Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Review: The Walking Dead Game: Season One

I have never before covered video games on this site - my friend Tanju has, in his article on Mass Effect, but I never went there. While the medium of games is both an exciting and innovative one, I have never been anywhere near the forefront - aside from Minecraft, I tended to play PC Games from the early 00's. This Christmas I finally gave in and downloaded Steam, and with that came a few steps closer - finally playing games like Skyrim that I'd only ever seen Let's Plays of. Among these games was one of my favourite games to watch - The Walking Dead Game by Telltale Games, a point-and-click-ish interactive story set in the universe of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. (The comics, not the TV Show. Which I will talk about, I promise.)
http://i.kinja-img.com/gawker-media/image/upload/s--iu-WzRpm--/814467108483821347.jpg     Unlike the vast majority of mainstream games on the market, The Walking Dead Game (hereafter The Walking Dead) and other games from Telltale Games embrace a story-heavy structure, with player interactivity restricted either to the performance of specific actions to progress the plot, or in decisions which alter the protagonists' relationships with other characters but not the overall progress of the plot. In this respect, The Walking Dead is the perfect game for me to look at - a game which pioneers the trend in the blending of cinema and gaming, and which does so fairly competently at that. I watched both seasons of the game on the internet show Video Games Awesome, a show which I've watched for a number of years, and I found the first season as entertaining to watch as it was to play, even if the latter experience came with a great deal more tension. Spoilers follow.
     You're convicted murderer Lee Everett, and you're on your way to a Georgia prison when you have a car accident. Upon waking you find yourself in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, and, meeting a little girl named Clementine you find yourself her protector. You meet with redneck Kenny and his family, eventually making your way to your family's chemist store in Macon where you meet with another small group of survivors. The group settles in at a Motor-Inn. Following a trip to a local dairy with more than milk on the menu, the group unintentionally angers a group of local bandits and they're forced to move on, with Kenny focusing on his plan to head to coastal city Savannah and find a boat - the same place Clementine's parents were last seen. You arrive in Savannah to find it ransacked and no boats to be found - what's more, Clementine is eventually kidnapped and you get bitten on your way to find her. You rescue Clementine and she helps you inside a small enclosure as Savannah is horded by zombies - and the season ends as you either succumb to your wound, or have Clementine shoot you.
     That final moment is a heart-wrenching one for a single reason - the relationship between Lee and Clementine. No matter how much of an ass the player makes Lee, he and Clementine end up developing a strong bond, and the writing and voice-acting for these two characters makes their relationship a very appealing part of the story. This really started the trend which was later followed by Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us of the male protagonist and the young(er) girl that he protects, and who actually affects gameplay. Here, Clementine is written as a realistic little girl, and it's so expected that the player will grow to love the character that the vast majority of the plot is aimed at finding and saving her. If the player so chooses, Lee can eventually have Clementine dispatch the season's villain, and in a compulsory scene he guides her through killing a Walker and protecting herself.
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Lee and Clementine's relationship forms the backbone
of the story.
     While the relationship between Lee and Clementine doesn't change, this isn't the same for other characters. The game sets up dichotomous views between characters and has Lee either side with one of them or ignore them, and any decision affects the way that characters will respond to Lee down the line (should they live that far.) Sometimes this affects characterisation - Kenny still bears a grudge on Lee in Episode Four should he not side with him on a particular issue in Episode One - but most of the time it makes the game feel like a more fluid and realistic experience. Sometimes there are issues with the choices' ambiguity - the choices themselves are usually three or four one-line options which you get a limited time to assess, and each often makes Lee say things contradictory to the intention of that option. (This would be abused by the writers in Season 2.)
     Sometimes the choices take more drastic changes to the plot than character relationships and contexts, with individual characters living or dying depending on the player's choice. This happens in the first episode when choosing between tech-savvy Doug or sharp-shooting reporter Carley, and in the third episode it feels like it makes a large difference, with Carley having a decent-sized subplot. However, whichever character you saved ends up being killed mid-way through the third episode in the same circumstances, and both make only small cameos in the second. Choice exists, but it is an illusion - and while the illusion is obvious, the small differences that are made to gameplay by these choices feel enough to make each player's experience sufficiently unique. The sole exception for me was later on in Episode Three, where walking-shitstorm Ben reveals to you on a fast-moving train that he has basically caused all the deaths in that episode, and you never get the option to throw him off the side.
     My favourite part of the game was sculpting the character of Lee - my Lee was diplomatic and leader-like, sided with Kenny on almost everything, but harsh when people fucked up. (*cough*Ben*cough*) Obviously there are a finite number of options for what you can do, but I found expressing my decisions through the character a very satisfying experience - especially in Episode Three, where I managed to convince Kenny to stop the train and euthanize his dying son without resorting to physical violence. The last two episodes were less interesting for me because the character development and group politics gave way to the inevitability and hopelessness of the season's endgame, but they were just as immersive and I really felt concerned for Lee and Clementine's fates.
http://img1.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131029182043/walkingdead/images/1/16/SFH_Preview_Ben.png
This little shit gets a dozen people killed, abandons Clem
in a time of danger, and is a character I hate more than
the season's actual villain.
     Now, for the thing I don't usually get to talk about. How does The Walking Dead Game's nature as an interactive product affect it as an experience? I'll have a lot more negative to say when I look at Season Two, but I have to say I think the blending of genres is quite well done. Aside from the decision aspect, the game plays out the plot as a point-and-click adventure, having Lee find items or find out information that allows him to overcome some obstacle. During more fast-paced scenes, Quick-Time Events are used to provide tension as well as player involvement - luckily for PC users, this tends to comprise pushing Q until you're told to push E. This mechanic is worked into the plot - often this is used when Lee is pushing close doors and such, and if he as a character is unable to complete the action, neither can you, no matter how fast your trigger finger is. The interactivity mechanic, finally, also adds some drama/catharsis to certain significant actions like executing trapped walkers or defeated villains, where it's more effective for the player to have to do it themselves.
     Season One had a few quirks here or there that made it sometimes frustrating - once or twice the game mechanics didn't pan out well, and the aforementioned ambiguity in some of the decisions which made me be more harsh or more supportive one way or another than I wanted to be. But 90% of the time the story carried itself well, and the use of the various options when it comes to the protagonist's personality and relationships with other characters means that the result is an immersive, personalised experience and an amazing story. How could it go so wrong after this?

Thanks.

PS. For those interested, I saved Carley, left Lilly, let Ben go and I finished episode four with Kenny, Omid and Christa. I didn't chop off my arm.

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