Game Of The Year: The Walking Dead
Ryan King explains why Telltale's zombie-game-that's-not-about-zombies won him over…
Published on Dec 20, 2012
The hardest thing about talking about The Walking Dead is… well, talking about The Walking Dead.
No-one wants to spoil the moments that have made the episodic game this year’s biggest surprise, as so players have developed their own cryptic language to get around spoilers. Remember the caravan moment? The meat locker decision? What happened to Ben?
Out of context, those phrases mean nothing.
To Walking Dead players, they mean everything. Like war veterans, players are hesitant to say too much until they know they’re in the presence of another. Then the stories flow and it’s hard to get them to stop.
It’s testament to Walking Dead’s power that it can create such a connection with its characters and its story of survival. In an industry that’s obsessed with the undead and has us rolling our eyes and moaning about yet another zombie game, Walking Dead’s real triumph is that it’s not about zombies.
It’s about people.
Fight Or Flight?
Walking Dead forces you to make decisions. As Lee, de facto leader of a rag-tag bunch clinging onto survival, you have to step in when different members of the group demand conflicting decisions.
Whether you want to or not, you have to form alliances within the group. The way Walking Dead is written, sitting on the fence tends to piss everyone off, a smart ploy that quickly nudges you into taking sides. Better yet, each decision is punctuated by an ominous ‘Carley will remember that’ style message, adding pressure to get each decision right.
But what right means in Walking Dead is such a personal choice, that not only comes down to who you want to side with but your own morals. Even in casual conversation, you have to carefully consider your response, choosing the right time (if any) to lie and hide your past, your loyalty to another character or protect them from the truth.
These is sandwiched between adventure-lite point-‘n-click style puzzles and mostly awful action sequences, so the dialogue and the characters have to be good. This is where Walking Dead truly shines – the characters are believable and engaging. The personalities are (mostly) rounded and deep. The dynamic between the group is spiky and interesting.
“I found it very reassuring that people tended to be very conscious of their relationships with the other characters,” said Dan Connors, CEO of Telltale Games. “When we built the game we would often say “well it’s a game and people are just going to make choices to see what happens” but when people played it was almost inconceivable that someone would say something mean to Clem. There were more then a few choices in the game that were thoughtless towards Clem and it was rare, like less than 5%, that people would select those. Once people cared about their relationship with the characters we knew we had accomplished something.”
One extra touch that helped further the conversation was the decision to show players what the Walking Dead community chose to do for each decision after the episode was finished. Some decisions had a fairly even split while others but not all. The decision at the end of the first saw the majority of players lean towards Carley. It begged the question of whether Tell Tale aimed for even 50/50 split on decisions or wanted the community to lean in one direction.
“If it was a something that warranted calling out as a major choice at the end of the game then we expected it should be a 50/50 type choice. If we playtested a choice and it when all in one direction then we would definitely try to address it and even things up.
The episodic nature of Walking Dead was also unique, helping create the feeling of an ‘event’ to be discussed afterwards. Sometimes the format wavered with delays, most notably with delays to the European PS3 release of each episode, but it just about held together for the format to be deemed a success. More importantly, it gave Telltale time to absorb and react to feedback.
“That is something we have been doing since Sam and Max and one of the hidden benefits of the episodic model,” explained Connors. “Doug and Carley’s characters were definitely shaped by the feedback and choice statistics from each episode. Of course the ongoing gags about Carley and batteries were way too much for the writers to pass up. With Duck we definitely felt like people were very annoyed by him early on so the part in episode three where he is fun and helpful was definitely added to make what happens later really hurt.
It’s not perfect. There’s a hand-holding element to the puzzles that makes everything a little too easy, presumably a concession made so puzzles don’t drastically interfere with the pace of the story.
As mentioned, the action scenes are also abysmal, thanks to shoddy controls where you’re second-guessing what it is Tell Tale wants you to do and what the controls are to do it. It particularly stands out because Walking Dead is a game that is, by and large, played by instinct. It’s fortunate, then, that these action sequences are also quite rare.
Finally, and the most contentious one, replaying Walking Dead shatters the illusion of choice. No matter how hard you push or pull, you can never derail Walking Dead from its path towards its one true ending. Yet if it’s guilty of presenting choice as an illusion rather than a fact, then the likes of Mass Effect and LA Noire are guilty too.
None of these things stop Walking Dead from being one of the most unique, refreshing games of the past 12 months and certainly the most memorable. In a year where lauded triple-A games have failed to deliver on their hype, Walking Dead has come out of nowhere to emotionally engage us and raise the bar for story-telling in games.
Following Mass Effect 3, a common defence of that game’s polarising ending has been to ask when are endings in games ever good. So next to Red Dead Redemption, Portal and Shadow Of The Colossus, we can add Walking Dead. The ending is subtle, understated and touching.
As for the ambiguity surrounding the final scene in the ending, we ask Telltale what it means for the future of Walking Dead. Huge spoilers alert for those who haven’t completed it yet: “I like to think it means Clem made it out of Savannah and is still alive. I have no idea what those two figures are though.”
Telltale is now working on a project based on Bill Willingham’s Fables and is “thinking about Season Two of The Walking Dead.” Having put the studio’s name on the map with a dramatic leap in quality following the lacklustre Jurassic Park, Telltale’s plans don’t stop there.
“In addition to this, we are looking for new licenses that can provide really interesting storytelling opportunities,” continued Connors. “In ten years I expect that interactive content will be the primary form of mass media entertainment and that Telltale will be working closely with talent from across entertainment to define what that content is.”
Fingers crossed then that ten years from now, Telltale’s projects are every bit as gripping and surprising as Walking Dead proved to be.