Clementine, don’t turn around!
I haven’t seen the television series yet. Don’t hurt me. Or read the comics. Again, don’t hurt me. But when I went on a BOGO spree at Gamestop months ago I picked up this collection. I heard the video game series based on the popular comic books and television show was episodic, tailored to the decisions the player made, and, ya know, has zombies. Zombies are always a selling point for me.
Luckily, I waited to play this until the entire first season was released on one disc. After completing each episode I greedily fired up the next, eager to learn the fates of Lee, Clementine, and the rest of the ragtag zombie apocalypse survivors. The player controls Lee; a former professor who begins the game getting a ride to the police station due to murder charges. This game definitely follows the worn-down, over-used “Fallen from grace man who redeems himself by being a sweet little girl’s guardian angel” routine. But the beauty of a game with conversations and decisions designed like Walking Dead is in the player’s freedom to choose how they carry out the theme. I could have decided never to utter a word about the past Lee is (or isn’t) seeking redemption from. Or I could have brought it up at every opportunity to learn more about him. I bottled most if it up until the very end, which made for a very emotional standoff with the “antagonist” of season 1. You can also being a bit of a jerk to Clementine, the girl whom you basically vow to protect, but let’s face it… you can’t.
I gotta say, being giving life-or-death decisions based on a timer was a great mechanic for building suspense in a game with no traditional battle system or health bars. You CAN die by making incorrect choices at times, but all this does is load the game a moment or so before you screwed up. The real suspense is seeing your choices unfold before you and the character deaths that follow. There were a couple of deaths that absolutely shocked me and made me instantly backtrack through all the decisions I’d made, wondering how things could have played out differently.
I think it was somewhere around episode 4 where I started to get jaded with the experience. If you played Fable 2, the situation is akin to doing everything in your power to make your spouse happy, only to find s/he is suddenly enraged at you f0r no discernible reason whatsoever. They leave you after all the time and money you spent on them, so naturally you stop caring and bring home a dirty prostitute who actually appreciates the things you do. If you haven’t played Fable 2 or another game with bad AI relationship building, I’ll give a *little* spoiler here… I was basically kissing southern-hick Kenny’s pale white butt the entire game. Or so I thought. But then when I needed him the most he was like, “No way Lee, I’m not convinced you’d be there for me if I needed you.” WHAT. The rage. Oh, the rage. I wish he was a real person because I would have slapped him in the face. Or kicked him between the legs.
So how do I know I wasn’t the best friend I could have been, you ask? What if he was just programmed to be a jerk, you ask? Well, Telltale Games was kind enough to add a neat little feature at the end of each episode that shows a list of “stats” displaying how you compared to other players in decision making and subsequent AI decisions. When I saw “Kenny went with xx% of players,” I thought I would punch the screen.
Anyway, after my supposed zombie apocalypse bestie dumped me, I became a complete jerk and told everyone exactly how I felt. Well, out of the four options I was given, anyway. It is tough if you actually care if a certain character likes you or not. The conversation options and some of the decision-making choices are ambiguous. Which is good. It isn’t the stupidly-obvious choices from, say, Mass Effect. Nearly all of the character interactions feel organic and realistic. Not a black and white, “Oh this is the good-guy thing to do,” feeling. Okay, well some stuff is downright obvious but usually that’s because it can’t help but be. However, even then you usually have the option to “…” which means remain silent and not commit to any one idea or phrase that the character will not doubt hold against you until their untimely end.
I feel like I’ve played a lot of games with cel-shaded graphics lately, but it feels really at home in Walking Dead. The design keeps Walking Dead close to its comic book roots. It also doesn’t hesitate to deliver the gory, shock-value violence I come to expect in these kinds of games. The violence is appropriate, and while not scarce, it still manages to have an emotional impact. That’s saying a lot, considering the amount of pixels I’ve slain over the years. Everything that happens has a purpose. Again, a big compliment considering the plethora of paths one playthrough can take.
I feel like this next complaint should be tagged by default to every blog post I write about a video game because it is the new norm: technical problems!! In WD, the problem is slow down. Such terrible, terrible lag for a game that isn’t very technical. I really can’t imagine this cel-shaded episodic game is very taxing on my PS3, but the lag is distracting and inexcusable. And yes, it even happens during timed events. Everything else about this game is so good I sucked it up, but I want to write Telltale Games and have a wicked complain-fest about the necessities of having quality testers.
After completing every episode I thought to myself, “I really want to play this one again to see how (insert event) changes.” Up until the ending. Don’t get me wrong– I liked the ending. A lot. But that can’t be changed. Kind of like in Heavy Rain, how the serial killer is always the same person in the end. For some reason that is always a buzz kill for me. If I were a gamer with more time on my hands (and not a mile-long list of games gifted to me at Christmas) that probably wouldn’t be the case. Also, keep in mind the decisions made in Episode 1 and the DLC carry over to season 2.
No second playthroughs not withstanding, I am hooked on this video game series. I purchased the DLC as soon as I completed season 1 and I downloaded the first episode of season 2 as soon as possible. If you like narrative-driven video games, the Walking Dead, or just plain zombie stuff, you should give yourself the pleasure of playing Walking Dead.