Telltale Games have made a name for themselves in the adventure genre with their episodic re-interpretations of popular franchises like Sam & Max or Monkey Island, but with Back To The Future: The Game and Jurassic Park: The Game, they also tried their hands at cinematic storytelling with less emphasis on puzzle solving, especially with the dinosaurs one but to varying success. So is the game adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic series The Walking Dead a step in the right direction of interactive storytelling?
The Walking Dead: Season 1 (Xbox 360)
(USA 2012-2013, developer/publisher: Telltale Games, platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, iOS)
Convicted murderer of his wife and former professor Lee Everett meets young girl Clementine who got separated from her parents. Together with a group of other survivors they encounter on their way, the two try to make sense and stay alive in a world dominated by the walking dead.
Survival horror in comic book pages and on the gaming screen
The comic book series tells a very bleak story of survival in a world populated by zombies. It’s an unforgiving, violent world in which the brain-and-flesh eating monsters are only outdone by the atrocities human nature can be capable of. It soon becomes a story of relationships formed and broken, hope found and lost, love and death intertwined. Not a very pretty picture and none for the faint of heart or stomach, as it’s a brutal tale with lots of blood, guts and other disgusting stuff. So the question is: How can a developer like Telltale who (except for Jurassic Park) is mostly known for its comic characters do the source material justice?
After having read the first 48 comics with the help of the Compendium Volume 1 and then after having watched Season 1 of the TV show which had a great start but then lost its way with its uninteresting characters (although I might give it another try), I was even more sceptical if this could actually work in a videogame, especially since Telltale didn’t have a lot of experience with mature storytelling, or at least not to the same degree the series requires. Sure there were some moments in Back To The Future and even Tales From Monkey Island which had potential for some genuinely touching material, but these were still humorous efforts. Now with the violence and bloodspilling going on in the black-and-white The Walking Dead being transformed into a cel-shaded look with the rather outdated Telltale graphics engine, there was even more concern.
But playing over 20 hours with two savegames and making alternative decisions with each playthrough, there’s no doubt about it: this is a true masterpiece in both interactive storytelling and a glimpse into the future of games with a potential demise of the TV format as we know it if the technology can keep up with Telltale’s ambitions.
Interactive drama reloaded
There is a clear indication that Telltale Games learned from Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain. Even though David Cage openly stated that he disliked the term “adventure game” for his project and would rather prefer to call it “interactive drama”, it’s clear that his approach to gameplay and storytelling was very much influenced in the way how adventure games have tried and often failed to combine a compelling story with believable characters without alienating gamers by introducing too many abstract puzzles. Without going into too much detail (this will be done in a future review), he achieved this goal to both critical and commercial acclaim.
Of course there were always opinions, especially from the classic adventure gaming community, who dismissed his vision as nothing more than a QTE show, making unfair comparisons to button-prompting FMVs like Dragon’s Lair, and who failed to understand the impact this way of presenting a story could have. Now Telltale Games has used some of his ideas with their long experience in puzzle games to created something unprecedented: an adaptation of a survival horror comic which shocks and moves the player to tears and at the same time offering enough interactivity and freedom of choice to silence the naysayers.
Strong characterization and stories to tell
It’s always a tough call to create interesting characters the player can relate to and actually care about. So it’s even more challenging to have a convicted murderer as the main protagonist, but it works in the context of Lee’s growing and caring relationship with Clementine. Together with a cast of NPCs with their own strengths and faults, the human drama never feels cheap or clichéd thanks to the stellar scriptwriting. What’s especially interesting is how the player can decide how much he or she wants to learn from each character and what they should know about Lee, making it a more personal experience than a TV show can ever provide. How the plot unfolds feels so real and tangible at times that the demise of some characters in some unexpected ways is so shocking and sad that one wants to try out different routes despite the fact that there is no right or wrong way to play the game.
Genre definitions inadequately used
Calling it a game or categorizing it isn’t easy, because even with its dialogue-driven gameplay and a bit of puzzle solving it’s not really a classic point-and-click adventure game. It has a few stealth elements and shooting sections, but labelling it as an action-adventure doesn’t do the experience justice either. Maybe using the term RPG minus its level-up system can help, because it’s as much about the character development as it’s about the story told. The main storyline remains mostly the same, but the way how the player’s decisions affect certain scenes makes it a much more personal experience. This concept of alternate routes even goes so far that at the beginning of each episode a recap of the previous one can be different depending on the decisions made before. So the player also functions as a director of his/her own TV show, even if there are some parts he/she can’t change. There is also a status screen at the end of each episode which lets the player compare his decisions to others, giving a percentage of what people chose most. This is not only a gimmick like so many achievements are likely to incorporate, but it’s a mirror of how people’s psyches work and also how the whole season is experienced by a large crowd rather than an individual, something which is again unlike any TV show.
The choices one makes and the consequences one lives with
The things Lee has to do or the answers he gives are usually connected to a small window of time in which the player has to react (press buttons). Silence or not doing anything is also a viable option, but the sense of immediate action is always key to survival and keeping in character. Other NPCs act or talk accordingly, and it’s never easy to choose one way or another. No skill points are distributed and the outcome of certain decisions can only be seen or felt in future episodes. Some might seem a bit too inconsequential for the main storyline, as they seldom have an impact on the overall structure, but the subtle tones in the voices of the characters and how they remind Lee of his past actions are enough to create a tension which few RPGs or classic point-and-clickers can achieve with their different endings or dialogue trees.
Comic pages coming alive in sound and moving pictures
Of course gameplay and freedom in interactive storytelling are only part of what makes The Walking Dead such an engaging experience, because the presentation itself is just as important. Even though the graphics engine doesn’t offer the most detailed locations and suffers from some jerky animations, it nevertheless manages to surprise with facial expressions which show sadness, fear, anger or happiness at the right moment. Lip synching can be a bit off, and it’s also unfortunate that there are constant freezes when choosing a specific action or dialogue option, but the engine is still strong enough to provide a tense and often brutal experience. It’s also interesting to note that the cel-shaded look translates the black-and-white comic book aesthetics perfectly.
Voice acting can seem a bit exaggerated at some points, but the overall quality can’t be praised enough. The same holds true for the very atmospheric music and sound effects. What deserves even more attention is how dramatic moments and action scenes change with calmer conversations while the score adjusts to these without feeling cheap or annoying like in so many other examples of the adventure genre when the background music seldom changes with the flow of the story.
Starting with the episodic content…
With these general thoughts and opinions about the gameplay mechanics, presentation and storytelling tools which hold together each episode, let’s take a look at the individual instalments as they were released and come back later to a final verdict…
Episode 1: A New Day
The first episode’s story is centred around establishing the relationship between Lee and Clementine while introducing the first batch of survivors they meet and who partly stay with them. It’s an interesting mix of quiet conversations, broken up by sudden bursts of violence in the action scenes. Adventure elements still play a role, but usually consist of finding the right items or triggering an event after going through all the dialogue options.
The sense of tension, terror and the building up of believable characters works very well and already gives the player some difficult decisions to think about which can mean life and death to certain characters. For a first episode it’s a great start, because it never feels as if the action sequences are too overwhelming or the dialogues too long. Only some decisions (like finding food in the form of candy bars and giving them to specific characters) don’t have a significant impact on the character and story development, even though these optional “quests” offer some revealing dialogue scenes.
Episode 2: Starved For Help
The group of survivors is running out of food, so a farm with nice people seem to be the perfect haven to be, but is it really that safe or is there something else, much more dangerous than the zombies infestation?
A very strong episode with some beautiful background visuals. What’s most remarkable about it is how story and characters slowly build up from a calm and hopeful mood to a crescendo of violence, just like the upcoming in-game storm. It’s also a much more gruesome and emotional experience, because the drama is further enhanced by the many desperate decisions Lee has to make. Rationing food amongst the group is one such tough call, as not enough is left for everyone, so the characters who don’t get any food treat Lee differently while distributing the rations to specific members of the group who are distrusted leads to the same dilemma.
It’s also much more violent and shocking in some moments, but also much more suspenseful. Borrowing from some terror horror movies might not be a sign of originality, but it’s so well executed that this is easily dismissed when being scared and disgusted at the same time. Only the small puzzle solving parts appear to be a bit too contrived and out of place.
Episode 3: Long Road Ahead
Having more food problems and the danger of being raided by bandits, Lee, Clementine and their companions try to make their way to the city of Savannah.
The longest, but also weakest episode. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it lacks the same level of quality when it comes to emotional moments and good dialogue writing, but it just feels a bit too much at times. What’s especially incongruent is how some more adventure-like puzzles prolong the progression. Granted, they’re much better implemented than in classic adventure games, but it would have been better to have a bit more action and excitement than walking around and picking up stuff. Some decisions, e.g. collecting a certain amount of food at the beginning, doesn’t have any impact for the rest of episode either.
It’s not only that a lot of things happen which disturb the peace of the group and making for some genuinely moving situations, but that too many new characters are introduced. Unfortunately the fast pacing doesn’t leave a lot of room for some gripping moments to sink in or to really get to know these new people. But maybe that’s exactly what the aim of this episode is and what it means for the world of The Walking Dead? There’s no time for mourning or being stuck in the past for too long, because danger and death lurks around every corner.
Episode 4: Around Every Corner
A very different episode in the way the story is told. The series has always been about people’s individual life stories, but usually on a much smaller scale. This time, it’s about the fate of a whole group of survivors who tried to build a new society. How they behaved and treated each other is only hinted at in dialogues with outsiders or through some shocking video footage, so it’s more for the player to make up his or her own mind what really happened and therefore requires more imagination to make sense of the background story.
Unfortunately the gameplay can’t keep up with the storytelling some instances, as there are awkward stealth scenes while the shooting sequences don’t leave enough room for reacting fast enough. But these are only minor niggles compared to the whole picture. The introduction of new characters works much better than in Episode 3 and it doesn’t drag on for too long. There are also some very emotional scenes which are handled with a bit more subtlety that in the former episode and what happens at the end is pretty heavy stuff as well, making the wait for the final episode even more difficult.
Episode 5: No Time Left
It’s always difficult to have a satisfying ending for a series’ final episode, and it’s even more difficult for a game which heavily relies on the player’s decision-making. But No Time Left pulls it off remarkably well. It might still be far from the completely new gameplay experience or different endings material lots of other games tried before, but it succeeds in more subtle ways by referring back to past actions and events in an interesting twist. Without spoiling too much, the group dynamics become much more fragile, Lee’s character is more personalized and there are some shattering truths to be uncovered. Not to mention an ending which is the culmination of all the tear-jerking moments of the whole season.
The mix of action and drama is also perfectly tuned. The former is fast, the latter touching, the violence is also quite disturbing without feeling gratuitous, although killing zombies is done with some more style this time around. With some very difficult decisions to make and more experimentation with the possible non-interaction in videogames and the potential of mature storytelling, this is by far the strongest entry which ends with a bang and is hopefully indicative of the quality for the second season.
Final verdict of a remarkable first season
Telltale Games’ Season 1 of The Walking Dead is a tremendous achievement in bringing together mature storytelling with a fitting comic book look while not simply retelling the source story, but reinventing it for an audience who does not necessarily play adventure games or games in general. Like Heavy Rain before it, it combines a cinematic presentation with a decision-making system which makes the player care for the characters and genuinely move him or her through experiencing the story first-hand. The individual episodes might not be perfect in execution and there are some problems with the engine, controls and some gameplay elements, but as a whole this is as close to the future of interactive drama as it gets… until the next season which can’t come soon enough.
Overall Rating: 9.5/10
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