Whether you love or hate the original series, Telltale's Walking Dead game is a certified gem. Not to be confused with Survival Instinct, the recent, sub-par FPS from Activision, Telltale's offering has been almost unanimously praised since its episodic release last year. Now, get ready for a new wave of acclaim to sweep across the land in the wake of the recent console release, containing all five episodes in one pack.
In the Telltale tradition, this Walking Dead is a point-and-click adventure game, heavy with not-as-bad-as-people-say QuickTime Events, and featuring a strong narrative drive. It's not as puzzle-focused as Back to the Future, and not as QTE-soaked as Jurassic Park. It's far darker, and more engaging, than both.
That engagement is almost entirely a result of the story. It opens moments before the world turns upside down: You find yourself as Lee Everett, riding in the back of a cop car for a crime we don't (yet) know. But when a “weirdly confused man” (we all know what that means) wanders across the highway in front of them, the car ends up totalled, in the forest. Lee hasn't escaped his fate; he's just stumbled into a different, arguably worse one.
After encountering some Walkers – including the officer driving the car – Lee seeks help in a nearby town. There he discovers Clementine, an eight year old girl now orphaned. She has coped with the rapidly-declining situation by hiding, but it's obvious that won't work forever. Lee takes her into his care, and the two meet other survivors who take them to the relative safety of Greene's farm.
From there it becomes somewhat of a road trip story. Characters join the group, fight with each other, leave, or die, depending on Lee's interactions with them. You'll make a lot of difficult choices throughout, with serious consequences that aren't always expected or “fair”. That's one of the game's greatest storytelling strengths: We're used to games being very black and white when it comes to morality – do you want to be Super Jesus or Hitler's evil cousin? – but The Walking Dead's choices allow good intentions to have negative results. A single “correct” option rarely exists, and is never obvious.
The constant theme of good not always prevailing does a fantastic job of building an ominous atmosphere. There are times when everything feels helpless, but you carry on. After all, you have to protect Clementine.
Like pretty much all players I've spoken to, I came to care for her more than any other video game character I've encountered. Her relationship with Lee, and by extension the player, is the central driving force, and it works beautifully.
Attachments to the game's characters develop naturally, and you'll find yourself with your own favourites. And as fun as it is to let yourself get close to them, well... prepare your heart for some breaking.
You'll have regrets. As the group's unofficial leader, you will alienate characters you like, and find yourself supporting some you don't. You'll deal with the emotions of your companions and yourself. The Walking Dead is only the second video game to make me cry.
It's also the first to make me passionately HATE a character because of what they've done, while feeling strangely sympathetic to them at the same time. It's complicated, and I love that the game can evoke that. It really is the most emotionally mature game that I've ever cried and dreaded my way through.
The narrative follows a limited branching structure, which some players have criticised for reducing the impact of your choices. I see it another way: it's impractical for a game to accommodate wildly different outcomes for every minor decision each player makes. Instead, they alter the context of events, and serve to create your own individual perception of Lee and the other characters.
Further, the pervasive illusion that your choices really do matter is itself a reward. The belief that you could change things – because in many cases, you can – increases your engagement with the characters and story. When you think back on past decisions and wonder what else might have been, you never actually know if you could have done better. Maybe it would have turned out the same. Or worse.
But a lot of people miss that. It's not uncommon for this kind of experience to be reduced to the “it's not even a game!” argument. It may not be a challenge of skill, but it's a challenge of belief and character: what would you do in these situations? Who cares about definitions, it's a deeply entertaining interactive experience, regardless.
Examined in gameplay terms, The Walking Dead still stands pretty well. Telltale's track record for solid adventure games shines through the darker source material. Puzzles are a staple, with just the right degree of frequency and challenge. But while solutions are generally logical, clues are sometimes misleadingly presented, resulting in the occasional frustrating moment.
QuickTime Events get a bad rep, but The Walking Dead shows how they can be used well. The constant “threat” of a QTE appearing during what looks like a cutscene keeps the player on their guard, making them more attentive to what's happening. They aren't always the most fun part of games, but they can become interesting devices to increase engagement.
The new control scheme for consoles is intuitive enough, but the simplicity of point-and-click has been replaced by an awkwardly-manoeuvre-the-thumbstick-in-the-general-area style. It's not a deal-breaker, but I felt more at home with the ol' keyboard/mouse combo.
On the other hand, the console version seems to have fixed the save file issues that plagued PC players. I, like many others, lost progress between episodes on PC, but I haven't heard of that happening on other platforms.
The presentation suffers slightly as well, with instances of screen tearing. Again, it isn't too serious a problem, but highlights the PC version as perhaps the stronger platform.
Minor issues aside, The Walking Dead is a sublime, emotional experience. It's interactive narrative done right, presenting some of the most engaging stories and compelling characters the medium has ever offered. Unlike most licensed properties, it even manages to transcend the quality of the comics and television series on which it's based.
A gamer since the days of Lemmings and Wolfenstein, and a writer since Scamper the mouse in Grade Three, my two passions only met after a freak accident left them surgically inseparable. Follow @MikeIrvo.