Editor’s Note: Peter is liberal with his spoilers here. They come without warning, so be advised.
I was a bit late to the party with Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I don’t buy games full price anymore and I didn’t hear enough to convince me give the game a shot. I liked a bunch of the previous Telltale games, but something was holding me back.
When the Humble Bundle included Walking Dead for $4 with a bunch of other games, I knew it was stupid to resist. Jim Sterling had convinced me that Clementine was a very strong, powerful character and I was looking for a really excellent story-driven game to trek through.
There is nothing I can say against the writing in this game. Everything is top notch. Some of the acting is a bit hokey and Telltale’s weaker graphical engine makes some of the faces and movements feel cartoony, but I started to get sucked in.
I was blown away by how the choices in the game seemed to have no proper answer. There is no clear good or bad in any choice you can make during the course of your adventure. You either save a strong man or a young boy from zombies. You can kill a man before he turns into a zombie or try to give his daughter a few more minutes to spend with him.
These carried all the way to the end of the third episode. I didn’t realize that a few of my conversation trees led to a mother killing herself. I had no idea why she gave up or if I could have prevented her. To make matters worse, I then had to kill her son.
I haven’t seen a game deal with the death of children, but The Walking Dead is fearless. The apocalypse isn’t painted like the Hollywood versions would have you believe. Everything is gritty, dark, depressing and self-reflective. You will be made to think about your actions.
When the fourth episode starts, I figured this was going to become an instant classic to me. You bury another child and have to dodge an attack on your homestead. It’s all relentless in its execution and doesn’t give you much time to think.
Then the choices started to plow in. Episode 4 is the one part of the game where anyone can die (save for you and Clementine). Stupidly enough, though, if you save everyone, they just die in the next episode.
It’s not literally everyone, as I did manage to have a young couple make it to the end, but there is one concrete ending that is unaffected by anything you’ve done. You can waste your time making friends with one guy, but he dies regardless of your actions.
A teenager that joins your cause can either be left for dead in the fourth episode or simply falls to his death in the fifth. It’s ridiculous. The Walking Dead tries really hard (and mostly succeeds) at making your actions have impact and then just strips that power away at the end.
I’ve had similar doubts like this in the past. I lamented at how each Deus Ex game has an illusion of choice. You can tackle situations in whichever manner you want, but then the ending comes and you’re given what amounts to a hallway with doors describing the ending.
I just wish Telltale stuck to a more concrete plotline instead of making players believe that every decision was important. There are some great articles that describe how your choices for Lee define him, but I just don’t see the game that way.
Lee isn’t some blank slate when the game starts. He has a past, motivations and desires. While the game doesn’t allow you to manipulate him into a perfect saint or total sociopath, you can have him contradict himself for no reason.
I feel like seizing control just for a few moments would have gone a long way. Or, if characters were going to die anyway, make them die in grandiose fashion. The first two episodes did this the best by giving you split-seconds to pick between people who you barely knew.
Is there a correct choice? Probably not, but at least the outcome is relatively the same. The weight of your choice is what matters. How you live with your actions is what makes those scenes so special. When I let go of a teenager in episode 4, what is the motivation behind it? If I save him, though, he still ends up dead. That’s garbage.
So while I overall enjoyed The Walking Dead, I don’t see it as a modern classic. There are still contrived problems with branching path games that persist throughout the narrative. It especially hurts that the final two episodes are fairly mundane, too.
I do like that the game exists, though. It made me feel disgust for myself in the beginning. Then it just made me cry a bit at the end. Life is confusing and The Walking Dead captures that well.