Opinion: Has The Walking Dead Saved Old-School Adventure Games?
NB. The following article discusses major plot-points for all five episodes of The Walking Dead game, so consider yourself duly warned of spoilers.
The Christmas holiday always provides a nice opportunity for me to take advantage of the celebration of Jesus’ birth by catching up on any games I’ve missed.
Top of my list this year was Telltale’s ‘The Walking Dead’ – an episodic series hailed for its emphasis on story and player choice. Growing up as I did in the PlayStation-era, it’s probably fair to say I outright missed the heyday of point-and-click adventure games, and while I have played a few along the way (the most recent being Amantia Design’s ‘Machinarium’), I’ve never really got into one in the same way I have with shooters, RPGs and platformers.
Why was The Walking Dead different? Well, because instead of relying on the age-old adventure game mechanic of solving puzzles by interacting with objects in a certain, logical (or illogical) order, it focused on immersing the gamer in a well-written, intriguing narrative. That’s not to say there weren’t adventure game-influenced sections (one example being repairing the train in Episode 3), but The Walking Dead was at its best when having you converse with other characters. Building relationships with people was very much the fun part – and knowing the consequences of your choices had to be lived with was always compelling.
One thing that drew me to The Walking Dead originally was the complexity of the characters. Kenny is a perfect example of this: he often seems rash in his actions and you could easily have hated him early on for running off as you try to save Hershel’s son; but his short-temper is easily forgiven in the later chapters after he loses his son (to a Walker’s bite) and his wife Katjaa (to suicide).
Most games do a pretty good job of telling you who to like and who to despise, but when Kenny eventually died in Episode 5 I wasn’t sure what to feel exactly. I had truly been put in Lee’s shoes, and could completely understand his conflicted emotions because they were precisely what I was feeling. That’s the beauty of The Walking Dead – it completely immerses you to the point that you feel as if you are Lee Everett, and that’s something that is very rare in a video game.
That makes the ending, in a way, incredibly difficult to take. By the end of Episode 4 you can probably work out what the finale is leading to, but that doesn’t make it any easier on an emotional level. The one character we all feel the same way about is the young girl Clementine, and Lee’s desire to protect her proves so strong that he can actually ask her to shoot him before he turns into one of the undead (depending on your personal choice).
It’s powerful stuff, and in a world where complaints about weak endings in gaming is commonplace, it’s refreshing to see such a touching and conclusive end to an epic tale.
Why is all this important when considering the title of this article? Because The Walking Dead isn’t by any means a ‘standard’ point-and-click adventure game – a fact that could be the very thing which triggers a mainstream comeback for the genre. Telltale clearly realised by the later episodes that it wasn’t the puzzles that made their episodic adventure so special: it was the narrative and dialogue.
Clear-cut decisions like choosing who to save as zombies attack have obvious appeal, as they allow the player to create their own story. But what impressed me the most, however, were the more subtle conversations with fellow survivors, that amounted to dramatic story changes in their own right.
Moulding your own relationships proved the main appeal of The Walking Dead. There’s certainly a place for more traditional adventure game puzzles, and they are present at certain moments throughout the five episodes; but after years of trying Telltale have finally shown the potential relevance of a classic adventure game set-up, providing it can capture a story that is sufficiently engrossing.
I’m not sure the traditional gameplay of a point-and-click title will ever appeal to mainstream audiences again. But the success of The Walking Dead has given the genre a significant profile once more, and the prospect of telling stories as strongly as that series gives the genre a new, exciting direction to go in.
There are some great-looking adventure games on the horizon (the most high-profile being Double Fine’s The Cave), and off the back of The Walking Dead I’m sure they’ll do well – perhaps even better than expected.
The games industry is changing, but old-school adventure games could still very well be a part of its future. The Walking Dead proved that the masses are willing to pay for a point-and-click style adventure game – with total episode sales more than 8.5 million so far – and for fans of the classic genre, this can only be seen as terrifically exciting.