In one way The Walking Dead, a five part episodic adventure based on the zombie comic series of the same name, may be the simplest title I've played all year. Yet it's also the game that caused me to reexamine my own beliefs, and question my decisions, as the best fiction does. No other game, aside perhaps from Mass Effect 3, has managed to resonate so powerfully with me this year.
EA's sci-fi opus however, took a generation for its choice-driven narrative to pay off, and individual entries in the trilogy spread decision fallout thin across their thirty hour plus frames. There was time to digest before the next twist, game length letting questions grow as to what, and when, influences started to push us down certain paths.
Walking Dead achieves that over six hours. You're slamming into the next shock while you're still trying to make sense of the implications of the previous one. There's never chance to breathe. It's a car crash you can't stop returning to to see what new horrors are lurking in the wreckage. A game in which story, rather than mechanics, are the undead heart of the experience.
If this were a novel, it'd have "gripping page turner" slapped on the cover. As it is, it's a point and click (or touch, if you're on tablet) story that the phrase "played to dawn" proves true rather than cliche.
This is an alternative story to the ongoing comic series The Walking Dead (a loose series adaptation of which is being televised and is currently on its third season). A true mainstream phenomenon, the original comics focus on the modern day post-zombie apocalypse, concentrating on a small band of survivors.
The comic series has been running nine years now, tracking ex-police officer Rick Grimes as he escapes Atlanta and his ongoing journey across this new Undead States of America. Co-creator Robert Kirkman, in the introduction of the first collection Days Gone Bye, stated his intention for the book. Something that still holds true to the series today:
"Good zombie movies show us how messed up we are, they make us question our station in society, and our society's station in the world...I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events change them...[you're] going to see Rick change and mature to the point that when you look back on this book you won't even recognise him."
That intent echoes throughout Telltale Games' The Walking Dead. The studio who made warm-hearted adventure games out of Sam & Max, Wallace & Gromit and Monkey Island, have delivered one of the hardest hitting stories published in the gaming medium.
Don't let the cartoonish hue, a visual style carried over from previous games, fool. The tale of Lee Everett, another survivor on a parallel course as Rick, trying to form a plan of survival as other individuals enter and leave his life, is pure mature package. Misery, pain and violence are mainstays. Horrible things happen, and there are sights that'll churn your stomach.
Yet this isn't nihilistic or straightforward snuff. Perhaps horribly so, there's hope laced throughout the story, if you should choose to inject it in the numerous conversations that make up the majority of the game's running time.
The title's five episodes are big on talk. The multi-branched dialogue is the bulkiest mechanic the game's got, the roots of which are mainly dug in out of sight. Environment interactions by way of iconised objects are surprisingly low, but numbered right given the smaller locations you find yourself in.
Puzzles are relatively obvious. Point and click adventures have been known for the ludicrous solutions to their puzzles in the past. Here, given the grounding (undead aside) in real world settings and situations, resolution comes swiftly, yet not without satisfaction.
In retrospect, it's all much too obvious. Combing intimate locales means you've likely got all the puzzle pieces before hitting the puzzle itself, and then its just one stop to pressing the right button.
Yet tension and story heighten everything, and give rise to some great examples. Like working out a path around a zombie-filled parking lot, in order to down the undead one at a time without being noticed. Or using moving cover to dodge being shot, avoid an electrified fence and escaping crawling zombies all at the same time. Even switching between shotgunning oncoming hordes and yanking your leg out of a smashed stairwell elicits a rapid fire litany of "oh shit oh shit" usually reserved for the cinema or the seconds before a bad crash.
Gameplay splits between timed button prompts and direct control to shoot weapons.
Fast reactions are needed with many puzzles, given you're under duress either to stay silent and avoid attracting zombies, or needing a quick escape from chomping teeth and grabbing hands. Direct control gameplay, first-person shooting with salvaged guns, rifles, are set-piece driven and short in time and number (though too twitchy in response to make for smooth COD-style head-shots). The episodes are a small smattering of these repeating mechanics, tweaked come each episode, but entirely gripping as you're always mere seconds from death.
Tackling zombies is hard enough, but the episodes stick close to the credo of the comics - the biggest horrors come from those living, and what we're willing to do to survive. Though arguably it doesn't descend into the horrid areas its source material does (which has had nine years to plunge the darkest depths of the human souls), the need for a complete story arc, which the game offers, and a clearer indication of the differing greys asked of you, means the choice between depravity or the illusion of retaining humanity is an ever-continuing battle.
A completed story arc also gives the game something that even the source material hasn't had to tackle: a definite ending. A sense of conclusion.
Walking Dead doesn't rush towards that. Neither does it frame it obviously; there's plenty of fake trails on the way. Though there is a problem that if you're a regular reader of the comic, or saturated yourself in zombie movies these past couple of decades, that you can second guess certain plot devices that'll arise. But while the episodes do filch the occasional idea from the comics, it dots them throughout the entire season, and makes use of them when it makes sense to Lee's story, rather than for easy cliff-hangers or set pieces.
And the voice-acting, script, facial work are strong enough that you'll be captivated wrestling with the current dilemma more than trying to outsmart the game's writers as to the finale. A hefty number of conversation choices run on a timer, and none are clear-cut.
There's a few discordant scenes - mainly involving your closest ally Kenny - that show there's not the quiet subtlety necessary to make you believe his change of decisions at times. (From a bitter "fuck you buddy" to quiet "sure thing pal" in an undead heartbeat), and there's a particular story thread that pulls the sense of belief near taut.
But strengths outweigh weaknesses here: the sickening sense of questioning friendly invitations for shelter, the sudden paranoia of a potential traitor in your midst, a life-altering decision that could mean a viable rescue of a loved one, and the quiet thunder in the denouement to all your sins.
I'm being purposely vague. I haven't even mentioned the most important element of the story, the one that'll drive you to sickening feats while simultaneously causing you to question your role, what you represent.
The great thing is, once you've committed to your choices, you're locked in. Sure, there's a Rewind feature in each episode's main menu, but this pushes you back to the start of each one's individual chapters. Enough of a retread needed to ward off the idea of a quick-fix reload. You question your conviction, or you reenforce it. Yet everybody knows life isn't as clear cut as that.
Post-episode statistic breakdowns show key decisions, and how the rest of the world's players decided. Post-game charts divide up those you've encountered and your choices towards them - blank spaces suggesting there's much more variety to the story branches than you think.
Repeat play throughs will emphasise how basic most of the gameplay mechanics are. Your mind, rather than your heart, will rule decisions as you approach the game analytically rather than emotionally, coldly testing out those options that weren't your gut instinct first time through. The Walking Dead's not the perfect game, but that first play through is a beast. Something to chew on. To ponder.
Because while good fiction has us question the writers, great fiction has us questioning ourselves.
You'll try to burn through this in one sitting. Don't. As with any great TV or novel, spacing it out over multiple evenings will give you time to digest everything that's important.
And to miss this game is to miss something important. Even if you don't want to get into deep discussion about what impact this could have on the medium, just know you'll be missing out on a great story - or having it spoilt before you can experience it yourself.
How important is story to me? Enough to catch my breath in my throat. Enough to bring me near to tears. And enough that I'm still heartbroken that my last act was to be honest rather than lie reassurances and hold someone dear close one last time.
The full five-episode season of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead is available to download on PSN, Xbox Live, Steam and Apple's App Store.