Ryan Scully dives teeth-first into the new Walking Dead game…
You have to admire the irony. That the zombie genre – once a harsh commentary on consumerism, conformity and obedience – has become such a predictable, saturated market is perhaps the most delicious example of accidental self-satire that genre fiction has ever seen. Thankfully, and rightfully, Robert Kirkman’s seminal The Walking Dead series has gone on to become the new genre standard thanks mostly to its progressive approach to narration. Concentrating more on characters than situation, the original comic and its televised spin-off knew how familiar the zombie escape plotline is, instead focusing on character relations and exploring what happens to the survivors once escape has occurred and the credits have rolled.
Naturally, when a series is less concerned about caving in zombie heads than it is character development, concerns are raised when a video game adaptation would likely be content to simply blunder through the usual ghoul-killing that made Dead Rising, Dead Island and a million other games with ‘Dead’ in the title so popular. Yet the The Walking Dead game continues to elevate the franchise with the usual maturity and consideration, and without exactly changing zombie gaming as we know it, it at least provides a fresh enough spin to remain relevant and, potentially, a standout title in interactive fiction.
Released in episodic chunks (and thereby furthering anticipation with each cliffhanger ending), The Walking Dead’s storyline is shaped by player decisions, resulting in a personalised narrative for each player and, potentially, a number of different outcomes for the game’s fifth and final instalment. It remains to be seen just how varied these outcomes will be but, on the basis of Episodes One and Two, there remains tremendous potential already – even if some story threads are resolved a little too soon.
Playing and controlling like old-school adventure games like Sam and Max or Grim Fandango, The Walking Dead is easily the least violent zombie game in recent memory. Besides some button-mashing fight sequences, the player sends more time setting up the action than it does participating, and despite its adventure game influences, the puzzles are no harder than figuring out which way round a set of batteries fit into a radio. Yet despite the lack of challenge, the tension of The Walking Dead’s fragile alliances and hopeless scenarios ensure a persistent sense of dread. There are no real successes or failures in-game, but it only takes a simple response to drastically alter character relations. There’s a gut-wrenching sadness when choosing to lie to the young and vulnerable Clementine, even if it’s to protect her from the truth, whilst the opportunity to call Lana a bitch – which she is – seems like a passing insult but causes certain friction between her and the player later in the story. Cinema critique often praises character engagement, but The Walking Dead’s interactive dramas elicit an emotional investment that other media rarely manages.
Even so, Lee, the game’s protagonist, is a difficult role to fulfil, and his mystery-shrouded past causes some concern. He’s a likeable character – noble, should the player choose to make him so – yet it’s unclear whether or not he’s guilty of the murder conviction referenced in the game’s opening. When certain characters ask Lee about his past, the player is asked to choose a response, yet chances are that some players would have much different answers were Lee’s past not so ambiguous. Whether he’s guilty or not remains to be seen, but future episodes will need some careful scripting to ensure that the truth resonates with the player’s actions.
Nonetheless, Episodes One and Two are absolutely gripping. The first is an effective setup, if unevenly paced, rushing its introduction in order to introduce its mechanics. It also feels less organic, with player decisions seemingly having little impact on the story; an early decision between whether to save a child or a friendly farmhand results in the same outcome regardless of the player’s decision. Even so, new characters are introduced rapidly, each interaction hinting at greater underlying consequences.
Come episode two, the weight of the previous episode looms overhead constantly. The storyline goes on a minor detour, introducing new characters and dispensing with them before the episode’s end, but in doing so it allows the game to demonstrate just how drastic the player’s actions were in the previous episode. By this point in the story, the survivors are starved, irritable, and taking sides. Having not quite gained the trust of the two most confrontational characters, my refusal to take sides resulted in even greater backlashes. Clementine, the vulnerable young girl from the first episode, had begun to question her trust in me. By the end of the closing chapter, I had pissed off practically everyone, and decided to leave Lee to starve just to gain a smidgen of Clementine’s trust.
When success or failure is measured on a personal level, decided only by a player’s emotional attachments, your game has achieved something very special indeed. However often The Walking Dead’s characters utter some clunky dialogue or awkward exposition, it’s difficult not to care about every last one of them. It bodes well for the future of the series, and provided the storyline expands wider and wider with each episode, we could be looking at interactive fiction’s most exceptional offering to date.