I subsisted, largely, on handheld gaming during our travels last year. Thanks to the PS Vita, this wasn’t too much of a hardship. I was, however, looking forward to catching up on some console games, specifically The Walking Dead video game episodes that had been collected onto one disc last month (they were previously available as downloads on PS3, XBox, and mobile devices). It’s been touted as one of, if not the, best games of the year and rightly so, because it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played and reveals the heights to which video games can go as an emotional, narrative medium that exercises gamers’ moral and ethical faculties.
The video game episodes take place in the post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world that Robert Kirkman et al first created in comic book form but that has since exploded in pop culture consciousness thanks to AMC’s television adaptation of them. The narrative for Tell Tale Games’ creation is completely fresh, with new characters, events, and locations, even though it intersects with one major character from the books and television series and takes place entirely in Georgia. Players take control of Lee Everett, a college professor, who, in a fit of rage, killed his wife’s lover. We meet Lee as he is being transported to prison just as the zombie infestation gets out of control. The patrol car wrecks, and he escapes, setting out on a journey influenced by the players’ choices. While he develops relationships with a band of survivors, his main concern is for Clementine, a young girl left alone at the outbreak (her parents are away in Savannah and her babysitter just seems to have disappeared). Other members want to head to Savannah as well so Lee basically agrees to protect Clementine and help her find her parents.
The Walking Dead‘s gameplay mechanisms recall Heavy Rain but they utilize them so much better. For the most part, you are prompted to press a corresponding series of buttons for action sequences or to select dialogue options that drive the narrative forward or to investigate your surroundings to complete minor tasks. This is a dialogue driven game and there’s a whole lot of watching going on, which is perfectly fine if you’re a fan of the franchise since the writing is on par (for the most part) with its predecessors.
The game’s visual style makes it seem as if Kirkman’s comics have quite simply come to life. The designers eschew real-life graphics for a more hand drawn aesthetic, which does not detract from the gravity of the situation but rather enhances the emotions of many of the games’ key scenes. The voice acting is just superb and is a key element in drawing players’ further into the game world.
While there’s really only one end to the narrative, don’t let this make you feel that your ability to choose is an illusory power. Unlike Heavy Rain, there’s a more palpable sense that your choices are influencing the story from one moment to the next. The creators even draw your choices out across episodes, which must have been a cool experience for players who downloaded the individual episodes. The major strength of The Walking Dead is the way in which the writers repeatedly put you in numerous difficult positions. Frequently, there are no right or wrong or easy choices (whether deciding who lives and who dies or how you respond to an angry character). You essentially choose the lesser of two evils. At other times, there are no choices that won’t result in you alienating multiple members of your “team,” which can be quite maddening. I found myself wondering how I would proceed were I caught in this same zombie wasteland. Unfortunately, there’s a time limit to your ability to choose, which often is not long enough. On the other hand, this most likely mirrors real life decisions that more often than not require snap judgments.
The Walking Dead isn’t perfect. It suffers from loads of lags and glitches, which have been analyzed elsewhere. But as far as a gaming experience, especially for those of us who like a little moral/ethical meat to our gaming, it has few, if any, equals. If you’ve got the time, it demands repeated playing, which can help you see how you feel about your decisions the first time through. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be second guessing even after the final credits roll.
The Walking Dead is available as a series of downloadable episodes or compiled on a disc for PS3 and/or XBox.