Still Playing: The Walking Dead

Still Playing: The Walking Dead

We tend to stop writing about games when you start playing them. We cover the announcement, we write previews and reviews, but by the time you unwrap a new game we've moved on. Still Playing is our bid to address that. It'll run twice a week here on Edge Online, with staff and contributors going into detail on the games they've been playing in their spare time. We begin with our games editor, Craig Owens, who's still playing Telltale's The Walking Dead on Xbox 360.

This article contains spoilers.

The Walking Dead is a terrible game, and I mean that literally. It’s a terrible game because, at times, it barely offers any interactions at all. You awkwardly shuffle between cutscenes, solve rudimentary puzzles, and mash your way through grisly QTEs. Even worse, Telltale has built the game around a engine that behaves like a skittish pony, hitching and stuttering nervously when demands like a change of camera angle are forced upon it without at least a day’s advance warning.

These facts alone are reason enough to write off a game. The Walking Dead, however, rises above them. Two chapters in, and the foundations have been laid for what might become Telltale’s best and most defining game, even though it’s built around the same simple mechanics and episodic release schedule as the disastrous Jurassic Park. So what’s different?

The fiction certainly helps. Zombie stories have certain requirements, like cramped safe-rooms, that happily coexist with modestly sized yet detailed level designs. Of course you can’t go beyond that fence: it’s dangerous out there. The Walking Dead might shepherd you between safe zones, and only offer limited control at other times, but it has good reason. Zombies are a convenient, in-universe invisible wall.

Zombie fiction also brings with it a few other demands that, while overused and tired on the cinema screen, come (back) to life when player agency is involved. That gruesome cliché wherein survivors are forced to destroy a member of their band’s corpse lest he return, hungrily, from beyond the grave? It’s reused here, but it feels a little fresher when you’re the one choosing to help to cave in the skull of an OAP who’s just had a heart attack but, might, might, still be alive. And what about the infected survivor – desperate to be put out of her misery before she turns undead? She makes an appearance, of course, but it’s down to you to pass her the handgun she needs to find the peace she craves. You’ve seen all these scenes before – quite possibly in the comics on which the series is based – but you’ve never felt culpable during them.

The Walking Dead offers little in the way of traditional game mechanics. Its 'puzzles' are vestigial organs from adventure game ancestors, so simple are they at times. That said, it’s definitely a game that understands the power of interactivity in itself. One scenario, early in the second chapter, sees you forced to abandon a trapped, panicked survivor, or hack his leg off to free him. I chose to 'save' him, and what happens next could easily have been cutscene – there’s no element of skill of challenge involved – but was instead gruesomely interactive, as repeated hammers of the A button were needed to cut through gristle and bone.

But to suggest that all of The Walking Dead’s power comes from inserting player choice and agency into familiar, desperate scenes is to do the game a disservice. It also features some of the smartest writing – and most engaging interactive dialogue – of the year so far. Again, the fiction does help. Many games have prioritised NPC relationships, and promised altered outcomes depending on promises kept and alliances made – but a zombie apocalypse hands The Walking Dead’s writers the kind of high-tension scenario that makes relationships conveniently fraught and fragile, as well as requiring a cast that might still be clichés (the family man, the plucky reporter, the overprotective father) but feel instantly more familiar than the space marines and dark mages we’re usually exposed to. It’s nice to hang out with real people for change.

And crucially, there’s no binary morality system underpinning your interactions. There’s no right or wrong in The Walking Dead, just dialogue trees and choices, and you have to work out your own standards by which to judge them. An Alpha Protocol-style conversation timer forces you to react in realtime – fail to make a choice, and you say nothing – while the absence of checkpoint saves and reloads makes you commit to your decisions. As does, in a wider sense, Telltale’s refusal to tie achievements and trophies to the outcome of your choices: a common gambit used by other games to positively encourage a stroll down the road not taken. Play through an episode once, and you unlock the lot.

Very early on, the game makes you guardian to Clementine, a resourceful, yet vulnerable eight-year-old girl. The Walking Dead asks you implicitly: “What is being a good father?” Does it mean teaching her to survive at all costs? Does it mean prioritising her above everyone else? Does it mean doing what she wants, or what’s best to keep her safe? This is a mature theme – and it’s taken a game about zombies to even begin to explore it properly. Heavy Rain asked how far you’d go to save a child, but The Walking Dead is more interested in the trials of caring for one.  

This relationship is at the core of The Walking Dead, and how well the (hopefully more regularly released) later chapters reflect the choices you make regarding her may well be the measure of the game. There’s the chance of a narrative arc with genuine emotional pay off here, and a chance for this creaky tale based on a comic book licence to evolve into one of the most absorbing games of the year.