The Walking Dead: Telltale Series is a cinematic point-and-click adventure game taking place in the southeastern United States. Although it follows other character-story arcs, it is based in the universe of the monthly black-and-white comic book and the subsequent television series of the same name. Unlike other zombie-themed series like Left 4 Dead or Resident Evil that focus on working through physical hordes of zombies, Walking Dead focuses on navigating the social problems that arise between survivors. More than blood and guts, this game is emotional, exhausting and eager. By the end of the last chapter you are emotionally exhausted, hardened and even broken. This – I think – is actually the creator Kirkman’s goal with the comic series, which is somewhat lost in its translation to television.
Walking Dead: Telltale’s story is a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’ style of role playing with a series of what amount to social and physical puzzles, which branch out in the plot with a variety of outcomes. The majority of decisions have no ‘wrong’ answer, and a significant effort has been made on applying weight to the player’s decision-making.
You take the perspective of Lee Everett, a professor who has just been convicted of a crime of passion in Atlanta, Georgia. While being transported to prison after his sentence, he is swept up in the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse. After climbing out of the back of a police car, and stumbling into a suburban backyard, he meets a young girl named Clementine who’s been hiding in a treehouse. Her parents had been away on holiday, and her house-sitter has been bitten and turned. Lee is literally and figuratively faced with a second chance at moral redemption, and finds renewed purpose in protecting Clementine, who cannot survive alone.
Over the course of five episodes, Lee and Clem find companions, are forced to make enemies, and chooses carefully who they extends the horizon of protection to. The actions Lee takes have repercussions on who alliances are made with, who survives and who dies. Tensions are high when death is literally around every corner. Characters will die, and it’s often due to the difficult decisions you need to make in navigating this new world.
Like the comic, the game likely benefits from pacing. Whereas the television series seems to pander to its audience with content-less and token violence between characters, who seem as vacant as their slaughtered zombie hordes, this game feels small, localised, immediate and dangerous. The experience through storytelling and the harshness of the world is absolutely unlike any other experience in other media.
The story, over five episodes, raises questions of the legal over the moral, what it means to forgive, be forgiven, and live with the results of the decisions we’ve made – however hard. Like any quality apocalypse-themed story, the Telltale series explores the social interactions between people upon the sudden failure of the state and a looming ever-present danger of death. It, too, espouses an inherently violent and selfish human nature and a cultism of strength and leadership under constant threat.
The prevalence of the genre of apocolypticism is unsurprising in our contemporary entertainment media, given the constant bombardment with a looming degradation of the environment and its resources beyond repair – and/or – the imminent collapse of the economic system of capital and global trade. In our society there is a genuine terror of the erosion of moral ties without a system of legal recourse, and a tendency to view apocolypticism as preparation, or call-to-arms of individualistic sovereignty has led to hyper-protectionist fear mongering, gold-hoarding, and an obsession with survival-skill training.
However, this entire genre is interpreted best as a microcosmic example of the moral inadequacies of our current socio-economic systems. Media of this genre show – and in the Telltale example, experience first-hand – that such an erosion of morality is not a return to a natural state of chaos, but in fact an example of our white capitalist patriarchy boiled down to its violent essence. Through Lee’s actions, we have the chance to assess our social horizons of communal good and cooperation. Decision-making by itself is tremendously difficult, particularly when it results in death or starvation of your community – which you’ll experience in Walking Dead. However problems only arise when we give up or neglect our commitments to one another under pressure for the sake of something more personal. If, we discover, we could collectively stand together, the primary crises might be averted.
One would not typically expect these particular themes to be explored by a comic-book-inspired point-and-click game available on the App Store – but this is why you should play it. It’s of course, not without its faults as the animations are at times awkward which dilutes the conveyance of emotion and often the true gravity of the decisions made are difficult to gauge. This is compounded by those weighty decisions ultimately having very little effect on the determinist 5-chapter story-line which at times feels loose and unfair.
The overall exceptional voice-acting is immersive, but makes the occasional spots of poor talent or annoyingly exaggerated characters seem that much more shrill. This is the same criticism I have of the television series. Generally speaking, the game ought to have been more gritty than caricature, but this is obviously the limitation of the engine, the intentional accessibility to the audience, and the allotted capacity for variables in the storyline.
The game is a truly different kind of experience than Walking Dead – or any kind of story-driven intellectual property – in other media. It is immersive and interesting and tense. If you’ve enjoyed either the comic or the tv series, this game series seems to find a healthy middle ground between them. It’s accessible, casual, interesting, intense and very replayable. Overall, Walking Dead: Telltale is a must play if interested in games and story-telling. It is likely much more interesting on an iPad or handheld with a larger screen.
Aaron Russin likes art, history, philosophy, economics, small business and co-operatives – but he has a reluctant love of videogames. On twitter, @aaronrussin.