If you haven't noticed by our reviews of The Walking Dead episodes, we here at Darkstation.com are big fans of what Telltale have done with their first season of The Walking Dead. So we got our editors to sit down at their keyboards, put away the tissues, and talk about their overall impressions with the first season.
Warning the following posts do contain spoilers from all episodes of Season 1.
Out of all the games Telltale has done, I feel that they managed to strike gold with The Walking Dead by delivering an emotionally intense and crippling story that sidesteps the tangential direction of the television series has taken. Just like the comics, The Walking Dead isn’t so much about zombies but instead functions as a character drama. Each character has an arc, whether they live or die, and by the end of the game those who have survived are pale shadows of their pre-episode one lives.
Moral choice has been gaming’s white whale for some time and developers really want the player to experience some measure of empathy with the characters and the plights they find themselves in. This is no easy task! You’ll find a lot of games trying to get the player to feel for a digital actor/actress and no other game has been able to do this for me since Konami’s Silent Hill 2. I won’t lie, I’ve shed more than a few tears throughout the season (many of them during the game’s final episode) and found myself gasping quite often. If you have previous experience with The Walking Dead you’ll know that someone is guaranteed to die. However, the twist is that you’ll never know who it is, when it will happen and how, making those instances of loss incredibly shocking (I can’t help but recall the shocking death at the end of episode two).
What I enjoyed the most about The Walking Dead is how the game made me accountable for my decisions. Most games will present you with a difficult choice and once the option is selected, it’ll take over with a cutscene before moving you onto the next scene. In episodes three and four, you’ll have to make a choice concerning the death of two individuals. Selecting the option to personally kill person X, the game steps aside and effectively says, “You want to kill him? Okay, go ahead.” I was shocked to find that I had put myself in a position to pull the trigger on the character. There would be no cutscene to take me out of the act and the game wouldn’t continue until I fired the gun. After that sequence, I had to step away from the game to coping with what I had done. No other game has affected me so greatly.
Can’t wait for season two!
I’ve been playing Telltale games since 2005. I remember Bone and the very first season of Sam & Max. I’ve played a lot of their games and I would be a liar if I said The Walking Dead is not their best work to this day. It is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a landmark in story-focused games.
When I finished the fifth (final) episode I went on twitter and tweeted to the other editors, “WE NEED TO TALK.” Which we did later that night. We were so emotionally ruined that we needed to talk about our thoughts and feelings via Skype as an impromptu support group. I would be hard pressed to name any other video game for which the same could be said.
There is a multitude of small details to praise, which I am sure the other editors will rightfully do, but I’d like to briefly meditate on how this game, over the course of its five masterfully crafted episodes, has elicited an ideological shift in me. It was about halfway through the third episode when I, as Lee, firmly decided that there has been enough death in the world of The Walking Dead and that life is pretty sacred. This philosophy then made its way into how I perceive the world and my opinion on capital punishment. A rather amazing achievement for a video game and any work of art in general.
The importance of life is especially highlighted by the end of the episode when I, the player, have a single task to accomplish: protect the only light of hope and innocence in an otherwise atrocious and bleak world. I was tasked with making sure a little girl by the name of Clementine survives and grows up to be a kind and resourceful human being. I could have abandoned people when they were a liability to the group. I could have killed people when I believed them to be a danger to the group or when I believed them to be bad or undeserving of life. But I didn’t. For myself.
Emotional connections and moral choices with video games has been a subject that’s been around for years but this year feels like we are getting emotions and morality shoved in our faces the most with games like Spec Ops the Line and Walking Dead. Now I have always been a fan of the TellTale Sam and Max games but I never played through a whole season of any of their adventure series, that is until now. I not only finished all of Walking Dead but I played through most of the episodes in one sitting. Now I have read the comics but not all the way through and I have watched every episode of the loosely based show but I may have to take the side of the game being the best Walking Dead product out there. That may have something to do with the fact that you are controlling an avatar in this crazy messed up world that Robert Kirkman has created but a large part of it lies on the moral ramifications of the decisions in the game.
Here we are in 2012 and who would have thought that an adventure game would be involved in so much game of the year talk but TellTale really has pushed the boundaries of moral choice and emotional bonding in video games. Lee and Clementine are two characters that I have formed a connection with that I could never have done with the likes of Nathan Drake or Solid Snake even though those characters have taken shots at emotional connections and succeeded with me. Walking Dead is something that can only succeed with the idea of you protecting this little girl who is the best written child character ever put into any kind of video. I could really see a child behind all of her writing. With each episode I found myself in multiple spots where I was literally holding my breathe at the tension happening on the screen. TellTale knew exactly where to hit the emotional beats and something as simple as the phrase “Clementine will remember that” in the last chapter almost brought forth the tears I was choking back and will go down in my memory as the most emotional moment I have ever experience in a game and it was just a line of text!
Walking Dead made me care more for a digital little girl than I have for some people in real life which leaves me perplexed on how season two can turn out to be just as effective but TellTale has crafted a masterpiece and taken on of the oldest styles of games and made it fresh again so I’ll be willing to bet my money on them again and this time I’ll be smart enough to buy the season pass instead of getting the episodes piecemeal. Walking Dead is a game that will stick with me for a long time and has demonstrated some of the best character interaction ever seen in a game and I’m positive that people will be talking about TellTale’s The Walking Dead for a long time.
Coming into The Walking Dead, I had no prior experience with any of Telltale's prior games, and little experience in the adventure genre in general. I had very little attachment to Robert Kirkman's comic series, and the television series as well, so I really had no idea what to expect. My only point of reference for games of this nature was Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain back in 2009, an ambitious, but ultimately flawed game plagued with a poorly written narrative. But while Heavy Rain stumbled upon itself with an unlikable cast filled with plot holes, it was a game that conveyed tension, emotional attachment, player agency. The Walking builds upon those principles and pairs it with a fantastic plot, frugal use of adventure-genre gameplay, and a foreboding sense of fear that haunts the player through 5 brilliant episodes.
The fear created is different from what we normally associate with that emotion. It’s one that can only be created through emotional attachment. As Lee, I constantly felt fear for Clementine, never quite knowing if I was taking the right path to keep her safe from the various vices of a desperate and bleak world. The story becomes quite different from simply being a protector of Clementine, but one where you question the knowledge you impart and how it will impact her in the future. Writers/directors Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin have crafted one of the most fully realized characters in the medium, creating one that evokes a strong emotional connection to the player, no matter which way you decide to play. Lee is likewise an interesting character, with an interesting backstory that conveys a heavily flawed man trying to atone for his sins in his own right. At least, that's how I managed to view my version of Lee, and the beauty of his character is that while he has his own set personality, you can project your own twist on the character through various choices.
The sense of fear throughout each episode creates twists and turns that never let you feel too comfortable. It wasn't until episode 2 where I truly felt that Telltale had managed to accurately convey their vision for the series. At one moment, a peaceful setting can be transformed into a violent and bleak one filled with death and despair. This is a dark story, and zombies are merely a backdrop to the desperate and extreme depths that the characters are willing to go to for survival. The supporting cast reflects this, with characters like Kenny and Ben whose emotional development weighs heavily upon you. Things are always high tension in the group, and when things go south, they happen to be far worse than you could imagine.
It's difficult to explain what makes The Walking Dead so special without actually playing it. Yes, some of the choices may not result in diverging paths on the level of the Witcher 2, but narrative is structured in a way that makes the player reflect on each choice. There isn't really a right or wrong here, only shades of gray. The climatic scene in episode 5 in particular managed to do this in a way that didn't seem forced. It's a moment that's created to make you question everything you've done, and whatever choices you’ve made in the past are spun in a way that makes you have some sort of doubt of your own capabilities. It’s absolutely brilliant, and it executes far better than what was attempted in Heavy Rain or Mass Effect. The ending will have slight differences for most people, rather than big ones like you would expect, and that's totally fine because what you can influence as a player (mainly Clementine) feels substantial and important. It’s a personal story of a small cast of characters, rather than a global conflict, and the story works to that strength by making you feel like you can influence these characters who may or may not survive.
The game has many problems, likely a consequence of budget and an outdated engine. Presentational issues such as missing sound effects and robotic animation stand out. There are some tonal issues in the writing, particularly with Kenny’s character. On the PC I went through some extra legwork to recover my lost saves (a widely reported and unsolved issue), and there were occasional frame rate issues in a game that really shouldn’t have any problems on high end machines. There’s limited replayability due to a plodding pace at times, and no replay can possibly live up to the experience of watching the events play out for the first time. Yet despite those problems I suffered through them because I couldn’t let this story go without experiencing every bit of it. Telltale has managed to perfect the episodic model, creating a game that has stayed in the consciousness of players for most of 2012.
So does The Walking Dead manage to execute on the promise that Heavy Rain started to delve into? Absolutely. At it's heart it is a horror game, but one that manages to create that fear through emotional connection and tension. You'll fear for the safety of these characters from both a physical and mental standpoint. The final scene of the season capitalizes on that fear. It's a fear of disbelief and uncertainty for what will come next. At the same time its a deeply emotional moment, and one that encapsulates everything that Lee and Clementine have experienced. For me, it's one that created an emotional response that can only happen in this medium, and one that wraps up an experience that I feel will be remembered as a high point for storytelling in games.
Like many others here at Darkstation, I’ve been following Telltale Games since the beginning. I was cautiously optimistic for The Walking Dead following a disappointing use of the Jurassic Park license, and now that season one has concluded, I couldn’t be more pleased and impressed by how much the company has learned about storytelling and how to articulate it in powerful ways with a small development team.
When I look back on the first season as a whole, I feel that the middle chapter epitomizes the best and most affecting assets the story has to work with. Like the greatest zombie fiction, the walkers are almost totally window dressing for the human drama between a group of terrified, increasingly desperate survivors. Relationships are strained to their absolute limits in both subtle, protracted moments of strife and swift moments of shocking, brutal violence. Long Road Ahead was the single most distressing episode for me, but the temporary achievement of a long-term goal and profound headway in Clementine’s understanding of a world in ruins made it the most triumphant as well.
Once those amazing moments pass and the original group is all but decimated, though, my interest waned in a marked way. Lee and Clementine were, of course, the linchpins of the story and my central concern throughout The Walking Dead. Once those familiar personalities surrounding the duo were removed from the game, though, I felt as though I was no longer wrapped in a delicate social situation along with the increasing danger of the zombies. Episodes four and five ratchet up the life or death situations in amazing ways, no doubt, but it was always the relationships between the group that really hooked me. I found making decisions was actually easier as the game went on, because I didn’t really care what Omid and Christa - far less developed characters - thought at all. I wasn’t balancing the needs of the group any longer because the group becomes more bland as time goes on.
That change in my attitude as a result of the characters coming and going is a powerful moment in itself, though. The Walking Dead is the rare game that really makes you consider your words and fear the consequences, and that alone makes it one of my favourite games this year and a landmark moment in stories in video games. Although I didn’t enjoy the ending moments as much as some seemed to, it is mostly picking nits. Most every moment was exciting, gripping and scary. Like any great work of fiction, The Walking Dead is not something to be explained second-hand. It needs to be experienced and invested in, and I highly recommend that you do so.
So that wraps up our look back at Season 1 of The Walking Dead. If you haven't already check out Nick's reviews of Episode 5 of The Walking Dead which was posted right along with the release of the final episode.
The owner and editor-in-chief of Darkstation.com. I've been apart of the website since 2002 and purchased the website in 2010. Owning and running Darkstation is a dream come true. I love video games and I love writing and talking about them even more.