Double Fine gets all the praise these days as a Johnny-come-lately adventure game developer, but Telltale Games has been carrying the adventure torch since before it was cool (and after it was cool for the first time). In the time since their rise to fame, they’ve been able to work on some of our favorite franchises and canoodle with some industry heavies, also experimenting with weird, smaller games and different play styles. Adventure games are changing, and they’re doing their best to figure out where to take it next.
The Walking Dead feels like another experiment on how to change the play style of their games, bringing in a much more character-driven story in place of crazy puzzles, like using a u-shaped tube to shatter a bottle. It’s nice for them to stretch their idea muscle, but despite their ambitions, it doesn’t always work- it really feels like a first try from a developer trying to adapt, but stumbling a little on their way. Still, they do enough well that they’re able to overcome some of the shortcomings and help make the game a better experience.
It’s hard to talk about gameplay because there barely is any. Yeah, you do a little pointin’, and, you know, some clickin’, but at some point, it just becomes the weird, unnecessary parts between the story beats. It starts playing out more like an interactive movie than anything, since so much of the adventure game tropes have been stripped down or cast aside. Inventory is basic, there are almost no puzzles, and options of “use” and “look at” are much more context-sensitive. In fact, in the default play mode, interactive items have a giant node on them that just announce “hey, you can use me in some way!” Item prompts only show up over the thing you can use it with, too, which really streamlines everything and speeds up the game. Other adventure games I’ve played could have been 2 hours long, but some of this stuff was so abstract it took twice as long to finish, so this is kind of a welcome change for this game. The action parts are a lot more like Jurassic Park, with a lot of quick-time events and moving the cursor to kill whatever zombie is trying to feast upon your succulent flesh. It’s also difficult to die here, too- a lot of spots actually don’t let the zombies get to you, and others, well, you have to really try in order to get eaten.
The real meat of the game comes from the character interactions, though, to the point where the walking around between story beats almost feels like it’s just getting in the way. Conversations and character interactions are very obviously where they put the most work into the game, with characters reacting to what you’ve done and said. Standard UI even has a little readout at the top that pops up when you’ve done something that other characters will notice. The developers are even trying to make conversations flow better, so if you’re talking with someone, everything you say is on a timer. If you don’t put anything in, it’s like you just stayed silent, but this can also lead to you being nervous about your choice when the timer pops up, even if it’s not something particularly important.
Most of these choices come to a head in very specific moments where the zombies attack and you have to choose who to save. These are also timed, and if you don’t do anything, the game either has a preset condition or just hits a game over screen. I was a little surprised to see that these moments are then tallied up and shown again after you beat the game, because it also reveals which parts are the most important. Seeing as two of those parts have to do with Hershel’s farm, a well known area from comic and show, I wouldn’t be surprised to see you returning to it before the series ends.
After being a little secretive with screens of the game until a few months ago, the reveal of the cel-shaded comic book look was a great announcement. It carries over well- the characters look really good, and the comic style goes a long way to help the game stand out graphically. The characters aren’t overly exaggerated, but there’s still a little bit of cartoonish design to them, and the wide eyes on some of the characters are certainly expressive, even if it seems like an easy attempt to get you to feel closer to the characters.
The problem comes with how it runs. Now, I’m no game designer, so I’m about to say things that are probably way wrong, but I have a hard time understanding why the cut scenes in this game run so poorly. People clip through each other, faces go from well-animated in one shot to weirdly stiff in the next, and the cuts take too long. It’s like the game can’t handle streaming off the hard drive, which interrupts the flow, especially in the more action-oriented parts. When you’re trying to build a frantic mood, but the game’s constantly stuttering and hitching with everything that’s going on, it makes it seem unpolished and rushed, and goes a long way to take you out of the game. I actually had to go back through and rewatch the ending because I wasn’t sure if what happened was a visual hitch or part of the story.
This is also a problem Telltale’s had with a lot of their games. I’m pretty sure that they’ve been working with their same internal development tool (the Telltale Tool), so shouldn’t they finally be getting to the point where they can make it actually run well? And since they dictate where everyone’s going to be in the cutscenes, can’t they go in and make characters clip less and just move little smoother? It may be just the 360 version, but they’ve put out multiple games on this console, too, and it’s a little weird to see that they haven’t yet come to grips with making things run smoothly on the system.
Technical issues aside, I also found some weird things with the writing and choices. I played through the game multiple times, just to check how everyone changes with you, and I was a little disappointed at how little it changes. I know that this game isn’t The Witcher 2, with its huge areas that you don’t see based on your choices, but even when you’re a jerk to people and they don’t trust you, the cut scene still stays the same, with just a few small bits changed, if even that. There’s only one part where it does change, and it was pretty cool. Minor characters were swapped out, and someone wound up being dead who was alive otherwise, and characters even reacted to it in the next scene. It was great, and I wish the rest of the game was like that.
Unfortunately, though, it isn’t. The first choice between two characters is the most egregious example of this, because it doesn’t matter who you choose. Everything happens exactly the same. The same person lives, the same person dies, and the end result is always the same. The biggest reaction you get from it seems to come in the next episode, though, which is something that makes these shortcomings a little hard to really judge- do these things come to a head later and actually matter in another episode? They don’t really here.
Beyond just the character choices, I never felt like the game gave me a chance to actually play how I wanted. It forced me into taking sides at times when I wouldn’t have, and even then, I still couldn’t find a choice that fit for me. It became less a choice of “which would I choose?” and more like “well… what’s the least bad option for me?” Even worse, there’s a situation towards the end of the episode where, instead of giving you a choice, they force you into doing something that even your character doesn’t seem too interested in. I certainly didn’t want to, either, but you don’t have a choice. So much of the game is the illusion of being able to make a difference, but still resulting in the game playing out exactly the same, that it made me wonder why they even bothered. Aside from the aforementioned branch with the switched characters, nothing is ever done like that again. It might not matter too much if you only play through once, but it’s a little disappointing to see that it doesn’t really go very far.
Also, I have to say, zombies. I know they’re working with a license here, but it seems like there’s very little you can do with the undead hordes that can rekindle my interest, and this game didn’t even bother trying. It just played to the old clichés you know. Zombies come out of nowhere, sometimes only appearing when it’s necessary for the story. Someone yells at a person in the distance, who, in the least surprising twist ever, turns out to be a zombie. Lee falls down a lot. I got to hear some of the Telltale people talking about this, and they seemed to think they were cleverly poking fun at the convention- but the game does nothing with it, so it just seems like a return to the usual zombie clichés you’ve come to know and accept.
My list of complaints are saved by the fact that in the midst of clichés and hackneyed choices, there is still some great tension in some spots and a couple of very interesting characters at the core of the story in Lee and Clementine. They have a nice dynamic, and the way he positions himself as her protector is touching, as is the way she chooses to stick by him and defend him. There are some smart bits, showing Clementine inching closer to him or watching him, asking questions about Lee’s past, and her understandable vulnerability at the fact that she currently has no idea where her parents are, and is trusting this stranger with her life. Lee is also smartly realized, and seeing the layers of his character get slowly peeled back is interesting in his own right. Making him a convict is also a great choice, as it adds to the interactions between characters as they realize who he is. While you don’t get enough time to hang out with the other characters to care about them and their fate (making the choices between them difficult just because you don’t care either way), having his emotional core makes a huge difference, and after this first short episode, I already care about the Lee and Clementine, and I really look forward to seeing them develop further.
Despite the fact that you do find yourself in the middle of some pretty overbearing clichés, there’s still a lot that can be milked from what’s going on in story. There’s a particularly great scene when you get to the drug store where you’re arguing over what to do with a potentially bitten person. It’s definitely a scene you’ve seen before, but it’s played well enough that you don’t mind- it’s frantic and seems like it’s about to just blow up at any point, so getting to see that was great. It definitely shows what they were going for with the game, and man, can it be awesome. I know they’re still doing some work for the rest of the season now, and hopefully they can put in more like this, and less of the somewhat and ham-fisted choices.
It’s a little amazing how much a strong emotional core can save a game that has so many other issues. A game like The Walking Dead ultimately lives and dies based on its characters and writing, though, which has always been something that Telltale’s been good at. While it’s a little weaker on average than usual, they’ve also never reached higher highs than they have here. The gameplay is much simpler, but they’ve shown the direction that the series is going, and with the promise shown here, I hope they can deliver the emotional heft that this series needs to survive.