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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Games you should be playing - The Walking Dead

An introduction to the series

Video games have had a somewhat unique maturity growth cycle. In most media, you have your feel-good, flash bang, entertaining entries, which tend to command the lion's share of attention. You also have pieces that actually attempt to develop the media, to push its boundaries and improve it as a means of communication. While these are not always mutually exclusive, most books, shows, or movies tend to be one or the other, but you almost always have both side by side, even if the ratio of one to the other fluctuates.

By most standards, however, video games have had a much longer development period before these breakthrough pieces started to appear. Perhaps this is due to the fact that while most media is very limited on direct interaction, games are actually defined by it, which means that a lot of the tools used in other places simply don't translate and other tools have yet to be developed. Whatever the case may be, in the past few years we've seen more and more of these guideposts, experimental games that are striving to be a Citizen Kane or a Twilight Zone or a Watchmen, even if they haven't quite hit those high watermarks yet.

Unfortunately, the important games also tend to be from smaller developers, as the risk that comes coupled with innovation is mostly anathema to large publishers, much as it is in all forms of media. This series of articles will attempt to shine a light on games that are taking a step in to the great unknown. These are the games I believe everyone should experience for themselves. These are the games you should be playing.

Our first entry - Telltale Games's The Walking Dead

Telltale Games's The Walking Dead is first on the list, and is the rare example of a game that doesn't simply push boundaries, it was also one of the most enjoyable games of the year as well. Equally rare is how much recognition it received for how good it was, and not just in hardcore gaming circles. Even the often-mocked mainstream Spike game awards gave The Walking Dead it's top prize, the Game of the Year award.

A large part of the initial attention the game received was due to the very hot license, as The Walking Dead was everywhere when it released earlier in 2012, as it still is at the time of writing. It must have been tempting for Telltale to churn out a Monkey Island clone, re-telling the story of Ric Grimes once again, or perhaps giving you a side story or a prequel. Licensed games have a well-deserved reputation for being terrible or at best mediocre, and then riding the property's established fan base for an easy payday. The upcoming Walking Dead game licensed off the AMC TV adaptation looks to be in the worst tradition of cash-grabs from the simply horrendous trailers that have been released thus far.

It is very much to Telltale's credit, then, that their version of The Walking Dead pushes just about every boundary that it can, and thankfully it hits all of its marks wonderfully. Instead of a re-telling, the story told is a parallel to Ric's story. You still start in Georgia, however the story begins in the nearby Macon rather than Atlanta and the protagonist is actually awake and experiences the beginning of the zombie apocalypse first hand rather than missing it due to a coma. They also play with most of the tropes of the Adventure genre, some of which haven't changed in upwards of 25 years.

This experimentation was not a guaranteed success, as their previous game Jurassic Park was widely panned but featured a lot of the same experiments. Like a good director whose film just didn't come together, Telltale learned their lessons and instead of playing it safe, they honed their tools and pushed even harder for their next game. This dedication to telling a well-crafted story in a medium known for lauding stories that would be considered mediocre at best in any other pays off in spades, and showcases exactly the unique experience that video games can provide.

What the game is about

The Walking Dead is an Adventure game but with slightly different sensibilities. The puzzles are very light and become even less important as the series continues. Gone, too, is the familiar interface of passively controlling your character by using a cursor to click the ground where you want him or her to go. Instead, you directly control Lee, which has the benefit of more directly connecting you with your avatar, Lee, and his actions.

A new addition to the Adventure genre are the semi-action sequences that you find sporadically sprinkled through the game. That's not to say The Walking Dead ever becomes a third person shooter, or even tries to emulate it. What you get instead is a shooting gallery of zombies that is meant not to test your twitch skills, in fact it's pretty hard to fail, but rather to give you that overwhelming sense of dread and panic as a mass of bodies starts to overwhelm you.

There are also several frankly horrifying moments where you have to do desperate things to survive including (to avoid light SPOILERS, skip to the end of the paragraph) removing a limb with an axe. You don't simply click the leg and have a movie play the whole thing, either. You have to click several times, each time having to pause as the action plays out and hearing the person scream as it does. Anyone can acknowledge that removing a leg is a terrible thing to even think about, but having to willfully remove the leg, even with such a abstracted action as pushing a button makes it that much more personal and haunting. The game does not revel in this, but neither does it let you look away while the events play out.

As traumatizing as the actions you have to perform can be, they don't even compare to the incredibly hard choices you'll have during dialogue with other characters. You run in to a (refreshingly) very diverse mix of people who band together to survive, as people are want to do during apocalypses. This motley crew of folks are very well fleshed out and voice-acted, and you will very quickly grow fond of or hate each one, which is absolutely essential to the buy-in, and thus success, of the game.

You will soon find yourself yelling at the screen in frustration at the monitor due to the actions of one character or another and yelling in dismay as you have to choose between two equally bad options. And you have to make these terrible decisions under the additional stress of a timer. These timers add an element of necessary urgency, and they feel like they give you enough time to react but not quite enough time to fully decide, which is probably the perfect length.

The choices, whether it's whom to help or what to say or how to react, are incredibly tough. There is no Paragon path here, no clear right or wrong, just your own morals, your own feelings, and how everything balances out with your need to survive. This honestly feels very odd at first, like you're navigating without a compass, and is counter to just about every other choice-heavy game out there.

As the game progresses, you realize more and more just how hard it is to predict what repercussions will come from your choices, or how important any one decision is. Combined with the lack of the story nudging you in one direction or the other, it starts to make every choice seem random, and thus pointless, at first. The more I played, however, the more I realized that this is exactly what it would be like to live in this terrible version of the world, and oddly it was extremely liberating as it let me do what I thought was right, as my decisions had consequences but left no real moral high ground to judge from or "victory" to achieve. Once I realized this, and opposite to what I'd been trained to think, it actually made every decision important simply because I was the one making it, and it mattered to me because of how invested I was in all of the characters.

Why this game is important

The game is important because of its ability to connect emotionally. That seems like a simple statement, and perhaps a perplexing one, but it is actually extremely profound. If a piece of media can't connect with its audience on a very basic, emotional level, its effectiveness in influencing a person's thoughts are very limited. What good is the message if the audience doesn't care?

There have been other games that I've played that have been somewhat successful at connecting. I certainly cared about my crew in Mass Effect, or my party in Final Fantasy III. What makes this game so uniquely successful for me is that every single element is expertly designed to make you care, and how you'd have to actively struggle against the game to not care.

Any struggle is ultimately futile however, due to the game's scariest, most terrifying asset that I have yet to discuss and is revealed below:

The man is the aforementioned Lee, and leaning against him is The Walking Dead's nuclear-option-disguised-as-a-precocious-little-girl, Clementine. Children aren't often seen in video games, or most media for that matter, as they can very quickly turn abrasive. From the moment you meet her and have to take guardianship of her, she colors the rest of your experience. She quickly moves from a kid you want to protect if you can to the most important thing in your world.

This is why Clementine is so damned terrifying: she gives you the briefest glimmer of a peek of a sliver of what it is to be a parent. Here is someone dependent on you not only for physical survival, but emotional strength as well, and in an environment that is unimaginably harsh for even a well-adjusted adult. Clementine would fail as a character if she simply relied on you for everything, however, and in fact it is her willingness to face horrendous nightmares and yet still act that you come to understand just how strong she is. Every time she becomes more capable is a moment of elation, and watching her come to grips with the world is nothing less than heartbreaking, all the more so because you know it's necessary. You fall in love with her by degrees and by the time you realize the trap is sprung, you wouldn't have it any other way.

I will always remember my time with The Walking Dead, but it's Clementine that I'll carry in my heart. For a character to stick with me long after I've finished the game is rare in any media, and I truly believe that the brush with an emotional understanding of parenthood simply couldn't have happened with any other format.

Some brief advice on the experience

If you do decide to play The Walking Dead, I have to strongly suggest not playing it all in one sitting. The game was released in a series of 5 episodes, and I firmly believe that the game is best experienced with a break in between. I'd say a day at a minimum, but a week is probably the best if you can swing it. I recommend using the time to let your brain process and filter everything that happened (and believe me it will). This is also game best discussed with others who have experienced it if you can.

I highly recommend using the time in between plays to go on YouTube or other online video services and watching "Let's Play" (frequently abbreviated as LP) videos, which are extremely easy to find with a simple search. These are a somewhat recent phenomenon of people who record audio or video of themselves windowed while they play the game, and I've yet to find a more perfect match for this experience. They're actually quite good as stand-alone entertainment and can help you decide if you're still on the fence. If you can catch a live streaming LP with chat they are a blast, and I can't recommend them enough. Just remember not to spoil anything!
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