Today the final episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, season one, is released. I haven’t played it yet, so I may come to regret the huge praise I’m about to bestow on the game, but I suspect that won’t be the case. I suspect they’re going to stick the landing and The Walking Dead will go down as one of the best video games of all time. So far.
That’s a mighty big claim, and I could qualify it, saying it’s the best narrative game or narrow it down to the best tie-in game or the best zombie game, but I honestly think that The Walking Dead season one has been one of the best video games I have ever played in my life. And I’ve been playing video games since Pong.
Let’s start with the easiest hyperbole to back up: this is the best thing to ever carry the name The Walking Dead. The game is set in Robert Kirkman’s zombie universe (ie, it’s set in George Romero’s zombie universe), but it isn’t an adaptation of the comics or the show. Rather it’s a side story; in the earlier episodes you run into characters from the comic, but they’re only side characters in your story. If you didn’t know who Herschel or Glenn were you wouldn’t even realize these characters were connecting the game to a larger narrative.
But this is the best Walking Dead thing ever because the characters are rich and interesting. Their reactions to the zombie apocalypse are realistic without being overwhelmingly histrionic or irritating. Very few of the characters make decisions that infuriate you. And the dialogue isn’t a non-stop barrage of boldly expository statements. Unlike either The Walking Dead comic or TV show, it’s actually well written.
Now about the claim of game quality: The Walking Dead season one has wrapped me up in its characters and its narrative in a way that almost no other game has ever done. This isn’t a game where my actions are decided by collecting items or reaching completion percentages, this is a game where every decision I make is motivated solely by how I feel about the characters around me. Every choice I make is weighed heavily by how it will impact the others in my group. And the impact is never felt in terms of necessity - it’s never about whether or not I sacrifice the fighter so I can keep the healer. It’s always about emotion.
That the game can do this is nothing short of incredible. The usual emotional driver in a video game is reaching the end, or accumulating enough stuff. The nature of The Walking Dead game - an episodic, cinematic narrative that is less about action and more about interaction - leaves those goals behind. Instead it tasks you with making hard choices right from the start, choices that decide the health, safety and well-being of those around you. At first these choices are easy - everybody wants to be a hardass in the zombie apocalypse - but the expert writing and voice acting quickly change the equation. I have members of my party I acquired in episode one for whom I would commit atrocities.
The first companion you get is a little girl named Clementine. There’s the danger of this going wildly off the rails, of Clem being an annoying moppet who exists only to get into peril. But what I’ve noticed is that I worry less about Clem’s actual safety and more about her emotional safety. The game offers many dialogue options during the course of play, and you can approach Clem with a straightforward attitude or you can lie to her. You can comfort her with falsehoods or you can be upfront with her. And unlike other games where the dialogue options feel like bipolar extremes (sometimes in Mass Effect I felt like my choices were only “I love you” and “FUCK YOU!”), the choices in The Walking Dead are nuanced and subtle.
What’s more, you’re timed on your dialogue choices. Picking one answer to a question posed by another party member can be more stressful than shooting zombies, to be honest. And that’s even taking into account that the game’s action controls can be frustrating at times (although I wonder if that’s a choice. The character you play is a university professor, not exactly a standard marksman).
I have found myself agonizing over choices in The Walking Dead in a way I never have with any other game. I have found myself drawn into the game, actually caring about what happens, in a way that I almost never have before. Red Dead Redemption was the last time I found myself so completely immersed in the world of a game, and even that had the distractions of side missions and collectables to always keep the story at arm’s length.
A huge part of what makes The Walking Dead work is that it’s third person. Any game developer hoping to make a game that truly works on an emotional and narrative level needs to take the player outside of the main character’s eyes, needs to take the camera away from the back of their head. Playing The Walking Dead is a semi-distanced experience, because you’re playing a character named Lee Everett, whose voice and looks you can’t alter. You’re often looking right at Lee’s face. The game puts you in the same position as a TV or movie viewer, but with more interaction.
The reason this works is because I’m not just trying to save Clementine or Kenny or the other characters but also Lee. See, in a first person perspective game I’m never fully immersed into the world, despite the world taking up all of my screen. It’s always false. In a standard third person perspective game I’m still not immersed; the player character is a tool. But in this set up, the player character is a CHARACTER. I’ll never worry about my personal well-being when playing a first person game, but I always worry about Lee’s well being because he’s a richly defined character, apart from the decisions I’ve made that shape him.
Today I’ll be downloading the final episode of The Walking Dead season one; I’m deeply concerned about how this is going to end, and I think I’ll be left sort of crushed by the finale. There have been episodes that have supremely bummed me out, but in the ways good narrative art bums you out, by making you feel something. If The Walking Dead ends on a down note - and I can’t imagine how it doesn’t at this point - it’ll be earned, and it’ll be resonant. Even if I don't get the 'best' ending, I'll have gotten the ending that grew organically out of my story.
I usually play video games as an escape. The Walking Dead season one has engaged me in a totally non-escapist fashion... which has let me disappear completely into the world and the story. For the first time in my life, a video game has impacted me the way a good book or a movie has impacted me. All of a sudden the future of this medium seems much brighter... even as the future of Lee Everett seems pretty damn dark.
The final episode of The Walking Dead season one is out now. You can get the entire season on Steam for just $12.50. The game is available for download on Xbox, and a disc-based version hits stores next week. The game is about ten to fifteen hours long, so it's certainly a bargain at these prices.