Culture Bytes: Telltale Games' The Walking Dead

Halloween (or All Hallow's Eve for fans of convoluted English) is tomorrow, which gives me the perfect excuse to talk about one of my specialist subjects; zombies! In this article I'll be focusing on a game adaptation of one of my favourite comic book series and TV shows, The Walking Dead.

For those unfamiliar with Telltale Games, here's a brief overview. Telltale is a game development company focusing on multiple-choice, story-driven video-games; almost half-way between a video game and an interactive film. They're heavily dialogue based and most action scenes take place in active time sequences (pressing certain buttons at certain times to complete character actions). Think Heavy Rain but, you know... good. Telltale's games are released episodically, usually five episodes per season, increasing excitement and suspense as well as spreading the cost of the game out over the course of a few months. The company tends to focus on adaptions of already established series in a host of media: Game of Thrones, Fables, Minecraft, Borderlands, and, in my opinion their masterpiece, The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead Season One was released in 2012 and won numerous Game of the Year awards. It's easy to see why. Focusing on characterisation and emotion as opposed to violence, violence and more violence, Telltale's approach offers a unique experience in today's zombie video-game market. Left4Dead is a shoot-em-up with horror elements and Resident Evil has gone in much the same direction. However, even if this wasn't the case, I'd like to think The Walking Dead would have won these accolades on its story-telling merits alone. The game focuses on ex-teacher Lee Everett as he's transported to prison for the manslaughter of his wife's lover. The car crashes in the midst of the zombie outbreak and chaos ensues. After escaping the crash-site, Lee finds a young girl, Clementine, who's hiding from her zombified babysitter and waiting for her parents to return from holiday. After making sure the zombie is dead (again, I mean) Lee quickly realises Clementine's parents probably aren't coming back and takes her with him to keep her safe. In their search for sanctuary, they meet other survivors (including cameos from the comic book) and create a small, if uneasy, group. From there the player has to choose certain alliances, all the while thinking, 'What's best for Lee and Clementine?' Personally, I grew very attached to the characters which made some of the decisions truly harrowing. And that's the game's real strength. This isn't really a horror game; it's a drama with horror elements. Yes, the zombies are a persistent threat, but far more terrifying is the prospect of losing someone you love, or having to live with yourself after making a selfish decision. In terms of story-telling and player experience, The Walking Dead Season One is a masterpiece.

To hold fans over in anticipation for The Walking Dead Season Two, Telltale released The Walking Dead: 400 Days. Essentially a mini-series, the game follows different characters from day one of the outbreak to, you guessed it, day 400. While diverting, the game wasn't quite as polished as the first season, though, in truth, this flaw is mainly due to the game's brevity. Being so much shorter than the full seasons and spending so little time with each character, it's not quite as easy to get attached as it was to Lee and Clementine. Make no mistake, the characterisation is every bit as good, but the time-frame is so short it's clear from the start that your actions are going to have far fewer consequences. The characters are well formed but they feel like characters as opposed to the friends you make in the full games.

For reasons I won't go into for fear of spoilers, in The Walking Dead Season Two the audience plays as Clementine. Set two years after the original game, Clementine's character has developed much in the same way as the characters from the comic book or TV show. She's tougher now, but still very much herself; hardened by the harsh world she lives in though unwilling to give up the last vestiges of humanity. Although she's older, Clementine is still very young and, for me, this led to yet another new game-play experience. As the adult Lee, you can be fairly certain that if you get into certain physical situations you can use your strength to get out of them (having to fight an attacker or knocking a door down, etc), but for someone as vulnerable as Clementine these really aren't options. Clementine's far more reliant on the mercy of others, making this game even more harrowing than the first one. This season is every bit as emotionally rendering, in fact, the final fate you're forced to decide makes it even more so. The reason this didn't win the awards of the season are mostly down to Telltale's other releases. The Wolf Among Us (based on the comic book Fables) was hugely well received, offering the game-play experience Heavy Rain should have delivered in the fantasy comic-book setting. Also, Telltale's adaption of Game of Thrones was so anticipated by audience members and reviewers alike, The Walking Dead Season Two almost slipped under the radar.

The quality of these games is evident in many ways; the beautiful cel-shaded artwork, the script, the voice acting, but most of all in their empathy. Since you make the majority of the big decisions in the game 'Lee' or 'Clementine' almost become more of an avatar for yourself in this post-apocalyptic world. This becomes even more evident in re-plays. The second time around, I had intended to make an entirely different set of decisions to see new outcomes, but I just couldn't do it. Those decisions didn't feel like my Lee or my Clementine and I just ended up playing the games in exactly the same way as before. Thankfully, Telltale have plenty more planned for the The Walking Dead; a mini series focusing on Michonne, and an entire Season Three. All of these are highly anticipated.

Personally, as a fan of The Walking Dead as a franchise, the video-game I would love to see is a free-roaming survival-horror RPG set in the universe of the comic. One in which you could create your own character and survive your own way. Unfortunately, as far as I know, nothing like this has been planned (though if any game developers want to use this idea you know where to find me). For now, Telltale Games have got The Walking Dead pretty firmly covered and it's gratifying to see this well-crafted world in such loving, if bloodstained, hands.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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