I don't think I'm stepping on any toes when I say that video game endings could use some improvement. When reminiscing about my favorite games, I realize most of them have endings that left me unsatisfied. That is probably why my hands were shaking when I started the last episode of Telltale Games' first season of The Walking Dead. After several hours of deep emotional investment, I was afraid of being disappointed. Well rest easy, it turns out I was worrying for nothing.
In "No Time Left" Telltale goes above and beyond my expectations, delivering an emotionally draining conclusion that is half as long as the previous episodes, but twice as engaging.
The Walking Dead made a few mechanical missteps in the past two episodes -- think, "zombie shooting gallery" -- but I am happy to report that those are gone in the finale. The action sequences in "No Time Left" are visceral, but also meaningful. The urgency conveyed by the plot helps out here. In fact, there is one scene that gives protagonist Lee Everett an action hero vibe that I didn't think he had in him.
Adventure game fans will lament a dearth of puzzles in this episode but frankly, puzzle solving has never been The Walking Dead's main strength. The core gameplay is making quick decisions based on an eroding moral code, and emotional attachments you have made with characters over the course of the season. In those regards, Episode 5 delivers in spades.
Having played through all of the previous episodes for a second time a few weeks ago, I was struck by how the characters develop visually. Borders around the character models become more frayed and imperfect leading up to episode 5, as if the artists are so shaken by emotion that they can't keep a grip on their pens. Even with the comic book aesthetics, watching clothing tatter and eyes yellow gives even more weight to the emotions conveyed through the dialog.
"Fun" is really not the word I would use to describe The Walking Dead. I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end of episode 5. A lot.
"No Time Left" perfectly balances the urgency of the situation at hand with contemplation of all the crazy twists and turns we have undergone since the summer. Even with the finality of the plot and a shorter running time, "No Time Left" still has room for characters to develop. My feelings regarding certain characters, which I thought had been cemented after a dozen hours of the zombie apocalypse, were made malleable by some of the events in the episode.
Looking back, there is one scene that didn't quite logically deliver, but it was so well-directed that I didn't notice or care at the time. It is hard for me to delve into how I feel about the plot (and the post-credit teaser) with my "spoiler gloves" still on, but rest assured that The Walking Dead has a conclusion that will leave you satisfied. And real, real sad.
But don't let the countless references to my shed tears scare you. I know video games, for most people, are escapist entertainment. A refuge we retreat to after a long day at school or the office. But it is important for a video game to make us feel this way. Over the course of its first season, The Walking Dead has explored player agency and its relation to guilt and sadness so thoroughly, that I believe it will have a positive ripple effect on games moving forward. If The Walking Dead can successfully execute on its emotional and narrative premise, it creates space for funny games to get funnier, happy games to get happier, and for games overall to get better while exploring new emotional and narrative ground.
So you see, The Walking Dead is not "fun". It is emotional, engaging, and incredible storytelling. But most of all, The Walking Dead is a vital step forward for the medium.
In reviews of past episodes, my praise has always come with a caveat: "If Telltale can keep up this momentum...", "if they can keep raising the stakes in the next episode..."
I'm not going to mince words anymore: The Walking Dead is the best game of 2012.
If you care about video games as an expressive medium, you need to play this game. It's too important to avoid. If you are sick of zombie stories, you need to play this game. If you hate video games and despise the thought of playing one, you need to play this game.
Do you see a pattern emerging here?