Telltale games turn their attention to zombies in an episodic adventure series based on Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics. Do zombies and modernized point-and-click mechanics work well together?
To those of you who haven’t read the Walking Dead, or seen the (excellent) AMC TV adaptation – It tells the stories of the scattered human population after a zombie apocalypse. The narrative focuses on the interaction between characters and how they cope with the breakdown of society. Its closest approximation is George Romero’s classics if they went on forever in a constant loop of despair, calm, fortification, introspection and disaster. Important, well-loved characters die, everyone is complex, flawed and human.
An unforgiving and disorienting backdrop, the artifice of the modern world is torn aside, making everyone either a survivor or a tasty snack. Eking out a life in this post-civilized setting is as much about making the right friends and gaining trust as it is about being well armed. It’s in this way that the concept as an adventure game really shines – keeping the characters center stage and not letting the gameplay diverge from the story, as is so common in more-action focused games (Uncharted, Skyrim). This makes for a more TV-like, impactful experience.
Having created modern additions to the Monkey Island and Sam & Max franchises, at first the idea of a Telltale game based on The Walking dead surprised and disappointed. The gameplay is like other adventure games but with more action and the threat of death. The game doesn’t really punish death though – you just skip back to before the encounter. This feels strange until you realize the entire experience is focused on telling a story – and that it does well. We’re desensitized to our own death in games anyway, having characters we care about dying instead is much more effective – and that is handled with unseen confidence.
At first I admit I felt like things were too “on rails” – imagine a point and click adventure with incredibly easy puzzles. Things steadily get much more interesting. You are quickly put into a lot of situations where dialogue choices seriously affect people’s opinions and actions toward you. These choices then get more panicked during timed action scenes with serious consequences. People will die – you can’t always save everyone. You rarely see games that have such divergent narrative paths – even in the teaser for the forthcoming episode it peppers in a lot of action-specific dialogue and scenes that would be irrelevant to another player’s game. You truly feel like you’re in control of the story moving forward, even though it’s only within a narrow scope it makes for a very personal experience.
And back to those “really easy” puzzles. This is only episode one, so perhaps they’ll get more complex – but even in their simplicity they all offer a lot of insight into the characters and help build the atmosphere. Finding resources and helping out your companions is important. In the few hours you’ll spend in the episode you’ll care more about these people than NPCs in many other games with 10+ hour campaigns.
Audio / Visual
Robert Kirkman has been heavily involved in the creation of the game series, and the developers passion and understanding of the source material is very apparent. The graphics are modeled to look like Charlie Adlard’s art in the comics. When characters appear in the game who we’ve previously seen in the comics they are instantly recognizable.
The simplified models and stylized surroundings allow for extremely emotive animation, completely side-stepping the usual “uncanny valley” problems. This is a game that will undoubtably age very well graphically.
The audio is another accomplishment, with moody ambient background tracks and surprisingly competent voice acting. Another touch I appreciated was the humour. Kirkman’s work has never shied away from humour in the face of adversity, characters crack sometimes awful jokes and say stupid things. One character might take this a little too far in Episode 1, but it’s generally done well.
Things kick off with Lee being driven to prison in the back of a police-car. When the car crashes in a zombie related incident he must lose the cuffs and escape to safety. The rest of the chapter is fending off zombies, meeting new allies and trying to keep Lee and his friends safe.
As the story takes place earlier than the comics we get a rare glimpse of the “beginning of the end”; understandably everyone is confused (though much less inept than their TV counterparts). You’ll meet some characters from the comics too, which adds a little bit to the background lore. One thing that is so far very impressive is how characters have not been snivelling or useless. Even an eight year old you meet early on has very well thought out survival skills. Nothing breaks immersion in a horror setting more than people acting in completely inane ways, and so far they’re actually doing a better job than in the vast majority of movies.
It seems I’m gushing, but I really was that impressed. As a huge fan of horror, TWD and zombies in general (and not generally a big fan of point and click adventures) I was somewhat skeptical that Telltale could pull this off. So far it seems they have. The level of choice, the writing, the presentation – it’s all amazingly well executed. They’ve successfully identified the strengths of the source material and applied the often contradictory strengths of the the target genre to create something fresh and compelling. Bring on episode 2!
Notes: Played through episode 1 on PS3. As far as I can tell it’s identical across platforms.
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