As usual I’m a little late to the party, but isn’t The Walking Dead brilliant? Despite hearing nothing but good things about it, I’ve only just got around to playing Telltale’s 2012 games series over the past few weeks. I read the first couple of Walking Dead comic books several years ago, and although I thought they were brilliantly written, the unrelenting bleakness put me off continuing with the series. So when the game game out I was reluctant to begin playing it for the same reason of wanting to avoid lingering depression.
However, I’m very glad I did try the game in the end – it’s bleak, yes, but it’s also one of the best games I’ve played in years. And even better, my girlfriend Alex got into it just as much as I did, providing one of the rare games (along with Bastion) that we’ve both enjoyed equally. It’s not often you come across a game that’s as fun to watch as it is to play and, to top it off, has equal appeal to both sexes.
In terms of actual gameplay, there’s very little to it. Most of the game involves making dialogue choices, solving very simple puzzles and whacking buttons in Shenmue-style QTE challenges – hardly the stuff to set worlds alight. But the game triumphs for two simple reasons – the acting and script are phenomenally good, and the decisions you make have permanent effects.
The characters in this game as so well-realised and well-acted that it just highlights how far behind most of the industry is in comparison – the forgettable, one-dimensional characters of games such as Gears of War appear like cardboard cut-outs next to the fully-fleshed-out denizens of Walking Dead‘s world, and this is essential because it means you end up caring what happens to them. So when things go wrong, it can be devastating – on several occasions I found myself shouting “NOOOOOOOO!” at the television when something horrendous befell one of my favourite characters.
But what strengthens this emotional investment even more is the fact that your decisions have permanence. Even now, as I’m just starting out on the second season, decisions I made at the start of the first season are still having repercussions. The message “Clementine will remember that”, sums up the appeal and the terror of the game – the decisions you make have a permanent effect on the girl you’re charged with looking after.
It’s heartening to see how far Telltale Games have come, and it’s inspiring to see a company slowly perfect its ideas and methods. When Telltale started out a decade ago, its first few games were underwhelming (it released a slew of disappointing CSI tie-ins), and the company took a while to find its feet. I remember playing Sam & Max: Season One, which was a sequel to one of my all-time favourite games, Sam & Max Hit The Road, and being generally disappointed with the obtuse puzzles and naff driving sections, but also thinking that the game had something, a real potential, particularly in the dialogue. Now, all of these years later, it’s clear that the years of experimentation and the iterative changes to the Telltale Tool (the company’s game engine) have paid off, and the company has found a perfect match in the content of The Walking Dead.
As Samuel Beckett once said: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”