- "I sometimes like to joke that it's tricking dudes into watching a soap opera...it's about human loss, making decisions and coming together as a community for the cause of survival. It's more about the struggle to survive than it is about the zombies chasing you or trying to eat you."
- —Robert Kirkman
From here on out, whenever someone asks me what my favourite birthday present was, I'll say it was The Walking Dead: The Game. I'll likely get some puzzled looks in the future, but that's OK. It's difficult to articulate exactly what it is that makes this game so great, and I believe that speaks to its subtlety more than anything else. It's the reason I love video games so much. No other story has involved me the same way this game has, and seeing it unfold in a novel or on the big screen wouldn't have been the same. The cast is more than a collection of characters; they're a group of human beings, and during my time with The Walking Dead Video Game, I genuinely cared for them. No other story has made me scream, yell, laugh, cheer, and cry in such a short amount of time. If I can, I'd like to explain why The Walking Dead: The Game is my choice for game of the year.
The Cornerstone of the Story, the Characters
- "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of."
- —Kurt Vonnegut, giving advice on how to approach creative writing.
Characters are the cornerstone of any story. We can immediately identify with them, and creating well-rounded characters is what this game does best. So what is it that makes them so great? Well, in addition to being dynamic and interesting, they also feel like more than just characters; they are human beings. The colourful cast of this game is a motley crew of wonderfully flawed people, who act in accordance with human emotion. It takes normal people, puts them into incredibly difficult situations, and tests how they handle the situation. So yeah, it's a lot like the Saw movies.
The characters are what put this game above all the others. Like the ones in other The Walking Dead media, these characters are unique and interesting, yet simple and relatable. The cast isn't made up of super soldiers and scientists, they're average people: teachers, students, veterinarians, fishermen, children etc. They're all regular people trying to get by and survive in the world, just like us.
Think of the Children!
- "I will do anything. Whatever it takes to protect Clementine."
- —Greg Miller, IGN
Clementine is, without a doubt, the greatest child character in the history of the medium. I wish that would be saying more than it already is, because compared to most other children in video games, that isn't saying much. Take a look at the missed opportunity Joseph Cappeli Jr. in Resistance 3, those four French brats from Heavy Rain, that random girl from Modern Warfare 3, and Amy from... Amy. Other games assume we should care for these non-characters, but The Walking Dead: The Game is the first to actaully make me care. Whenever a child is used, it's often for shock value, or to try and motivate the player without any actual attachment to the character.
Not so with Clementine. Clem is a well-balanced character who, unlike Carl from the second season of the show, is helpful and reasonably capable. At the same time, she is still a child. She is not going out of her way to be annoying, she isn't a total brat, and she doesn't weigh you down. Unlike other adolescents of the medium, when you have to save her, you don't feel tied down. You want to save her. There are plenty of games where I'll screw around to see what happens if a certain character dies, but when Clementine was in danger? I took that seriously. I was so immersed in the narrative, I genuinely cared about a fictitious mesh of pixels lip-syncing a voice actour's words. That's incredibly difficult to do, but they managed to pull it off. When I found out that the food in "Starved for Help" was human flesh (well, I saw the plot twist coming, but when Mark revealed it) I didn't hesitate. I slammed my thumb down on the analogue stick and ran Lee's arse down the stairs, because above all else, I was concerned for Clementine's safety.
The writers here really nailed Clementine's characterisation, making the player feel obligated to save her. Players made her a top priority, and became very defensive of her. This is great, because without that motivation, everything else just falls apart. This is the only game that actaully made me feel and act like a parent; my number one concern was always to do what's best for Clementine, my charge. When she crawled through the dog entrance to the mansion, I scolded her. I did so because, as epic as I thought it was, I didn't want her to be put at risk. When she asked to come to Crawford, I said no; I wasn't about to risk her safety. The dejected look on her face broke my heart, and it ultimately led to Molly being mauled by living dead, but I stand by my decision. When Lee was slowly starting to die, I had her handcuff me to the heater, to make sure she was safe. I did it to protect Clementine. I wanted to make sure she was ready for the post-apocalyptic world she would have to face. It's harsh and unfair, and it breaks my heart when I realise that Clementine has been stripped of her innocence and robbed of a proper childhood. I've felt strong emotions in stories before, but nothing made me tear up more than seeing Clementine's tears roll down her cheek as she disbelievingly realises Lee isn't going to make it, and that she is all alone. For once, I felt something for a character, as if they were a human being.
David Cage could learn a lot from this game.
Best Friends Forever
- "You don't just end it cause it's hard. You stick it out, and you help the folks you care about."
After the dynamic duo Lee and Clementine, my absolute favourite character is the flawed but lovable Kenny.
Kenny displayed many emotions and made some uncertain decisions throughout the first season, and in hindsight, that's what I loved about him so much. We had a rocky relationship, and the fact that he had his own strong opinions helped flesh out his character. More than anything, I wanted to be his friend, and he's one of the few characters in gaming I genuinely considered to be so. There were times when I drew the line sure, like deciding to mercy kill Beatrice, but I sided with him (sometimes against my better judgement) most of the time. I did this because he was endearing and relatable, and that's not in spite of his flaws, it's because of them.
Kenny's flawed but virtuous everyman nature is very well executed, and even when he trips up or acts hard-headed, I can't exactly blame him; in a similar situation, I might act just as stupid. In the same way that an apocalyptic scenario allows for introspection, Kenny is the kind of character that allows for more personal reflection. Not only that, but his pragmatism also reflects the harsh environment they live in. After all he goes through in the story, especially during "Long Road Ahead", he pretty much gets a free pass from me.
What I like best about Kenny however, is his character development and story arc. When he died, it tore me up inside. His death was something I hoped would never happen, but as the old saying goes, "you gotta kill your babies".
His death also left me with something other than grief: satisfaction. I obviously didn't want him to die, but from an objective and artistic point of view, I feel his death was both necessary and well-executed. Looking back, I feel his character arc ran full-circle. A major theme for him was suicide. His personal story arc was built around the idea of perseverance, and the idea that no matter how rough things got, you should always stick it out until the end, no matter how hard. Looking back at Irene, the girl from the motel, and Katjaa, his wife, it's easy to see that simply giving up and leaving others behind to deal with the mess is a big part of the story. I think that by "No Time Left", he is able to look back and understand that what his wife did was wrong. Katjaa couldn't cope. Instead of staying by her husband's side, or at the very least, putting Duck out of his misery, she just gave up. She couldn't bring herself to kill her own son, and because of the severity of the situation, and her failure to handle it, gave in to grief. Kenny still loves her, but he also knows that this is wrong, and he figures this out just in time to go out as one of my all-time favourite characters. I especially liked the scene that sparked this reaction from him. The dead couple that decided to kill themselves, and leave their dead or dying child behind, nicely mirrors Ken's situation, and really helps to bring everything full-circle. The theme of suicide and hopelessness had been building since the first episode, and in the end, I'm glad it got some pay-off. Nothing really feels tacked-on in this narrative; everything has a place in the plot's thematic structure. Things aren't thrown in for shock value. Instead, ideas are explored. It's a story capable of answering the heavy questions it raises. That, I think, is what separates a shallow story from a great one.
Kenny and Benny
- "I never made it home. They could be alive, or dead, or walkers or WORSE, and I DON'T KNOW, SO GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK!"
Another facet of Kenny's character development I liked was his relationship with Ben. Episode four, "Around Every Corner" set us up for one final decision: do you kill Ben, or let him die? Around every corner, Ben finds something to screw up. He has lead to more deaths than anything or anyone else, and I found myself swearing I'd kill him. Hell, I even threatened to in the third episode. His stupidity and cowardice endangered Clementine and ultimately led to the death of Carley/Doug, Katjaa, Duck, Charles, Molly, and Brie. However, when it came time to do it, I choked. This is a game makes you question your humanity, and episode four in particular tries to tempt you down a dark path by making you hate him, then leaving his life in your hands. At first, I regretted not dropping him. By the end of the fifth episode however, I was glad I made that choice.
In typical Ben fashion, he reveals to Kenny his hand in Katjaa and Duck's deaths, just as the undead horde is descending upon them. From this point onward, Ken hated Ben, and reasonably so; his actions led to the death of his friends and family. He even advocated letting him die to make room on the boat. In the end though, I couldn't bring myself to do it. Seeing how Ben wanted to die suddenly made me empathise with him, and we got to see more of that in the final episode.
In that final episode, I nearly lost it when I found out that Ben allowed Vernon to take the boat. I felt like I saved him for nothing. Then, he and Kenny had a final confrontation. Kenny called him out for being a idiot and a coward, but Ben stood up for himself. He revealed that his situation was not all that different from Kenny's, and in some ways, was arguably worse. He was after all, just a kid. As harsh as apocalyptic America is, it isn't really fair to hold all that against him, especially when he was so willing to die himself. It's that moment when you realise that everyone is going through trouble and heartache, and makes you stop and consider someone else's problems. We all have someone we hate, but how often do we stop and think about what it's like for them? This moment becomes a turning point for Kenny's character development, and he eventually finds forgiveness for Ben.
After an extremely telegraphed fall, Ben is impaled. With walkers closing in, Kenny pushes Lee out of the way, giving him enough time to fend of the undead and mercy kill poor Benjamin. Despite what he said earlier, I don't believe that this is "giving up". At this point, it's an immediate matter of dying painfully and horribly or dying quick and clean. At this point, he isn't giving up, because he's doomed either way at this point. No matter how he goes out, he sacrificed himself; he didn't off himself because he couldn't cope. He did what had to be done, as always.
What made this scene truly noteworthy was his altruistic choice to shoot Ben instead of himself. He was in the very same situation his wife was in, and he took the high road. Ben was just a kid, and the thing he feared most was being eaten alive and reanimated. Kenny spared him that. He isn't a mean spirited-person; he just values loyalty, security, and defending his own. We've seen his forgiving side in episode one, and now everything we've done felt like it had purpose. Being a true friend, I killed his son and the kid in the attic, so he wouldn't have to. I wanted to be strong where he was weak. In the end however, he was able to shoot Ben, sparing him the horror of being eaten alive, a fate to which he knew he would fall victim. I've seen noble sacrifices in stories before, but this one takes the cake. After all Ben had done, he could have easily let him suffer. Instead, he forgave him, and did the right thing. This redemption was very painful to watch, but in retrospect, I'm glad everything turned out the way it did. In the end, I hated seeing him die, but I love the way he died.
This is a mere microcosm of what makes The Walking Dead: The Game so great, but I think it exemplifies it as well.
Kudos to Kirkman
- "In the end, the dead always win."
After I started watching the show, I fell in love with everything The Walking Dead, because it had everything I wanted in a zombie apocalypse. A good zombie story is about more than just bashing brains in. Well, that part is kind of cool, but first and foremost, it should allow for some introspection as well. You truly don't know what you have until its gone, and the apocalypse lets us stop and take stock. I think Robert Kirkman really nailed it when creating this universe, and the game is no exception to that.
H.P. Lovecraft once said that oldest and most powerful kind of fear is the fear of the unknown. The zombie subgenre captures this by focusing on Man's greatest fear: death. Like death itself, zombies are slow, but omnipresent. They don't run after you, because in the end, they don't need to. They will get you eventually. In the end, we will all die, and in the end all of our civilisations will crumble. This is what a good zombie story should get across. It should impress upon us the futility of fleeing from death, as well as our own mortality. This can be seen in how murky the group's goal becomes. Kenny is in constant search for a boat, which to him, is salvation. That may keep him going by giving him something to strive for, but in the end, we will die eventually. It's hard not to see a bit of ourselves in Kenny, who is searching for a solution that doesn't exist. We're all searching for something, but will it make any difference in the end? Perhaps not, but at some point in time, it does. The zombie apocalypse shows us that everything is finite, that nothing lasts forever, but at the same time, life never stops. It's persistent. It perpetuates, sometimes for no other reason that to simply exist, just like the groups of survivors we see in The Walking Dead: The Game. When Lee and Clem figure out a game plan for when they arrive in Savannah, she feels good about it. It's not very long-term or realistic, but it keeps them going, and that's what matters. At one point later in the episode, Lee states that he wishes he could go back to fighting over the motel. Sure, it wasn't great, but at least they were fighting for something. We aren't too different. As long as we have something to strive for, even if it isn't possible, we can continue, and perhaps even have some fun along the way on our inevitable journey to death. It isn't reaching our goal that matters in life; it's the striving.
The scene in particular that highlights this is a conversation you can have with Ben when you first find the train. There, Lee asks Ben if he's glad he stuck around with their group. Ben tells him that he does, because if he hadn't, he'd be dead. It's clear that he values his life; he doesn't want to die. Lee, on the other hand, isn't so sure. He asks him if what they're doing is any better. At this point, Lee is in doubt, because he doesn't know if what he's doing has purpose. After all, they don't ever accomplish anything except survive. Couldn't the same be said of us, however? In the end, many of us don't have a specific reason to exist, and the human race as a whole has no obvious purpose to it. There's no way of hiding from it or riding it out. The end is always the same. Yes, you can protect yourself, you can run, hide, and even stave off death, but in the end, as Molly says, the dead always win.
The Walking Dead captures this very well. The fact that it only takes one bite impresses upon us the fragility of human life. Just one bullet, fall, or snap of the neck, and everything you were, are, wanted to be, and could have been is gone. Look at Lee. After everything he's done, one random walker catches him off guard, and that's all it took. Plot armour be damned. It doesn't take much to kill someone, but when you do, it's kind of a big deal. There are more than a couple people I wish I didn't kill throughout the first season.
This can also be seen in the town of Crawford. At first, I was a little disappointed that, instead of watching out for our fellow Man, we had to kill more zed. However, there is one thing I do like about it. It impresses upon us that no one and nowhere is safe. It's an example of how, in the end, all of our walls will crumble, and all our civilisations will fall. The zombies here aren't just axe fodder; they're a metaphor for two of the most powerful forces in the world: time and death. The denizens of Crawford futilely sacrificed happiness and kindness for security, and in the end, they got neither. How many people can we think of in the real world who do the same?
Another thing this game does well is serving the Walking Dead mantra of "no one is safe, anyone can die". It's sad to think about, but not everyone gets to live full, happy lives. We rarely know when death is going to hit us, and we don't get to choose how we die. Death in all forms of Walking Dead media (except maybe that Facebook game I guess) is sudden, unexpected, and unfair, just like real life. The writers deliberately hint at a romantic relationship between Lee and Carley... shortly before shooting the latter in the head. This wasn't done to tease us, I think. It was done to show us how jarring and unfair death is. Just like another certain relationship that was recently cut short on the TV show, we don't decide when we go. Death is usually unceremonious, and the good ones rarely die in a manner that they deserve. Take a look at Charles and Lee. They were good people. Charles died in some sewer surrounded by the undead with his brains blown out. He deserved better than that. In the end, Lee tries to persevere, but he can only go on for so long. He eventually falls down in a nondescript store of some kind, and dies handcuffed to a radiator. Again, everyone dies, but life goes on.
That's the thing about the zombie apocalypse. These stories, they aren't-or at least shouldn't be-about the zombies; they're about us. These kinds of scenarios bring out the worst in us, and that's what The Walking Dead does well. It's about our own inhumanity against Man. They force us to come together, or be torn apart. Sometimes literally.
Awesome Audio and Visceral Visuals
If I'm going to talk about what makes The Walking Dead: The Game so great, I probably shouldn't overlook the brilliant art direction and superb sound quality. The animations were all top-notch, and were a real treat to watch, Clementine, Carley, Irene, and Lee's in particular. Aside from the technical hiccups marring the overall presentation, it was a real treat to watch the story unfold. The comic book style graphics translate well, considering that this does take place within the comic book universe.
The music worked very well, and perfectly complemented each scene. I can't really find any fault with it. The overall feel was very melancholy when it needed to be, the moments of levity were reflected by more pleasant tracks (i.e. the background music when you first arrive at the St. John's Dairy Farm), and when the shit starts to hit the fan, the strings kick in and you can feel the tension rising. The score does an impressive job of keeping me on my toes, but at the same time, it helps really drive home those sadder moments. The one instance in which I really noticed the audio was the scene in which Lee takes on the horde standing betwixt him and the Marsh House. It really gets you pumped. Oh, and don't even get me started on the song that plays during the credits. I might start crying again.
Dialogue of the Dead
Dialogue is important. In this game, it's super important. Many games have done dialogue systems in the past, but this one is something special. It always had me on my toes, and never failed to immerse me in the situation. There a couple things in particular that I really hope other games will pick up on. First, I really like that our responses were timed. Depending on the situation, we were given a limited amount of time to respond to certain conversations and events. It's a great idea, because it keeps everything tense when it needs to be, and actually flows like a real conversation. Unlike Commander Shepard, Lee Everett doesn't get to stare blankly into space and ponder his response for thirty minutes. No, if you don't do anything, you don't do anything. Can't decide who to save, or who to side with? You're frozen in fear. It's a neat little facet that goes a long way in making the player feel immersed by putting you on the spot. In most conversations, if you don't pick a dialogue option, you simply don't say anything, which brings me to the second think I really liked about the dialogue system in The Walking Dead: The Game: silence. Silence really is golden, and because an ellipsis (....) is always an option, we're not forced into saying something we don't want to. This is great, because the most annoying thing that can ever happen in a role-playing game is the game punishing you for something the game forced you to do. When you say something stupid here, it's on you.
This is all complemented by the way the dialogue is written near-verbatim to how Lee says it. In some other games which shall not be named (Mass Effect and Heavy Rain), you got a vague paraphrasing job or brief description of what you were about to say. Here, this isn't the case. What you see is what you say, and that way you never feel cheated or surprised at your own actions.
This is of course, all made possible by the actors. Honestly, the dialogue in this game is some of the best I've ever seen. Always touching and ever believable, the voice acting in this game is top-notch. Dave Fennoy and Melissa Hutchison did a superb job especially; it had me in tears.
More than an Avatar
- "Something happened, and I reacted. Me. Not Lee. Like few games before it, we are the main character in The Walking Dead: The Game."
- —Greg Miller
After playing through this game, I never want to hear the "you are the player" excuse ever again. Specifically, I don't want player projection on the protagonist excuse an underdeveloped or uninteresting character. BioWare especially could pick up a few tips from Telltale when it comes to role playing and controlling an intriguing character in a game defined by player choice. Lee is a dynamic and well-rounded character, who is as much fun to learn about as he is to play as. We connect with Lee not because he’s a blank template, but because he’s well defined, and in many ways like us. Lee wasn't always like me, and I respect those differences, but his motivations were never opposed to mine. Over time, you begin to think and act like Lee would, and you get a sense of belonging in the world they created. Throughout the first five episodes, we got to see Lee evolve like Rick does, but at the same time, we began to question our own humanity.
This is the trick to making an interesting main character in this medium. You have to make a character that can stand alone as a human being, but at the same time, try to make them line up with the player. By that I mean the developers have to manipulate us in such a way that we not only feel for the protagonist (which is what good movies and novels do) but also feel like them. Lee cares for Clementine. In order for us to truly be immersed in this narrative, they have ensure we do as well, so that everything acts in harmony. That's the biggest strength and draw of this medium; we are the protagonist. This means that, when done right, video games can immerse us in a fictional world more than any TV show, movie, or book ever could. Telltale executed this masterfully, and Lee sky-rocketed to the top of many people's list of favourite characters.
Lee is an everyman. In addition to our motivations being lined up, that's how we connect with him. Like us, he's an average guy, but put into an extraordinary situation. The Walking Dead: The Game is about thinking in the moment and seeing how our choices make, break, and strain the relationships we build. You won’t always like it, but you’ll have to deal with it. As the story progresses, "right" and "wrong" start becoming more and more irrelevant. You start to think on the spot, and act in accordance to one of the many ways an average person would handle the situation.
And then, in episode five, Campman comes and throws it all in our face. The stranger is the manifestation of all our choices, showing that, though we may not think of it often, the decisions we make can impact and even ruin the lives of others. Campman's story is touching, because he isn't just crazy. He's crazy for a reason. He's a failure as a father and has failed his family. Even after all he did, you can't help but feel bad for he's gone through.
Campman made for a great antagonist, because he played off of Lee so well. That's what a good villain should be: someone who understands the main character inside and out, more than they do.
At the end of the day, I think Lee Everett is the best black zombie slayer since Ben from Night of the Living Dead. Does Dave Fennoy do a better job than Duane Jones? I think so, but then again, it’s a pretty close call. Either way, the're both pretty badass.
The Power of Pathos
2012 was a year full of disappointing endings (Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed 3, Twilight, etc.), but thankfully, The Walking Dead delivers. This story was amazingly well crafted, with a great attention to detail. After beating it, I started up another save file and started playing the first season from the beginning. Playing it through a second time is surprisingly rewarding for such a suspenseful game, especially one predicated on player choice in uncertain situations. As you replay the series, you'll start to pick up on those little things, like Clementine playing with a soccer ball, and Lee raising his hand when Christa makes that crack about the American Civil War. You'll also notice the discreet foreshadowing as you go along, like Mark saying, “I know I wouldn't want to be stuck in a room with him.” It's a game that rewards you for paying attention, and I love that. I especially liked the way Lee went out; he started the story in handcuffs, and in the end, that's how he died (depending on your choices of course, which, to me, makes it even sweeter). It's an excellent job all around. Sound, story, pacing, and pathos all come together to form an extremely well-crafted and fine-tuned experience.
No other game has connected with me the same way this game has. No other game this year reaches out to the player with such raw emotion and pathos. By the middle of the third episode, I shed a year when the gravity of Duck's situation came crashing down on his family. In the next episode, I was left speechless when having to deal with an undead child left behind by his parents. By the final episode, I was prepared for everyone to die: Omid, Christa, Ben, Kenny, and even Lee. I had accepted it. However, it wasn't until I saw Clementine's reaction that I started bursting into tears. And these weren't manly tears. These were full on lady tears.
The Walking Dead: The Game isn't just my game of the year. It's now my favourite game ever. This game not only proves that we can bring the point-and-click adventure game genre back from the dead, but also serves as true testament to the power of storytelling in video games. Whenever I talk about the potential this medium has, I’ll point to this game as an example.
Telltale has come a long way since Jurassic Park.