Telltale Games have been trying for the better part of a decade to make people care about adventure games again - a genre that dominated PC gaming in the early nineties. They've been trying and trying and trying, banging their episodic, digital distribution drum and managing to make ends meet with Sam & Max, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park and Monkey Island - but now, with The Walking Dead, we care again.
Now, with The Walking Dead, they have a blockbuster that's been getting Game of the Year nods.
Why? Does The Walking Dead solve some major problems in the adventure genre which were previously left un-addressed?
No. If anything, its adherence to classic mechanics is a bit rigid. It's a... capable modern reflection of a classic genre, nowhere near approaching the mechanical complexity and ambition of the profoundly flawed Heavy Rain.
It's a... simple game.
Is it just the zombies? Is it because gamers love anything with zombies in it?
Well, no. Look at Amy. Heck, look at Resident Evil 6. It's not just zombies, or its popular licensed property.
Y'know what it is?
We love Telltale's The Walking Dead - and I love Telltale's The Walking Dead - because they did one hell of a job with the story of a man named Lee and a girl named Clementine.
And that's it. You will fall in love with these two, and you will care about their trials and tribulations. You'll feel the weight of responsibility on Lee's shoulders as he does his best to care for Clem and guide her, you'll feel his fear when she is threatened, and you'll feel like the biggest asshole in the world if you make her cry.
You'll also feel like a fucking superstar when you hand her back her lost hat for what feels like the millionth time. When she shrieks and you save her. When she looks up at you, and offers that trusting smile.
The ancillary cast varies from good enough to very well-written, well-rounded characters, but Lee and Clem are two of the most endearing, absorbing, well-realized characters of 2012. Max Payne? Very good. Mass Effect? Well damn, Jennifer Hale knocked that out of the park, but...
The character designs are wonderful. The writing is smooth and heartfelt and familiar - but it's the performances by Dave Fennoy and particularly Melissa Hutchinson that are just staggering.
|I'll never get tired of that smile.|
The game follows Lee, Clem and their group of survivors in the months following the zombie apocalypse in the southern U.S. (Georgia - because it's The Walking Dead.) Every episode has (at least) one gut-punch moment, every episode has high warbles of hope, and every episode has its tragedy - except Episode 4, come to think of it, which is very much Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One. It mainly serves as a set-up to the final episode - but that final episode...
In terms of effectively telling its story. In terms of involving the player, of winding them up and letting them cool off before winding them up again, TWD may be a masterpiece - and certainly puts the aforementioned Heavy Rain in its place.
It dances around the player like a prize fighter, weakening us with body blows. Horror. (Whup!) Tragedy. (Whap.) Horrotragedy. (Crack.)
And then, in Episode 4, it backs off. It lets you catch your breath. It sets up Episode 5.
And then it lets itself off the chain. It already has you on the ropes, but in its final act The Walking Dead throws out one final blow carried with such force and such power that it... feels very new. And very pure. And unencumbered by irony or a winking cleverness that allows the player to view its profound emotion from a safe distance. We're not at a distance. We're not safe. We're in there.
We love Clem. We love Lee. And when this game lets itself off the chain, we're helpless against it. It takes us to places no game in recent memory has managed, and does it with grace. And nobility.
And I can't think of anything it could have done to make it better.
Now, before you fall over yourself in a rush to finally try out this game people have been talking about all year, a word of warning;
This is an adventure game. Not an action-adventure or a platforming-adventure. This is a classic, point-and-click adventure game with a pace that shambles with a zombie's gait, particularly to gamers regularly steeped in action fare.
This is a game where you (repeatedly) slowly wander around a small area - you can't run - interacting with objects, solving puzzles, talking to people and forming relationships that actually have zero impact on major story events.
|By the end of the game, Lee feels like a legend in the making.|
Occasionally there's an attack by a small zombie horde and you may have to use some fancy stick-work to get your interaction reticle where it needs to be in order to bash a zombie in the head, but that's it. That's as intense as the gameplay gets - and perhaps that's why, when Telltale was quietly working on adventure games for the past eight years, very few people actually gave a shit.
The mechanics of it are acceptable at best and tedious at worst, but here - in this case - the emotional resonance of its story is not.
Its story is wholly absorbing, its characters deeply endearing, and its ancient design - smoothed though it may be with a few modern tropes - is merely the method the player uses to experience and dictate more of the narrative we care so much about.
It's hard to care about - or hate on - the gameplay, when the emotional experience that gameplay allows access to is so... profound.
Telltale's The Walking Dead may well prove to be the game that revitalizes the adventure genre, and may well be the game that proves episodic format successful, but I can't suggest it's for everyone.
It requires a large degree of patience on the part of the player. It demands we look beyond its simple, old-school, deeply action-averse gameplay, its moderately boxy models and pretty-decent-but-not-great facial animations, and allow ourselves to suspend disbelief and become absorbed in its world, its characters and its story.
Once you get there, though... once Clem and Lee have their hooks in you, they will take you on a ride of the heart you won't soon forget.