video games as a medium, at least where dramatic storytelling is concerned.
Here are some of the cons. I won’t say the game isn’t without its flaws, though the majority are easily overlooked. Many critics have cited ‘technical hiccups’ as an issue, and you’ll find it hard not to agree. The game is littered with minuscule bugs – invisible walls, frozen cutscenes, disappearing files, etc. Additionally, some of the puzzles might be a little too easy, especially for seasoned adventure game-enthusiasts.The thing is, none of these issues do much to disrupt the overall experience. Telltale has provided a slightly flawed product, but one that’s flawed in places where it doesn’t really matter. It’s like buying an incredible new car with a stain in the trunk.
I guess these problems can be a bit disappointing, but for $25, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more polished, inventive game. The Walking Dead’s first five episodes stand as an absolute tour-de-force. These writers and developers should be carving their names into the walls of game history, just months after the title’s initial release. You don’t need to be a fan of ‘The Walking Dead’ to enjoy the series – this is a game that unconditionally demands to be played.
MSRP: Each episode is available for individual download at a price of $5. The retail disk will run you $30, and contains all five. I realize that doesn’t really make any sense, but that’s how they’re doing it. You’ll save five bucks if you decide to download all the episodes.
What I Like: the impeccable dialogue, puzzles, decision-making, character development, sound design, art style, and episodic nature of the series.
What Needs Improvement: level of difficulty for some of the simpler puzzles, minor technical concerns