A New Year’s Resolution of mine is to write more. To help this along, I’m going to write some stuff about any game that grabs me enough to finish in 2013 - the only rule is that I won’t bother if I’m reviewing it elsewhere, because that would be wholly pointless.
The Walking Dead is the closest I’ve come to finding a Choose Your Own Adventure Story in two decades of videogaming. Unlike those kids’ books though, The Walking Dead is brilliantly written and actually pretty emotionally draining over the 5 episodes… two charges very rarely made of games.
What it adds to the mix on top of this is a real time sense of urgency. With a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you could read the set up as many times as you liked, and then slowly turn to the page you want, read the first line, go back and decide again if you felt like bending the rules a bit. In The Walking Dead, the action unfolds in front of you, and you have very limited time to make a choice - and usually the choice is between two pretty unsavoury options. The consequences have a lasting impact on the way your band of zombie survivors treats you in future.
Case in point: we come across a group of strangers out in the woods - everyone distrusts people in this game, given the undead walk the earth, and bandits are killing and stealing the scant resources. Anyway, one stranger’s foot is caught in a bear trap. After deciding these folks are probably trustworthy, and vowing to help the guy out of his beartrap shaped dilemma, one of our party spots zombies on the horizon. The game switches to the first person and I struggle with the bear trap. All I have is an axe at this point, so I try forcing it open. It resists. I try cutting the chain the to the trap, so at least the guy can be carried away. Still no luck. The zombies are getting closer now and time is running out, when suddenly I spot a third way… but I really don’t like it, so I try forcing the trap again. As the zombies get closer I realised there really is no alternative - amidst screams of protests from the unwilling patient I take the axe to his leg for some good old fashioned ‘no anaesthetic’ surgery. It’s pretty gruesome, and it doesn’t come off in one cut. I manage 3 swings of the axe before the zombies get too close and we have to leave - his leg is still attached… just. If I’d had the stomach to axe his leg sooner, he’d have escaped, as it was he was left to the zombies, all the while in great pain and bleeding profusely from the leg. I’d failed, and I felt awful. Genuinely awful.
I must have killed tens of thousands of virtual people in sprite form over the years - this one I’d known no longer than my other virtual victims, but it created real guilt. And that’s why The Walking Dead is special. It doesn’t really matter that your choices don’t make much difference to the overall story arc (the game is remarkably resilient at ensuring your actions don’t count for a great deal in the greater scheme of things. If a character is going to die, you might make them last a bit longer, but they’ll eventually snuff it - take that chaos theory!), it’s about telling a story and making you care about the diverse range of characters.
The zombies themselves are window dressing, really - necessary scenery for the bunch of diverse survivors to get thrown together, and get increasingly fraught with each other as time goes on. You can’t please everyone, and you may find characters treat yours completely differently in your version of the story - in my case, the most cathartic moment of the game was telling a guy named Kenny, who I had spent the entire game mollycoddling through tantrum after tantrum, to “go fuck himself” when he expressed doubt at helping me in the final chapter. Suffice it to say, he didn’t react well to this, and I knew full well I was jeapordising my chance of a less unhappy ending in this distinctly miserable story: I didn’t care. Or rather, I cared too much to let the game end without giving Kenny an earful of abuse.
Considering how little I care for most game stories, that’s a major feat. And as for the story itself… well, it’s not that it's particularly novel, but it is wonderfully told, with plenty of surprises and cliffhangers, and it pulls at your heart strings in just the right way to make you care about the characters: in particular the little girl you’re charged with protecting for the game. I’m a sucker for a story with a lead achieving personal redemption, and my version of that character was just that: ostensibly a good person who had made some bad choices in life, but managed to redeem himself by the time the credits closed on the fifth and final episode - but not without a few regrets along the way, as the body count stacked up.
This is a game for non-gamers, because there’s actually not much game here, and the bits that are kind of get in the way of the story, and yet it’s still one of the best I’ve played in years. Buy it, and more of this kind of thing!