Is there anything more popular than zombies right now? Maybe “Gangham Style,” but that’s about it…
Robert Kirkman started a gritty and violent graphic novel series called The Walking Dead. It’s about the survivors of an apocalypse, who have to fight off hordes of zombies—but also the evils of the people who survived. It became a hit, and spawned a hit TV show.
Now there’s a video game, by Telltale Games—delivered in five Episodes that each tell a complete aspect of the story, and each end on a cliffhanger that makes you want to buy the next Episode. Except this game pushes the definition of what a game really is. The game sort of plays itself, and other than a few quicktime events where you’re mashing a certain button to keep a zombie from eating your face off, your role here is to make decisions. It’s a zombie game that’s actually about the non-zombie people—just like The Walking Dead…
The game starts out with your character Lee Everett riding in the back of a sheriff’s car, heading to prison for a murder. The game is somewhat ambiguous about whether your character actually did the deed or not. But soon it’s a moot point as the sheriff unknowingly hits a zombie, and the horror begins. You meet other survivors who are trying to survive—most notably a 9-year-old girl whose parents went on a trip to Savannah and left her with the babysitter. You become her guardian throughout the series, and the task of protecting her informs every decision you make.
There are three main things you’ll be doing. The first is mashing buttons to do things—like fight off zombies or people. So you might be trying to hold back the hordes by keeping a door closed, so you have to keep pressing the A button quickly and repeatedly. If you fail, the zombies eat you, the game resets to a few minutes ago, and you try again. It’s pretty basic.
The other thing you’ll be doing is inspecting things. This is standard Adventure Game fare. There are batteries on the table. Look at the batteries. Grab the batteries. They will probably be useful somewhere… The looking and taking and placing are the game’s “puzzles.” They’re very, very simple. So simple that they kind of took away from the flow and the story for me.
The most interesting aspect of the game comes in your interactions with other people. Often there will be numerous choices for a conversation, and each of those will steer it in a slightly different direction, and will slightly (or greatly) affect how that character perceives you and interacts with you.
There are also some large decisions to be made. Very early in the game two people are attacked by a group of zombies: a mid-20s guy over here, and a 10-year-old kid over there. You can only save one of them.
If I had lots of time to think this through, maybe I’d choose the guy. He’s young, and fit, and would be a big asset when it comes to helping me keep the hordes off Clementine. And a kid can’t do much, comparatively…except endanger people and eat our food. So of course I chose the kid…because I’m not a heartless maniac! The game changed because of that decision, and so many others. If two people play to the end, their games will likely look very different, from the people who are still with them to the way certain plot points play out.
The game will still get to where it wants to go—there aren’t 30 different endings, or anything. But the decisions you make affect how you get there, and who makes it there with you.
What makes these decisions even more interesting is that many of the “harder” ones are on a timer. There’s a bar that runs across the bottom of the screen, and if you don’t do something by the time it runs down, you’re essentially saying or doing nothing. And sometimes the bar moves really fast. Those moments created genuine tension as I had to figure out what my character would do. Because that’s what I was doing through this game: creating a character. My Lee will probably look nothing like your Lee.
I made one decision that I didn’t really like making. But I felt that in that situation my character would have done that…and I wonder if, with my back against the wall and trying to protect the ones I love, I wouldn’t have done the same thing. The game made me think. And feel.
I almost always chose, one way or the other. But there was one time in Episode 3 that I purposefully chose to just let that time run down. I had no words for the sadness that lay before me, so I just…didn’t.
Despite the praise, I wouldn’t necessarily call this review a recommendation. First, the game is buggy. It’s available on numerous platforms—including consoles, PCs, and iPads—but people across platforms are experiencing bugs, and the biggest ones involve saved games just disappearing. This happened to me partway through Episode 3. I went to load it up, and I was met with the opening scenes of Episode 1. And since the game autosaves for you, my old game was just gone. You’re able to start from the beginning of an Episode, and it appeared that the game remembered all of my decisions, but it was really frustrating. I kept wondering if it really had kept the decisions…
There are also a few ridiculous things, like a grown woman not knowing how batteries fit into a radio, or having to go through a series of steps to get someone to leave a room so I could grab a map, when I could have just reached past them to get the map.
Another thing to consider is the violence. It’s a zombie game, so you expect gore. But this game is really violent. For example, in Episode 2 someone is caught in a bear trap, and you get the joy of hacking his leg off with an axe. It takes multiple whacks. It was one of the many cringeworthy moments in the game.
And finally, this game has more swearing than a Deadwood marathon. It was constant, from every character, and in front of children. (Yes, pixel children who had seen the most awful things in their short lives, but that doesn’t make it right…)
As a storytelling endeavor that pushes the bounds of the word “game,” it succeeds, but know that the excellence in storytelling comes at a price of some questionable inclusions. But I know lots of youth pastors who are watching The Walking Dead TV show on AMC every week…so I guess this game is right up their zombie-infested alley…