In recent years, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead has come to define the modern Zombie revival. The reason the franchise has become so incredibly successful can be primarily found in its focus on the emotions and mental health of its characters, and not just showcasing gratuitous amounts of gore. Well, ok, there is a ridiculous amount of gore, but it’s there for a reason. Significant gore.
While the TV series and the comics have both demonstrated their ability to tug at the audience’s heartstrings, there is but one criminally underrated incarnation of The Walking Dead that truly outshines the other two. Telltale’s The Walking Dead is not only wonderfully gruesome, brilliantly plotted, and genuinely terrifying, but it is, above all else, not okay.
Note: In order to differentiate all the incarnations of The Walking Dead, the game will be called by its title while the comics and TV show will be called the comics and the TV show.
Zombie games are a dime a dozen. Well, they would be if video games weren’t ridiculous expensive, but the point still stands: blowing away the undead has become just as tired as those games’ sleep-deprived protagonists. That’s why The Walking Dead is such a breath of fresh air. Instead of being a typical first-person shooter, The Walking Dead is an adventure game in the vein of Monkey Island, albeit a much more depressing Monkey Island. TWD follows the exploits of one Lee Everett, a man on his way to jail for (allegedly?) murdering his wife and the man she cheated on him with. As the zombie apocalypse happens all around him, Lee comes across a young girl named Clementine whose parents were out of town when the end of the world came. As time goes on, they must deal with zombies and those willing to do anything to stay alive in this new world while dealing with the problems that arise in their ever-changing group of fellow survivors.
Introducing a new cast definitely helps the game. While one might bring in prejudices towards certain pre-established characters, the new cast allows the audience to open up and get emotionally invested in the new characters — “emotionally invested” being the key phrase. In the comics and TV show, some of the characters come across as annoying and a little inept, as real people would in their situations, and as a result some readers/viewers don’t connect with the characters so much as find them irritable. Meanwhile, in the game the characters aren’t just Lee’s friends, they’re your friends or even your enemies, and therein lies the key difference. Of course, the cast isn’t entirely new: characters from both the show and the comics make extended appearances. However, the line between Lee and the player becomes so blurred that during one particularly stressful moment that affected Lee (for those who have played and need a hand, think of the beginning of Episode 5) you actually feel like you are deciding my own fate, not just someone else’s. And goodness, was that a stressful moment.
Stress also happens to be the third word that comes to mind when thinking of the game (the first and second being”Holy” and an expletive, respectively). The plot, which occurs over five downloadable episodes, is written in such a way to truly shock the audience. The problem in many horror movies, games and children’s literature these days seems to come from the reliance on “jumps” where the monster pounces from behind a corner to scare somebody. The Walking Dead certainly has its moments of zombies popping out or unexpected violence, but all of those scares come with an emotional weight to them that comes from the previously mentioned connection established with the characters. Sure, shooting a guy in the face would be an interesting scene, but having to explain your actions to that guy’s family? That’s true horror.
Some games make you feel the dread of facing down a guy with a chainsaw, but The Walking Dead makes you feel the dread of being sent to the principal’s office. The entire game is peppered with moments full of choices where, but unlike in Fallout 3 or Fable where your choices come down to either “Jesus” or “Mecha-Satan”, you have no chance of staying the good guy the entire time. Everything you do will displease someone, be it in the short-term or the long-run, and he latter is so much more terrifying when you know that maybe when the chips are down, your best friend would turn on you for something you said about him behind his back. Even more horrifying? There’s also the notion that perhaps Lee isn’t the good guy, and you, the player, are kind of a terrible person. While other games have tried this and come off as corny, the climactic scene in Episode 5 that highlights this idea has won my personal reward for Greatest Video Game Moment of the Year.
Granted, while the story and atmosphere are phenomenal, the same cannot necessarily be said for the gameplay. There’s nothing wrong with it per say; the gameplay consists of the point and click style you’d expect from Telltale with a few forgettable shooting sequences, but it just feels a little more like an interactive movie than a game. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you prefer games with more action, a perfectly acceptable preference, you should probably wait for Activision’s upcoming Dixon Brothers game. Though the gameplay definitely contributes to the feeling that Lee isn’t the warrior every other video game protagonist is, it causes The Walking Dead to be more “watched” rather than “played”, which isn’t necessarily bad, just not everyone’s cup of tea.
The Walking Dead is certainly one of the most unique video games to be released this year. While the gameplay isn’t necessarily “game” “play”, the story, the atmosphere and the characters just pour so much into the experience that you can’t help but be completely absorbed into this game. Truth be told, there are so many story moments that would have been brought up in this review as selling points if spoilers wouldn’t utterly ruin the purpose of the game. So if you’re interested in a video game that delivers gut-wrenching moments that make Up and Sophie’s Choice look like Ren & Stimpy, The Walking Dead is an absolute must-buy.
The Walking Dead has been available in downloadable episodic format now on PC, Mac, iOS, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3, and is available in disc format for Xbox 360 and PS3 on December 11th.