The Walking Dead is a comic book series about the survivors of a zombie-apocalypse. While the shambling, hungry corpses loom as an ever-present threat, the series is really more about the behavior of people in a desperate situation. (Note that the title possibly refers to the survivors rather than the zombies.) The comic has been adapted for television and is now also a point-and-click adventure game which is being released in five installments, each part taking a couple of hours to play through, together forming a ‘season’. So far, three of the five chapters have been released and this review is based on those chapters. The fourth chapter is being released for PC the day I post this.
While the comic and the television series focus on the story of former policeman Rick Grimes, his young son and the people he encounters, the game serves as a spin-off prequel to both. One of the characters that will go on to appear in both the comic and television series pops up before heading off to his twofold fates, but the lead is new: Lee Everett. He was on his way to prison when the world went mad, gets liberated because of it and soon stumbles onto an abandoned little girl (Clementine) he feels compelled to protect. Like Rick Grimes, he becomes part of a group with more than its share of power struggles and infighting, while taking care of a kid. He finds himself continuously having to take sides and make life-or-death decisions. Who does he pick when he can only recue one out of two people? When he spots a woman too far off to save, being attacked by zombies, does he let her die screaming to keep drawing attention to herself and away from him as he gathers vital supplies for his group? Or does he mercifully shoot her, which would draw the zombie-mob his way?
More than anything, The Walking Dead in its game incarnation is about interactive storytelling. There generally isn’t an obviously right or wrong solution to the morally muddy questions it asks and no matter what option you go for, you’re likely to piss off someone in your group. This isn’t necessarily something new and has been seen in games like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. But unlike in those games, where the dialogue and interaction between characters serves as an enticing backdrop to the action-packed meat of the experience, here the story is the main course. Sure, there are some bursts of action to keep you on your toes and there is the occasional traditional point-and-click problem-solving along the lines of ‘find this item and then use it on this person or thing to move the plot along’. But it’s all in service of the tale being skillfully told: it looks like a well-drawn, gritty graphic novel, the people Lee encounters are interesting and are always a bit more complex than they seem at first glance and the voice-acting is great. The combined effect is that you feel involved as you make your choices and see the sometimes unpredictable consequences. You care about the members of your little group. While kids can easily grate if written wrong, Clementine does make you want to keep her alive at all costs. And when the game makes you pick between two likeable people, knowing the other person will die, it hurts.
A very effective gameplay mechanic, which is a new one as far as I know, is that you only have a limited time to pick a reaction/response from the up to four options you get when having to make a decision. How much time you are given exactly, is contextual. If you are asked for your opinion in the middle of a discussion, you don’t have forever, but longer than when you have to convince someone to jump off a bridge onto a fast-moving vehicle. This forces you to be fairly spontaneous and in-the-moment, making your responses more honest: you tend to go with how you think you would really react under the given circumstances. This way, I discovered I would likely be very diplomatic, protective, suspicious and mostly very moral, though occasionally giving priority to pragmatism. And I did kill someone I didn’t technically need to. But he was a very, very bad man. The speed at which you have to read and respond make this game unsuitable for people with dyslexia and you are likely to accidentally select an unintended response once or twice. If you feel really annoyed about that, thankfully you can ‘rewind’ to the beginning of the chapter you messed up and set things right. Or as right as they get in the The Walking Dead universe, which is fuelled by hope, but dotted with the violent deaths of people who don’t deserve such a fate.
Speaking of gameplay issues: I have heard grumblings about them and the technical performance on various platforms, the iPad version being especially choppy, but my PC version was mostly fine apart from one memorable occasion on which I got eviscerated by a zombie for about ten times in a row because it was unclear which contextual button I was supposed to press in the second or two allotted to me. It ultimately is just a minor annoyance though and it won’t ruin the game for you.
The makers of the game claim that by the end of the five-part ‘season’ players will have much- different sets of survivors and allegiances. Much as I am enjoying the game, I unfortunately have to call shenanigans on this. Playing is engrossing and as addictive as reading a great book, making it hard to stop because you want to know what happens next. But the further you get into the story, the clearer it becomes that a lot of your choices don’t really matter in the long run. Circumstances beyond your control wipe the slate clean partly and invalidate a lot of your earlier hand-wringing. It makes perfect sense that the writers can’t let the plot get away from them and evolve into entirely separate stories, so like in Mass Effect they find ways to lead the various narrative paths back to the same seemingly fated main events. Different characters may fulfill the same roles and scenes may play out differently but have the same outcome. The flavoring is different, but it’s mostly the same dish. One day, someone will hopefully succeed in the nigh-impossible task of combining very tight storytelling with giving the player a lot of freedom, but The Walking Dead doesn’t quite crack that nut.
Due to the big success of the game version of The Walking Dead, a second ‘season’ has already been announced and I have mixed feelings about this. Though the franchise was always conceived as a zombie movie that doesn’t end, this makes it seems likely they will kill off all but one or two of the current cast in the end to have players start in the exact same place in season two, all previous decisions null-and-void. Then again, they may have an open ending, leave this group to their unknown destiny and jump to a fresh set of characters. Either way, despite not quite making good on the promise of wildly diverging paths, I am hooked and will be there to see where it all leads.