Opinion: Five Reasons Why ‘The Walking Dead’ Might Be The Game Of The Year
At the start of the year, if you’d have told me that the greatest game I’d play in the next six months would be a downloadable point-and-click adventure title from Telltale – a developer known for highly variable film and TV tie-ins such as recent mediocre mis-step Jurassic Park: The Game – I’d have probably looked at you with the same half-amused, half-baffled stare I gave to the guy in the giant-banana outfit who started talking to me about UFOs at a festival last summer.
But after spending two completely tense, captivating and exhilarating hours in the company of The Walking Dead: Episode 2 the other night, and having been equally staggered by its terrific predecessor, I can safely say that the series is shaping up to be my favourite gaming experience of 2012 – and it deserves every single one of the glowing reviews that have been coming its way.
Here are five key reasons why…
It Boasts Intense, Gripping Drama
At a time when big publishers are falling over themselves to murder their remaining horror franchises by converting them into generic, full-blown shooters, it is wonderful to experience a game where tense stand-offs, shocking onslaughts and grisly encounters are lent hard-hitting and almost unbearably unnerving weight through carefully constructed mechanics and deep emotional investment, rather than cheap jump scares and gross-out tactics.
The Walking Dead is full of edge-of-the-seat moments that carry real dramatic weight, and stay with you long after you’ve turned off your PC or console. Encounters with attacking zombies always feel desperate and panicked – as they should – while the nightmarishly ugly dilemma that confronts you early on in the second episode, when you encounter a man caught in an animal trap, carries infinitely more hard-hitting impact than the kind of throwaway spatter you encounter in a dozen unimaginative zombie-shooters.
In a gaming landscape drowning in post-apocalyptic undead action titles that are often entertaining but rarely haunting, it has taken a point-and-click experience with a proper grasp of suspense and pay-off to truly bring back the horror.
The Characters Are Complex And Compelling
Of course, one of the key reasons why the game carries so much dramatic weight is that you really do find yourself caring about the various characters. Rather than present the usual array of stereotypical, two-dimensional exercises in mindless brutes and clueless whiners, The Walking Dead serves up a whole host of believable, complex figures with whom to interact, help or hinder, and back-up or oppose.
As protagonist Lee – who is himself a compelling and complex figure – your most challenging task is to try and get to grips with each of the people you encounter, and work out how best to deal with them. Each has their own personal hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, and outlook on every situation: and deciding who to trust or side with at any given time is no easy endeavour.
Given the desperate stakes of the gameworld you negotiate, Telltale aptly capture a realistic sense of how people would act in the situations it depicts. This is a game where essentially decent, honest people are capable of eye-widening acts of cruelty or violence when they feel panicked or threatened; and where even the hard-bitten rogues display glimmers of vulnerability and anguish when their guard is down.
Because of this kind of deep characterisation, you care much more deeply when those around you suffer or die, regardless of whether they were ultimately friends or foes. It’s also worth pointing out that Lee’s young companion Clementine is that rarest of things: a believable, engaging and wholly non-annoying child character in a piece of fiction. You find that you really do care about protecting her both physically and psychologically in a world gone to hell – and the jarring clash between her innocent ethics and the stark reality of the shattered, gritty, moral-maze that you are stumbling through, stands as one of the game’s most poignant achievements.
The Writing Is Top-Notch
Honestly, I’m not sure I have ever played a game with such well thought out, plausible dialogue; nor themes and situations that are handled in such a mature and nuanced manner. Every single exchange feels authentic and believable, and the way in which each conversation reveals so much about individuals and their personalities – rather than simply being used to slavishly move the plot along – helps to build the carefully-crafted atmosphere and tension that the game benefits so impressively from.
Many otherwise great gaming experiences let themselves down with cheesy, cliched speeches or hammy dialogue that continually reminds you that what you are playing is a stylised, augmented slice of fiction. The fact that The Walking Dead resolutely mires its writing in the authentic, the everyday and the mundane, acts to add a much greater degree of immersion and impact to its narrative.
It Serves Up A Rich, Immersive Story
On that note, it’s impossible to overstate just how skillfully the appropriately-named Telltale have gone about spinning the yarn that provides the meat and backbone of the adventure that the player is drawn into. The way in which key events are depicted is impressive, but it also invests a lot of time in adding layer upon layer to situations that would be highly simplistic in most other games.
Much of Episode 1 is spent trying to safeguard and then escape a barricaded store, while the bulk of Episode 2′s story is centred around the search for food and the investigation of a seemingly secure dairy farm. On paper, this sounds straightforward enough. In practice, however, the game adds a great deal of depth to these set-pieces and objectives: in the former by offering up a fair dose of insight into Lee’s origins and backstory; in the latter with an unsettling built-up of unnerving tension that takes in hair-raising, palm-sweating stand-offs, and a revelation so jaw-dropping that even those suspecting it would be floored by the way in which it is executed.
Most games simply muster a ‘Go here, do that’ structure, offering the occasional cut-scene or conversation to explicitly state the key events and twists. The Walking Dead, by contrast, immerses the player in unraveling its mysteries for themselves, punctuating its rollercoaster narrative with moments of extraordinary drama and heart-wrenching emotion.
Its Moral Dilemmas Have Real Bite
One of the best things about The Walking Dead is the way in which it presents and handles moral quandaries. There are no binary ‘Good vs Evil’ choices here. Rather, every single decision – from whether to tell the truth in a conversation, right through to whether you will kill someone when prompted – feels highly complicated and unbearably tough to make. You feel conflicted at every turn in The Walking Dead, and even when you make what you consider to be benevolent decisions and try and treat people with respect, you’ll frequently regret your actions and their consequences, and dwell heavily on the decisions you have made.
Near the start of Episode Two, for example, you have to decide who out of the starving, weary group will receive one of only a handful of rations. And at the climax – offering a stark choice between logical pragmatism and ethical decency – you are faced with an opportunity to raid a discovered car of its plentiful supplies. Doing so potentially robs and condemns its owners to death. Choosing not to means that your group will go hungry.
The game never explicitly judges you for your actions – though certain characters might – and there are no evil ‘perks’ to be won or paragon points to accumulate. Instead, decisions affect how you are perceived by others; and your actions determine who lives and who dies. Whether you choose the road of a hardened survivor or an idealistic moralist, you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and you certainly can’t be the hero in everyone’s eyes.
Just as in real life, The Walking Dead asks you to skirt that fine line between doing what is right for you, and what is right for the others around you. And, just as in real life, things turn out to be rarely black and white…
The next episode of The Walking Dead will be released for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 sometime in the coming weeks.