I’m really sick of zombies, especially in videogames. It speaks to creative laziness that so many games want you to blow apart hordes of ugly monsters with brain-dead AI. But The Walking Dead games are something else: an adventure game mini-series that understands that survival isn’t about twitchy reflex and shooting monsters in the head, but weighing choices and making tough decisions.
The setup is similar to The Walking Dead comics and TV show, though with different band of survivors. There’s a zombie outbreak in Georgia. Gameplay takes the form of a series of choices and dialogue scenes as you control Lee, a former college professor with a questionable past. There are puzzles and a few action scenes interspersed throughout, but the meat of the game is your decision-making ability.
The developer is Telltale Games, a small-ish studio that specializes in rebooting old adventure game franchises (Monkey Island, Sam and Max) and popular Hollywood properties (Jurassic Park, Back to the Future) and releasing them as episodic downloadable games. Currently, three of The Walking Dead’s five episodes are available.
In the past, I’ve lamented that adventure games give dialogue options that are either too obvious or too obtuse, and rarely, result in meaningful decisions. It’s an inherent issue with the genre: a game needs to be won, and when the most important gameplay element is dialogue, it becomes about saying the right thing at the right time. I understand why this concept is so prevalent; it’s just often times not very fun.
It’s also the reason that I’ve disliked the handful of Telltale’s previous games I’ve played, which have focused more on nostalgia for adventure games than making them relevant again. But The Walking Dead has a couple simple innovations that fix most of my complaints. First, each choice is timed. If you don’t pick a dialogue option within a few seconds, the game interprets your inaction as, well, inaction. To not give an answer is the game’s only true wrong answer. (Update: Sarah Pavis says that at certain moments, silence just “felt right”.) This forces you to sometimes make quick decisions, which may lead to mistakes because you read too quickly or you press the wrong button. This might sound frustrating, but it makes dialogue an active gameplay element. Even small decisions feel tense, and it keeps the pace of the game moving.
The second clever thing the game does is a much broader design philosophy: The Walking Dead strips its decision-making of all morality. Whereas most games have strict dialogue trees with objectively better or worse answers — either ethical or goal-based — all the dialogue in The Walking Dead has a different consequence. The game never judges your decision, since each choice results in a balance of positives and negatives. To make some characters happy, you have to make others upset; saving one person inevitably kills another. The hardest decisions are the subtlest ones: The second episode, for example, opens with your group of survivors arguing about the food rations. There’s not enough food to go around, and you have to decide who gets fed and who doesn’t.
What the game establishes is a sense of meta-morality, one that you impose on yourself. Your connection to each character is not defined by their utility, but by how much you like them (trust me, you’ll get attached). Put simply: you get as much emotional investment out of the game as you put into it. In that way, The Walking Dead has more in common with the open-world sandbox of Minecraft than it does the cooperative survival in Left 4 Dead.
In my playthrough of episode three, one of my favorite characters was killed off in a shocking moment of swift brutality. I screamed at my television — out of anger, out of grief. I thought back to what decisions I had made, and if there was anything I could’ve said that would have saved her. Imagine the moment Aeris dies in Final Fantasy VII, only you’re wondering if there was anything you could’ve done to avoid it.
The Walking Dead games have been recognized for “great survival storytelling.” The voice acting is strong (fun fact: Lee is voiced by the Hulu guy), but otherwise, there’s not a single original thing about the writing. In fact, if you’ve ever read Robert Kirkman’s mediocre The Walking Dead comics or its stupefyingly melodramatic TV adaptation, it’s clear that there’s not much that’s compelling about the story. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead illustrates how interaction can elevate an all-too familiar setting into a unique, affecting experience. The story may not be original, but the storytelling can be.