McGinnis: How “The Walking Dead” game points the wayWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
I have written of Telltale Games in the past. The company has been one of the most impressive producers of episodic video games for years, typically based upon major entertainment licenses. Not only do they make extremely fun adventure titles, but they do so in a way that captures the essence of the pop culture universe they are emulating very well. Their games based upon the Wallace and Gromit and Homestar Runner franchises were spot-on to the last detail, as was the game-based sequel to the “Back to the Future” series.
When it was announced that Telltale would be adapting Robert Kirkman’s comic series “The Walking Dead” into a episodic series of games, though, I must admit to some level of skepticism. Most of Telltale’s greatest successes had come in working with franchises that had a sense of whimsy to them, which “Walking Dead” certainly lacks. And for all Telltale’s qualities, their games had yet to really get action sequences down well. A zombie game in the Telltale style seemed like it would lack the tension necessary to really be effective.
However, in playing the game, available for download on PC, 360, PS3 and other platforms, any objections I had were immediately stilled. While it’s far from a standard shoot-em-up in terms of control scheme, the game’s action is far more involving than previous Telltale fare. And the developers captured the feel and overwhelming sense of dread of Kirkman’s comic to a T.
As important as the “walkers” are, the other characters around you are the key to the series. The game understands that the real drama in the world of “Walking Dead” comes not from the zombies, but from your fellow survivors. Really, the series is about how your character adapts to the new realities of the universe around you, and how the choices you make can change that universe and the people in it.
This brings me to a key moment, which I will try and explain using as few spoilers as possible. Throughout the game, you can choose the kind of person your character, Lee, a convicted felon set loose by the outbreak, can be. Throughout the first two episodes, I tried to make choices that felt right, morally. I wanted to be a “good guy.” Of course, in a world where society is breaking down all around you, what is good or bad is often quite fuzzy.
This came to a head in the third episode, released on August 28. After trying like mad to keep the peace among my group of survivors, there came a moment where a senseless act of paranoia and violence left one member of my party dead. The choice was then left to me: Should we leave the killer behind or take them with us?
At any other point in the adventure, I would have struggled to do the “right thing.” But at this moment, what the right thing was seemed murky at best. This individual had killed someone in cold blood. The safety of everyone else would be at risk if they stayed. But leaving the person behind, defenseless, in a world full of zombies — wasn’t that as good as murder, as well?
As I pondered the question, I realized — I was having a genuine moral debate about my actions. I have played hundreds of games where I’ve killed thousands of characters, mostly faceless drones designed to be mowed down by gunfire. Rarely has a game made me truly consider the act of killing. Rarer still that it made me feel the pressure of the choice.
I decided to leave the killer behind. I regretted the choice from the moment I made it. And as we looked back to see the guilty party run in fear from a gang of walkers that were closing in, I wished I could change it. Even as I knew that my party was safer in this person’s absence. Even as I knew the situation had been manipulated into being by the game’s designers. Even as I knew this was “just a game,” and I could reset it and make a different choice. The weight of my action stayed with me.
This is what games can do, I thought. This is the kind of interactive storytelling that is possible in this medium. The ability to put the player in a moment where they truly are a part of the story, and feel the moral consequences is something that gaming can do better than any other art form.
Wait. Art form? Did I really just call games the “A” word?
Yes, I did. And if more titles follow Telltale’s lead, I’d bet even more people would consider referring to interactive entertainment as art, too.