Maybe I should figure out what my goal is before writing a review of a game.
I say this because the only thing I know is that my goal is not as consumer advice, even though I’ll often end with saying what sort of audience a game may be for. I know I want to critique a game, but straight up listing complaints or good parts is a long and boring list. So part of my goal is to also entertain.
What does this have to do with Telltale’s The Walking Dead? Well, this is the third attempt I’ve made at writing a review, and for all I know I’ll delete all of this and try for a fourth time. It’s a difficult game to peg down and discuss because there are so many things you can write about. Hence the sudden revelation that I’ve never had much of a goal when I do these reviews aside from “be informative and entertaining”.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead is an exemplary case of a narrative driven game, and yes I do mean game. It seems at some point everyone’s love for point-and-click adventures expired and there came a debate about whether The Walking Dead was truly a game or not. Or perhaps it is just another symptom of gamers being older, jaded, and without clear definition of what they want or expect.
When Lee is struggling to survive, you as the player are struggling to survive as well. You are placed in an action sequence where there is a threat to your digital survival, and if you fail to meet this threat then you will get a game over screen and be brought back to a moment before everything went to Hell. This is what happens in most games. The only difference is The Walking Dead has larger separations between its action set pieces where you will be calmly solving a puzzle or talking with other characters.
What is lost amongst many is that some of these conversation moments, which overall are a lot more like arguments, can be just as tense. Tempers are flared, weapons are drawn, and you have to choose your dialogue in a heated situation with limited time to react.
The problem is that most of these scenes will have the same overall conclusion. The primary story beats are still struck and your choices will have little deep effect.
This is coming from a bunch of gamers with such short-term memory that you’re starting to see Mass Effect 3 pop up on Game of the Year lists despite the massive backlash months ago.
I think we’ve reached a point where “it’s the journey, not the destination” rings true most for video games than it does for everything else. Even if the overall story for The Walking Dead is linear, you as the player are still involved within it. The reason those arguments are so tense is because you have personal investment in the game and the characters. Your behavior will change how other characters talk to you, and it will change many of the actions.
Telltale may decide they want a character to die no matter what you do or say, but the way in which they die may change. What those characters say and do to you may also change.
Telltale wasn’t looking to develop a game with so many branching paths and a number of different endings, they were looking to draw the player into the story. The word “immersion” gets tossed about so often in this industry, yet when people say it all they really mean is “I didn’t notice how fast the hour hand was spinning around on the clock”. It has nothing to do with emotional investment in a game.
Yet if you ask a player that truly loved The Walking Dead game, they’ll tell you about how much they cared about the characters and their interactions with them. This is a much more true form of immersion. You are truly invested in the world because you care about it. You believe in these characters.
That is what makes The Walking Dead one of the best games released this year. Video games as an interactive form of entertainment should be capable of telling the most gripping stories of any medium by simply involving the player. The loss of the characters is your loss. Their struggles are your struggles. Their victories are your victories.
This is what defines a game, and The Walking Dead excels at it.