With the rise of first-person shooters and real-time strategy games in the late nineties, adventure games all but disappeared. Starting in 2005, however, Telltale was able to begin reviving the genre by focusing on more episodic gameplay. Using intellectual property with established fan bases (Wallace and Gromit, HomeStar Runner, Back to the Future) Telltale released games of between four and six ‘episodes’, usually about two hours in length each, with releases separated by a month or more. This made their games feel more like shared, cultural events rather than something you can pick up and finish off over the course of a weekend. It also helped that Telltale smartly focused all of their resources on what makes adventure games great – story and dialog. The graphics and animations in your typical Telltale release are consistently below average for their time, but they offer up storylines and characters and well-designed puzzles that you’d be hard-pressed to find outside of smaller independent releases. Though this newfound formula for adventure games proved to be marginally successful, it wasn’t until 2012’s The Walking Dead: The Game that Telltale experienced its first true smash hit.
Unlike so many other adaptations Telltale has made, The Walking Dead is completely stripped of known characters from the successful comic books and television series that preceded it. Herschel and Glenn make quick cameos in the first episode, but from then on the game focuses on an entirely separate band of survivors with their own issues to work through. This approach never would have made sense in something like Back to the Future: The Game, which is so dependent on a player’s familiarity with Doc and Marty and their previous adventures, but works well since The Walking Dead’s strength as an IP is in its setting and tone. The protagonist Lee is first introduced in the back seat of a police car on his way out of Atlanta and into prison just at the start of the spread of the walker infestation, but is freed by a freak accident when the car crashes into a walker in the middle of the road. Lee is able to stumble his way into a nearby neighborhood where he finds an eight-year-old girl named Clementine who’s been fending for herself for several days. From here on out, Lee and Clementine roam Georgia teaming up with survivors and fighting off the walker plague while trying to maintain their sanity.
The gameplay here is also very different from what Telltale has done before. While previous games of theirs were slow affairs focused on puzzle solving and navigating long and windy dialog trees, The Walking Dead plays out more like an interactive movie, almost entirely via cut-scene. The dialog trees here are full of choices and are a bit subtler than the “good” and “evil” options prevalent in so many recent games; it’s not easy to foresee the long-range effects of Lee’s choices. For instance, Lee and his group find a car full of supplies that seems to belong to someone – does he allow his group to raid it and make his friends happy? Or does he do the right things and leave it alone, for seemingly no benefit? Like I said, the outcomes really aren’t obvious. I put my total faith into one friendly survivor, only to witness her to murder an innocent ally and steal my car, never to return.
This was a recurring theme in The Walking Dead – new allies quickly departing before they could gain much real depth or distinguish themselves as individuals; it would be frustrating if it wasn’t so thematically appropriate. One of the scariest parts of the zombie apocalypse is how quickly your closest friend can turn into your worst enemy, either due to walker-bite or through deception. Few characters last more than an episode or two, but obviously Lee and Clementine get the most focus. Because Lee was going to prison for a violent crime, many (including Lee himself) question whether Clementine is really safe with him, or if she would be better off in someone else’s care. But they develop a close and loving relationship over the course of the game and it’s done so well that I couldn’t bring myself to ever make Lee act like an asshole to her, even if I was gleefully messing with everyone else in my camp. They were together from the start and the game is at its strongest when Lee is teaching her how to mature and survive in a hellish environment.
Not everything about The Walking Dead is perfect; the graphics here are markedly improved over anything Telltale has previously released and the game has its own distinct visual style that suits it well, but they still aren’t great. A few of the characters are painted in pretty broad strokes and will spend most of their time bickering with each other, which makes many of Lee’s “important decisions” boil down to which character you want to make happy and which you don’t mind pissing off. And when the game does stop and let Lee roam around on his own it can drag now and then – the challenging puzzles from previous Telltale games have been replaced with simple one-step actions like finding a wrench to bust open a window, or picking up a ladder to build a bridge. Still though, these are small complaints and they won’t make anyone stop playing out of frustration.
Telltale didn’t entirely abandon their adventure gaming roots for The Walking Dead, but the game is served well by including lengthy sections that feel more like an interactive movie than a video game. The game retains the series’ iconic setting but tells an entirely new story, one that seems like the best to come out of any form of Walking Dead media. I’ve balked on adventure game recommendations before as they’re definitely not for everybody, but The Walking Dead’s first season is one that I’d gladly recommend to anyone. Just make sure to play it on a PC – a game like this needs a mouse for proper point-and-clicking.
4.5 Chicks out of 5