The Walking Dead has been doled out in small chunks to an already passionate fan base. As such, the game has earned its share of accolades. Now that it has completed the arc of its first season, and the full story has come into focus, I feel confident declaring it one of my favorite games this year, and one of the best narrative experiences I've had in any game, in any year.
It wouldn't be inaccurate to use the old cliche that "man is the real monster" in Telltale's opus. Man's inhumanity plays a prominent role, and often zombies aren't nearly as terrifying as fellow survivors. We've seen that scenario play out in countless games with mixed results, but what sets The Walking Dead apart is how it forces you to lose your humanity as well. You are the real monster.
This isn't to say that the lead character, Lee, is an awful person. Even the dialogue choices that make him seem abrasive or brash can fit within his generally good-natured personality. But throughout the five-episode arc, Lee is confronted with impossible choices. As he meets, cares for, and becomes committed to protecting a young girl named Clementine, you as the player have to make decisions with no correct or easy answer. Almost every choice is perfectly justifiable, but will also harm someone, be it a member of your group or a complete stranger. As the series goes on, and your litany of sins mounts, you're held progressively more accountable for them.
The game, then, becomes an exploration on the malleability of morality. It touches themes of hope facing hopelessness and trusting in friendship and family, while conversely noting that desperate people can do severely hurtful things to each other. It manages to navigate these minefields without a hint of triteness or preachy aphorisms. The final episode culminates in truly poignant moments that inform and reflect earlier ones. In short, this is a glimpse of what game narratives offer that no other medium can.
Granted, any two playthroughs will not be radically different. The game gives an illusion of choice without actually impacting the general direction of the plot. In most cases, if a character needs to die, or live, or leave, it will happen no matter what you answer. The results are concrete, but I found the process of thinking through my decisions satisfying nonetheless. What happened wasn't nearly as important to me as why it happened.
The most difficult choices were usually given a time limit, stressing their urgency. A split-second decision might be regrettable after a moment of rational thought. But then, that's how life works too.
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The game occasionally has its moments of poor action prompts, or awkward shooting sequences. The engine wasn't built to take down zombies with ease. But the design of these action moments gets refined throughout the series, developing their own rhythm. In its worst moments, I would have to retry a section after dying. Telltale wisely kept failing these moments from impacting the story. It's a weakness of the series, but on the whole it's not a scarring one.
This also isn't the game to look for if you're hungry for difficult puzzling experiences. With one or two notable exceptions, the solutions are simple and straight-forward. It's uncommon to become "stuck" as we often see in adventure titles. Long-time adventure veterans might be disappointed that the solutions aren’t more complex, but I found it kept the narrative flow moving at a steady pace.
The Walking Dead is easily the most focused and cohesive adventure game I've played to date. More importantly, it's a story that invites discussion and dissection, and a credit to the narrative power of video games. Those interested in these electronic diversions as a storytelling medium simply need to experience it.
This Walking Dead review was based on an early downloadable Xbox 360 version of the game provided by the publisher. The five-episode season is also available on PlayStation 3, PC, Mac, and iOS. A retail version of the game will be available on December 4th.