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Why 'the slow burn' of Telltale's The Walking Dead works.

Telltale's The Walking Dead: Tense interactive storytelling and impressive franchise contribution

Lately I’ve been getting a little worn out by games focused on combat, but on the other hand, also haven’t really wanted to get hooked into a 20-hour story experience.  I had originally picked up the first episode of Telltale's contribution to The Walking Dead continuum on Xbox Live, and liked it enough to then snag the season pass on Steam during the summer sale.  For me, the game is a welcome break from traditional AAA titles.  Its point-and-click adventure game style is more relaxing and explorative, but The Walking Dead refuses to sacrifice the action, tension, and suspense you would expect during a zombie apocalypse.

It’s refreshing not to have to shoot everything that moves.  Everything is in service to the cinematic approach the story uses, so there’s no combat system – rather, the game abstracts this by having the player directly select the appropriate action, or having them participate in quick time events when it’s time to interact in a specific way (such as fighting a zombie or trying to keep a door closed while the horde struggles to gain entry).  I can imagine the common pitfalls of treating interaction this way would be repetitiveness and a lack of skill or intensity, but The Walking Dead maintains the momentum of the scene, first by making sure that these encounters aren’t entirely identical (even though they may sometimes use the same inputs or paradigms), and second, through its cinematic direction.  In the heat of the moment as you’re trying to survive, it can be hard to know exactly what to do even though the prompt is right there on the screen – the camera angle shifts, the view is shaking during the struggle, and an on-screen timer showing you how much time you have to complete a quick time event adds the final element of pressure.

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Tapping 'q' rapidly is probably a good idea...

The result is something not unlike the comics that establish the world in which this game is based (and not just in terms of visual style, which the game emulates quite well).  In both, danger seems to hang in the air, ready to combust at any moment.  As you go along, you learn not to grow comfortable with any situation.  The game’s small environments and cinematic interludes remind me of comic panels - a limited space in which to maximize storytelling, and in which the player can explore the plot or scene.  Yet, importantly, violence is not the point or the focus of these stories.  As a fan of the comics, some of the violent story elements are perhaps too familiar, which can cause the game to seem like it’s going for shock value – but if I imagine that I’d never read the comics, there is a visceral ‘upping the ante’ quality to them.  Ultimately, though, the game and the comics share this theme: Violence is a fact of the new world that forms around the characters, and is used to make points or punctuate the plot.

It’s not surprising, then, to find that The Walking Dead shines in the slow burn of its character interactions.  The player’s decisions carry over into subsequent episodes, an aspect which for me was most evident in how I was treated by the other characters (as far as the plot goes, I didn’t get the sense that it was majorly changing course because of my decisions).  The game lets the player know what people think of their actions and responses, and it’s nice to know where you stand with the other characters.  However, this can give the player an advantage as they strategize their actions to more easily satisfy more people.  The confirmation that my actions had a particular effect was helpful at first, but tended to make those actions feel less authentic (the feature can be disabled, though – and I’d like to try playing without it in the future).

Consequently, though the game emphasizes the importance of the player’s choices, it does withhold some information to make those choices more interesting.  Playing as Lee Everett - a man who starts the game as a convicted murderer on his way to prison – it was difficult to know whether I was lying or not since I didn’t really have any background on him.  At times I found it difficult to speak for Lee, wanting to believe he’s a good man but not knowing for sure.  On the other hand, this certainly allows the player a chance to be a participant in the creation of Lee’s background without judging him from the outset.  Since it’s never clear exactly what circumstances put Lee in that police cruiser at the beginning of the story, the player’s choices in guiding what kind of man Lee is (generally good or generally negative) seem to influence his character history retroactively in the mind of the player.

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The game goes out of its way to grant this type of nuance to the player’s choices.  I loved the fact that the choice to say nothing at all during conversations is an active choice the player can make.  The characters can interpret the silence in different ways, and the player doesn’t have to speak if they feel remaining silent has more weight for whatever reason.  Typically, the game offers three other conversation options in addition to silence.  While it’s often clear what the aforementioned ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ responses seem to be, they don’t always have the expected effects in a world of increasingly gray moral areas.  The player can pick a choice that seems like the right or good thing to do, which could cause rifts in trust with other characters or cause negative consequences later.

Another mechanism in the game’s conversation system supports both nuance and tension, in the form of a timer that constrains the player’s response time during conversations.  This prevents the conversational distortion that can occur in other implementations where the player can wait forever to respond without any consequences.  This definitely lends a sense of urgency to the player’s choices, and fits well with the tense and cinematic style of the game.  I found myself having to either think fast or end up mouthing off at someone. I can imagine some players having trouble understanding all the choices available to them before time runs out, but this seems like a worthwhile tradeoff.

All of this contributes to a unique, interactive story that stands on its own in The Walking Dead franchise (if sometimes following – or shambling – in the footsteps of the comics), and I was surprised at how affecting it is.  In my experience, kids aren’t typically an important part of gaming experiences, and yet the relationship between Lee and his young charge Clementine is critical to the game’s story and feel.  Clementine’s perspective balances the seriousness and violence with a genuine sweetness, and she’s tough for a kid, but still looks to the player for guidance and safety.  I was surprised to find I actually missed Clementine when the first half of the second episode seemed to feature her less.  In a similar-yet-polarized way, the game somehow managed to make me feel sorry for a character whose behavior was truly reprehensible.  In a weird way I understood why he did what he did – he was suddenly more human in his weakest moment, and I could see that most of the people in my group would be nudged further toward his level of desperation the worse their circumstances become.

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Lee and Clementine

The game’s attempts to generate empathy only failed once for me, when Lee was charged with doling out rations to the group.  Between not knowing who needed the rations the most and my certainty that Lee would be fine without taking any food for himself, the choices felt less meaningful.  Still, it was a good scene, and it was more about how the group reacted to your choices of who got the rations and who didn’t.  It was definitely better than trying to communicate hunger through any sort of gaudy UI indicators.  To the credit of the developers, they seem intent on avoiding such solutions – for example, when I offered to help a character mend a fence by sawing 2 x 4’s, I was certain I was in store for a pointless and boring mini-game of sawing wood.  Instead, the game let me feel focus on the conversation, while still letting me feel I was helping by showing Lee doing the sawing.

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 Dodged that bullet, so to speak...

That commitment to the game’s pillar of cinematic and suspenseful storytelling impressed me throughout the game.  Normally I’m not drawn to licensed game titles or books, despite having an appreciation and enthusiasm for trans-media storytelling.  I’d also never played a Telltale Games title before, but their reputation for episodic games – paired with positive word of mouth regarding The Walking Dead – had piqued my interest.  I think their approach works particularly well for The Walking Dead, allowing it to mirror the franchise’s comic book roots while covering new and compelling ground.

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