‘The Walking Dead: Season One’ – Spooky Scary Skeletons (Zombies)

Alex Moreci, Spear Contributor

Game: “The Walking Dead: Season One”

Platform: Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, Playstation 3

Developer: Telltale Games

Publisher: Telltale Games

Retrospective Review

It is finally time, the second half of October. The two weeks leading to Halloween are likely my favorite time of the year. There is an almost uncanny similarity to Comic-Con. Despite my love of the season, it took me quite a while to find a decent Halloween game to review. It would have been quite easy to play any one of the first person horror games leaking from every orifice Steam has, but that would be easy, and also I don’t want to buy some crappy, ridiculously poorly lighted, Unity asset built, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” clone. There are of course, some good horror games but none that represented certain aspects of the season well. I did manage to find two games that fit, but neither new, so I hope two retroactive reviews in a row will not offend anyone. I had a horror game prepared, but I was unable to get the review ready, so expect a review of a horror game next week. Anyways, without further adieu please enjoy the premiere installment of my inaugural “Halloween Special.”

The one game that I felt could represent Halloween, in tone at least, is Telltale’s “The Walking Dead.” There are some very interesting parallels between the holiday and the game that can be drawn. Both are not very scary, but are indulged anyways because they feature our favorite monsters.

It is certainly refreshing to play a game with zombies that doesn’t have you killing them in the thousands. In fact this game represents the latter end of the zombie spectrum with “Left for Dead” making up the other side. It proves that a feeling of suspense can be created from atmosphere and mood alone without just shoveling hordes of zombies onto the player in the hope that it will falsify suspense.

The gameplay follows a mostly point and click gameplay structure. While this is considered a lost form of gameplay, “abandoned” might be more accurate term. In a point and click game there is only about one way to create difficulty. Some puzzle games, like “Portal” create difficulty by expanding your idea of what can be done with several core mechanics. However a point and click game often sees many different scattershot mechanics. New items are added to the formula often, and expanding this idea is often hard without either giving away the base application, or ending up with the puzzle solutions being utterly ridiculous. The latter is often achieved in puzzle games even without a core purpose for the item being established beforehand.

“The Walking Dead” never has any considerably counterintuitive puzzles but with the care clearly taken to avoid this came an incredible lack of challenge. I died about 7 times throughout the entirety of season one. The game is not difficult to play, but the toll is entirely mental. The game is depressing, if someone you like dies (and it will happen) you will feel like crap, tormented by the thought of whether or not you could have saved them. You can never make everyone happy when choosing between the groups’ safety and the interests of a character you like. Without knowing the outcome of the other choices you can end up filled with regret, the ambiguity of your decisions hovering over you.

At the end of each episode there is a “Next Time On…” video that truly highlights how much your choices affect the story. Most of the clips shown highlight a possible result of your decisions in the previous episode. I feel like some major decisions might not affect the story as much as others. There was one character I saved, that barely showed up in the following episodes, until the character was arbitrarily killed in a scene that I had no control over.

In conversations, you are given four options on what to say. It was interesting to see that often there was the option to say nothing, and every once and awhile it is a good decision to stay silent and not interject the conversation between other characters. The conversations are surprisingly dynamic. There were many times when a dialog option matched what I would actually say.

The voice acting is incredibly well done, some of the best I have ever seen. All the voices sounded incredibly authentic and never forced. Throughout the game I was never unconvinced of a delivery by any character. The acting is also backed up by even better writing. The motivations of the characters are incredibly realistic. It can stop you in your tracks when a character you hate starts making an incredible amount of sense just as you choose between their life and death, or even worse when a character you like starts hating you because of your choices.

Interpersonal conflict becomes more important than surviving zombies at some points. At several points you watch tensions grow within your group, eventually be forced to take a side, and experience the outcome. It further puts further weight on all your decisions.

Scattered throughout the game are unique puzzles that manage to incorporate stealth into a point and click style. The player will need to sneak around, finding weapons and items used to interact with the environment in order to progress. As much as I like these, I rarely came across sections like them with the game instead favoring the talking and fetch puzzles that fill the core of the game.

I love the artstyle of “The Walking Dead.” Cell shading is almost exclusively used in lighthearted environments like “Borderlands.” I find it incredibly refreshing to see the artstyle used in a serious context. The exaggerated features created through cell shading work perfectly to help characters deliver emotion with wrinkles and contours along the face better expressed. The game even does gore in this artstyle flawlessly with even some disturbing imagery that really sticks.The art truly is a love letter to the comics and even with some low resolution textures, it the perfect style for any “Walking Dead” game.

The zombies are grotesque creatures, with various malformed, or completely destroyed body parts. There is an amazing amount of variation between them; they come in all races and genders, all body types. One that stood out had his jaw broken off, and his tongue hanging out. There are never two that look the same on screen at once.

I am slightly unsure about the episodic style, especially with the abuse some publishers have put it through. I like the concept of being able to by parts of the game at a time in case you don’t like the game. I can see how that would be especially nice to have in what is essentially a choice game, a format that I am sure will not appeal to everyone. However, the format can break immersion incredibly. Waiting several months for the next part of the experience will certainly do that. Even without needing to wait, the fact that there was no smooth transition between episodes bittered the endings for me. There was a strange lack of cohesion between episodes, at one point when you come back there is a new character apparently met within the break between episodes that they never explain in detail.

Episodism also strays dangerously close to games as a service rather than a complete product. There is little preventing abuse of the format. I can only imagine the shady things publishers could do in order to abuse this. A rather lacking base game with the promise of future DLC support already sounds dangerously similar to games like “Destiny.”  Telltale has guaranteed support and low prices on all their games thankfully, but a 60 dollar episodic adventure seems sickeningly possible.

The final point worth mentioning is the characters. In a game like “The Walking Dead” there is of course a large cast characters who must have the option to die for the plot. They could have easily written each character as a tired, quite literally disposable archetypes. I found it amazing how even chapters after saving someone, there were still plot arcs that they were heavily involved in.

There is a prevailing concept throughout the story where it doesn’t matter who someone was before the outbreak, and thus, motivations and personality are based on emotions. Fear, anger, and compassion are the driving forces behind every action. Every character has a distinct, unique personality and no one feels stale or archetype.

“The Walking Dead” clearly understands what it is as a game. Telltale obviously knew what they were doing, and designed their game accordingly.  The emphasis was not on action or survival, but on characters with understandable emotions and motivation. However, it has a very niche appeal. There is a very large group who simply won’t like the game. The gameplay is certainly not engaging enough to be alluring to a large ratio of gamers. The value comes from the story and acting, both done perfectly for my taste. Because the first episode is only five dollars, I would recommend trying the game, at least to make sure that the style appeals to you. After playing “The Walking Dead” I only want one thing: a Kojima game in this style. Happy Halloween.

“The Walking Dead”