Friday, December 28, 2012

Ten Best of 2012: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is a harrowingly beautiful, emotionally intense game. It evokes the spirit of its source material (the comic series, not the television show) through its art style, writing, and characters. Lee Everett is probably the best use-case for a potentially silent protagonist, offering interesting options whether responses are moral, amoral, or non-existent. The cast of characters offer enough variation there is always someone among the group to like. The relationship between Lee and Clementine is one of protection and security, driving players to care enough that they’ll do things they otherwise wouldn’t to defend Clementine and keep her safe.

That all said, The Walking Dead fails to deliver in the end. It’s like a basketball player who brings the ball down the court, dribbling between his legs and breaking ankles as he crosses over defenders, only to go to the basket and throw up an air ball. The first episode set the pace and expectation of what the season would hold, while the second episode explored a classic horror trope that, sadly, ended up being as predictable as expected. The third episode felt relentless, bashing players over the head with despair and grief every few minutes without time to breath. The end of the third episode set up the interesting question of who was on the other end of the walkie-talkie, but it ultimately fell downhill from there.

Episode four felt like filler, pushing off the main narrative until the last possible moment, at which point, in episode five, Telltale seems to scrap the plot and just end everything. The boat the group was so keen on finding and setting sail into the ocean? That other group stole it, but we’re not going to try to get it back since they probably needed it more than use. The guy who kidnapped Clementine did it because Lee stole from the abandoned car, except in my game he didn’t, so what motivation does he have for hating Lee? None.

This leads me to my final point, the illusion of choice The Walking Dead weaves so elegantly. Each episode opens with the words, “This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.” But in reality, it doesn’t. There are no branching storylines, no way to change your path. There’s no meaningful different whether you choose to save Doug or Carley in the first episode. They will die at the hands of Lilly in episode three regardless. Distributing food out in a certain way at the motel might make one or two characters look at Lee with a smile, but it bears no weight on who lives or dies. Hell, you can choose to try to revive Larry in the meat locker, but Kenny will kill him anyways whether you agreed to it or not.

Telltale tries to dissuade the player from noticing these instances by giving small text cues on the screen that characters will remember your actions. But when those characters are dead, does it matter? I’m still confident in my assessment of calling it a role-playing adventure game, but after lifting the veil, it’ll be hard to capture the same air of subversion for the second season of The Walking Dead.

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