Telltale’s The Walking Dead: A Review

Telltale’s The Walking Dead is considered by many to be a modern classic – a shining example of storytelling in videogames, the definite game that will make you cry. I had never gotten around to playing it, or any other Telltale game, until recently when the first season of Walking Dead was given away for free. In retrospect, a move to shore up any lingering interest in their franchise to get the company out of dire straits. As Telltale closes up shop in a classic case of piss poor corporate management and miscommunication, I thought to give it a go and see what, if anything, I had been missing.

The game follows the now standard trope of a group of humans trying to survive in the wake of an apocalyptic event where they themselves are the true monsters. Anyone familiar with Robert Kirkman’s comics or the TV show will find Telltale’s version very familiar. You play as Lee, a man on his way to prison for murder whose transport gets interrupted by the imminent zombie apocalypse. Shortly thereafter, he joins up with a young girl named Clementine and a gruesome adventure follows.

On the way you make friends and enemies as you navigate through now cliche set pieces. Additionally, the story servers up numerous decisions where you get to choose who lives and who dies. Some criticise the game for having a rigid story. The choices you make don’t change the outcome, but this kind of misses the point since stories are all about the journey. The choices influence how you get to the end, with who you get to the end, and what kind of character Lee is. A story with a dramatically different outcome would not fit with the Walking Dead universe, and nor would multiple divergent endings be able to supply the same punch across all branches. Even in a Telltale-like game such as Life is Strange, where there are two endings, only one of them actually feels complete.

The game is six years old and it has not aged well. There are pauses after certain parts of dialogue with the characters standing around awkwardly. I imagined the game was trying to puzzle out what dialogue to return based on past choices. The inclusions of gameplay mechanics, such as shooting and quick-time events feel forced most of the time. There are a few instances where these are effective, such as one of the last scenes where Lee battles his way through a zombie horde to get to Clementine. More often than not, they feel like interruptions, added because the developers didn’t want their game to be labeled as “not a real game.” There were also very minor things I noticed, such as in one scene, the prompt for the quick time event did not display properly, and some strange shadow thing off of Kenny’s right shoulder which made him look like he was walking around with some ghost grass on his back.

The story unfolds kind of like how you would expect. Things go wrong very fast, people come and go and usually die, and few of the characters are ever able to really work together. Aside from Clementine and Lee, I did not feel close to any of the characters. For most of them, the only way I could gather any empathy was to relate to the trope they were based off of. I am not sure if it was because of the choices I made, but few of them stuck around long enough for me to care too much. While certain moments are loaded with emotion, others felt flat. In a few scenes, the camera even lingers on the robotic expressions of the characters to try to drive home that this moment is meaningful and you should feel something. Perhaps with a greater visual fidelity, this would have felt less forced.

That’s not to say the praise is undeserved. The writing and voice acting is quality, producing gut-wrenching moments with an effectiveness only an increasingly handful of narrative games have managed. The game excels where it matters most and judging from other games which have built upon the foundation set by The Walking Dead that its influence has been great and not yet fully realized. At the same time, it is only as good as the IP it is based off of lets it be. With these constraints we know that someone will get mad, then someone will die, later someone will dick the group over, and that the dairy farm eats people. It is The Walking Dead, it can’t be anything more or anything less – there is an expected formula to follow.

The formula works. The final scene in the first season is the kind of satisfying end that is fitting of a pessimistic zombie apocalypse story. Six years later, while the game and formula feel more tired than they would be, the game still delivers. As I watch the credits roll, processing the final scene,  I think of all the names that pass and of Telltale. It wasn’t their first game by far, but The Walking Dead season 1 is for many the game that defines the studio. After churning out a massive number of similar games under various other IPs, following a similar formula for half a decade, and operating under dubious managerial staff under a former CEO, the studio is suddenly closing. The final chapters of the last season of Walking Dead will likely remain unfinished. Would this giveaway capture another fan in me? No. The lead writers left to do other things after season 1 wrapped and despite being solid, one season is enough for me. It is a worthy legacy for the studio that, to some extent, reinvented and breathed life into the adventure game genre.

Except it might not be Telltale’s legacy. Currently, as a result of their mismanagement of the studio wind-up, it is facing a class action lawsuit from former employees who were wronged in the suddenly announced closing of the studio. The Walking Dead season 1 contains a few key themes – to what limits would you go to survive, parenting in the apocalypse, dealing with loss – but at the forefront the franchise is about how, even in the most dire of circumstances, it is humans who are the real monsters.

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