Review: The Walking Dead

This was originally published on P as in Pterodactyl, May 7th, 2012.

I’ve only read the first few issues of Robert Kirkman’s original comic books, but I have a strange fascination with the television incarnation of The Walking Dead. It’s a bit like watching a train wreck; I just can’t wrap my head around how a show can be as beautifully shot as it is and, you know, about zombies, but still be as mirthless and relentlessly terrible as it continues to be. And it is a terrible show to be sure—what with its nonexistent characters and conflicts in what is purported to be an ensemble drama. Even so, I schedule time every Sunday to catch a new episode. Partially it’s that strange fascination with how the show continues to drown in its own mythology (or lack thereof) that brings me back, but I also return to The Walking Dead week after week with a little hope that maybe this week will finally click. Maybe—just maybe—the next episode will finally get it and dig the series out of its hole. It is with this mindset that I enter TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead, an episodic adventure game based on the same source material. The first episode is currently available for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC with the promise of four subsequent episodes over as many months. (I’ll be playing the series on my MacBook). The game, like the show, looks beautiful with a compelling, comic book-esque aesthetic that is anchored by fantastic facial animations. Also like the show, the game features a lot of talking–not all of it necessary. The real test of quality, then, becomes whether or not the rest of its components—especially the writing and core mechanics—can measure up to its slick art direction.

In The Walking Dead players take on the role of Lee Everett. Despite not appearing in the comics or the television series, Lee will be familiar to most players as what is becoming an archetype for horror game protagonists: the sympathetic convict who may-or-may-not have committed a violent crime against a family member (and if he did, he probably had Reasons with a capital ‘R;’ as my iteration of Lee explained to one character, “it’s complicated.”).  This seems to have become the go-to hero in western-produced, mainstream horror games because it comes prepackaged with both the intrinsic horror of the beast in the boudoir and the more practical excuse for its requisite everyman hero to handle weaponry. To its credit, TellTale makes good use of this archetype both in character-building conversations and combat. In the case of the former, there’s a great, playable dramatic moment early in the game in which a fellow survivor asks Lee if he has killed anyone. The other survivor is expecting a zombie story, but Lee and the player know that he has killed someone (or at least been convicted of killing someone) long before the zombie epidemic started. Egged on by the quickly draining timer, the player is forced to choose between two zombie stories—one that corroborates the lie he’s concocted about his identity, one that might contradict it—and a confession to his actual crimes. This exchange underlines the game’s biggest potential strength, though it has yet to be seen how it will payoff in the overarching narrative. Fortunately, this aspect of Lee’s character is reinforced by the smart and sparse encounters with the eponymous walking dead.

Another strength of the game is the way in which it carefully paces its combat—both in its measured distribution of encounters throughout the game and in the actual frenetic action. For its part, combat is a combination of quick-time-event keyboard cues and aiming with the mouse (or, in my case, a trackpad that calls for some Olympics-grade finger gymnastics).  The game paces its combat out well, using narrative-appropriate visual distortions—like blurring the picture after Lee hits his head—to create great moments of suspense and even genuine panic without it ever feeling tired. Although convicted of a horrible crime, a trained killer Lee is not; however, the combat does provide for moments of vicious ingenuity like when Lee and the player repurpose a pillow as a silencer for a handgun. This bit of quick and brutal problem solving provides a peak at the beast—a wonderful glimpse into something much more sinister under (my) Lee’s concerned and affectionate exterior. This is something I hope will be explored in future installments as (my) Lee becomes more invested in protecting his fellow survivors.

For now, the narrative backbone of The Walking Dead is the relationship between Lee and Clementine—a young girl he happens upon in his search for help. The dialogue-based format creates the perfect platform for exploring the relationship between protector and charge without bogging the game down with frustrating escort missions—gaming’s unfortunate go-to mechanic when it comes to communicating responsibility. Instead, suspense is allocated to the player’s performance in the aforementioned timed conversations in which the player must quickly choose the best option for either gaining Clementine’s trust or gaining the trust of other characters to ensure Lee and Clementine’s survival. It is mostly through these conversations that the player shapes Lee’s character and to which the game supposedly adapts.

Before I’m even allowed to start my game, The Walking Dead promises/warns me that it will adapt to my choices. It’s a warning that lacks the delightfully b-movie menace of the similar message found before Konami’s Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (“this game plays you as much as you play it.”), and I’m not convinced by this claim. However, it is an interesting prospect. More so than the usual rhetoric surrounding “choice” in games—which is to say, empty PR buzz that has little bearing on the actions players take—I read this as a chance to fix the main problem I have with the show. Namely, the videogame adaptation of The Walking Dead provides the tools to create and maintain the consistent, complex central character and interesting conflicts with which the writers of the show can’t be bothered. From this standpoint, the real pleasure of The Walking Dead comes from its conversation and decision making mechanic. The player spends a majority of the game watching conversations between characters before the reigns are handed to her at a pivotal point in the dialogue. When this occurs in a game like Mass Effect, the player is given as much time as necessary to mull over the possible ramifications of her choice. By contrast, the decision points in The Walking Dead’s conversations are timed—a fact the player is reminded of by the rapidly draining progress bar below her options. This underlines the immediacy of the current crisis; in other words, it reconfigures the Mass Effect-esque question of “how will my actions come back to bite me later?” to “how can I stay alive right now?” Although the timer makes it a little more difficult to carefully craft my dream The Walking Dead character, the result is a palpable sense of urgency that fits the horror genre well. However, once the decision is made, its payoff is not immediately clear nor is it especially satisfying.

Playing the “standard” version The Walking Dead—which includes more textual and visual cues for the player than its “minimal” mode—offers some form of immediate payoff for player decisions. These come in the form of a nondiegetic box that appears in the top left corner of the screen, explaining how your decision immediately affects the dynamics of the group. For example, early in the game, I decided to lie to some survivors by telling them Lee was Clementine’s babysitter (it just seemed easier); after making this decision, text appeared letting me know that these characters now believed that Lee was the babysitter. This is potentially helpful in teaching players the ways in which they can shape Lee’s story. However, as my game went on, I found myself wishing to turn the feature off so that I could discover the repercussions for myself. Once having started a new game without the prompts—in The Walking Dead’s “minimal” mode—I found that these cues were necessary because the actual repercussions in the game were not always clear—if they were accounted for at all. Even when making drastically different decisions between both of my playthroughs, I often got similar dialogue trees with no discernable difference. Although I wasn’t surprised by this revelation, it was still fairly discouraging.

For a game that is pitched to players as one that adapts to their choices, the writing surrounding such choices is not consistent enough to clue the player into how she’s affecting the world. Some appear small, like when a supporting character repeatedly refers to Clementine as Lee’s daughter even after being told she was not. Small changes in dialogue are seemingly inoffensive, but when the player uses them to gauge her influence over the game world, even the smallest of slips becomes a problem when it fails to acknowledge her actions. An especially sloppy example occurs in a section late in the game during which Clementine discovers Lee’s criminal past. More accurately, while exploring a room with Clementine, no less than three conversations occur that tip Clementine off to his dishonesty—one involving an object being where it shouldn’t be, one in which he is accused in front of her, and another in which she asks about his family. Despite taking place virtually back-to-back, each of these conversations seems to occur completely independent of one another with no consideration for what came before or will come after.  The resulting dialogue—even with adequate voice acting and accompanied by that great animation—is stilted and affectless; it does nothing to shape or expand the player’s understanding of game world or its characters. However, while I am focusing on the writing, this is a problem in which the writing and the design are equally at fault. The developers faced a challenge that many an RPG developer has faced before them: how to take into account that the player could encounter these three conversations in any order. More importantly, many an RPG developer (though not all) has solved this problem on much larger projects with many more variables. This makes the fact that TellTale was unable to resolve it in such a short episode a bit disconcerting. If the quick decision making in respect to the formulation of Lee’s character is one of The Walking Dead‘s greatest potential strengths, then surely it its inability to create or otherwise communicate consequences to players that is its greatest weakness.

In this regard, TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead suffers from some of the same pitfalls as its television counterpart. Namely, its characters mostly talk past each other, never actually clashing nor agreeing with meaningful consequences. It certainly doesn’t help The Walking Dead’s case that its conflicts feel as though they are measured not by their established stakes (or lack there of), but by the number of times—and increasingly creative ways—characters use the word “fuck.” This becomes especially obvious when the game attempts to establish some kind of rudimentary conflict between Lee and another character towards the end of the episode. After all of the yelling, swearing, threats, and attempts on Lee’s life, I can say that I have no idea what that conflict is. Relying on naughty language feels cheap and offers little in the way of stakes or consequences. By the end of the game, I still don’t know who most of the other survivors are, which becomes a problem as the game asks me to help shape Lee’s status among them—even going so far as to demand that I choose which characters live and die. As compelling as some of the choices presented to Lee are, they ultimately mean nothing if they occur in a vacuum.

But, like the show, there is always the promise that the next episode will be better. There are a lot of good ideas kicking around in The Walking Dead—enough to make me want to play the next episode whenever it becomes available. I just hope it can straighten all of those ideas out in a compelling way instead of waiting to trip all over them in the series finale. (But hey, I’ve been burned before.)