The Walking Dead game is better than the TV show, not as good as the comic
The Walking Dead
I read the first 30 or so issues of The Walking Dead comic book over the course of a single night. I then felt like I needed to watch Requiem for a Dream in order to cheer myself up. The comic can be overwhelmingly bleak, and has become known for the fact that no character is safe. Terrible things happen to everyone, and there is often a jaw-dropping moment of violence every few pages. The comic isn’t just depressing, it’s demoralizing, and it crossed quite a few lines that surprised me. I can’t promise that you’ll have a good time if you pick up a few trades and dive in, but it’s certainly an unblinking look at what might happen after zombies take over the world.
I had the pleasure of meeting Robert Kirkman once, during a transaction where I traded a review copy of Super Mario Galaxy 2 for a number of signed books for Child’s Play. I told him The Walking Dead is often hard to read. “It’s hard to write!” he said, in mock exasperation.
The television show did a wonderful job of preserving that vision, at least for the first episode. We can only hope the first episode of the game is a sign of things to come, and not an early high point; after the tepid Jurassic Park game, TellTall seems to have returned to form with The Walking Dead.
The game employs a number of setups and characters that have been beaten into the ground in the last decade, such as the gruff man with violence in his past and the little girl who has seen too much but must be brave, but at least The Walking Dead does a few interesting things with each one. The scariest scene takes place inside a suburban house as you try to figure out what is going on, and the smaller details help with the world building. One of the most effective moments in the game, your character slips and falls after finding an unexpected puddle of blood. Then you’re listening to answering machine messages from a couple hoping their daughter is safe. There are one or two moments where the zombies pop out at you, but those cheap thrills are surpassed by the moments the game slowly increases the tension between the characters and their environment.
That’s why zombie fiction is so interesting in film, novels, and comics, but can be so bland in video games. Most games with zombies turn into blood-drenched escapism where your only job is to kill as many of the undead as possible, but the real drama of the situation happens between people as they’re forced to fight for their lives against both the zombie threat and each other. The second episode of the game looks like it will explore what happens when you’re in a relatively safe place but can’t venture out and find food, and this drives home the fact that the biggest threat during the zombie apocalypse aren’t the shambling corpses outside, but the fallible human beings standing around you.
This is the sort of thing that can be explored very well in an adventure game, but isn’t suited to first-person shooters or third-person action games. Left 4 Dead was tense and scary, and Dead Rising was disturbing but often goofy, but the Walking Dead game is by far the most human look we’ve had at zombies in the world of video games. There is very little here that’s new, but almost all of it is done well, and the art style mixes stylized comic book graphics with the gore.
Don’t worry, there is action when it’s appropriate, and you’ll scramble with your mouse a few times. However, these moments are few in the first episode and help the pacing rather than hinder it. The episode’s standout scene takes place in the parking lot of a motel as you try to rescue another survivor, and you and your friends must skulk around the environment without alerting the dead around you. You have a gun, but the shot would just draw more walkers. So what do you do? The puzzles make sense in the game’s world, even if they’re pretty much by the book, and the violence is appropriately bloody.
The game gives you a number of somewhat arbitrary choices to make during this episode, and you’re never given much feedback about whether one is right or wrong. You can’t save everyone, and it’s unclear what some of these decisions will mean until the other episodes come out, but this is a refreshing change from most games where you’re given one solution that makes you a good guy, and another that clearly makes you a bad guy. You’re just a guy in The Walking Dead, and you won’t be able to rescue everybody. What that means for the future is unknown, but this is a promising start to a grayer experience than we get from most games with branching paths.
Then again, remember how well the first episode of the television show ended up being versus the rest of the two available seasons? This has me hopeful, but skeptical.