TellTale Games are no stranger to borrowing a franchise and doing their own thing. In the cases of Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, their style and dynamic has seen mixed reviews from fans of the original franchises’ success. Ostensibly, TellTale Games mean well with what they do – excelling in some areas, but falling short in others. Their mix of action, point-and-click storytelling, never really found the right balance in prior games; with fairly wooden animations and voice acting to match, it wasn’t really clear who their audience were – episodic gaming isn’t rare, but it’s also not common.
However, with TellTale Games’ (arguably) fifth major release, they’ve managed to turn things round and show us what they’re really about.
It wouldn’t be Walking Dead without family, choices, and an old colonial home
Featuring Lee, a golden-voiced and boding social pariah, you find yourself mixed up in the middle of a whole lot of confusion as you’re driven out of the city via police escort – accused of committing a crime it is as of yet unclear you did. Perhaps not the prettiest introduction to the game, this scene serves as a great introduction to the superb writing–quite a contrast from Jurassic Park–featured in The Walking Dead. With four choices for every response to a question you’re asked, Lee doesn’t ever change in character – so much as vary in choosing his words. Conversation isn’t about choosing who Lee is – Lee is Lee – so much as directing the story in certain directions. A far cry from Bioware’s schizophrenic Shepard, with choices serving to clarify a patent case of bi-polar disorder in many situations, Lee is charged with a subtle and intuitive system of responses that differ only in out-come, rather than attitude.
The scene also introduces you to camera control – following a cursor around the middle of the screen to pick up things, sometimes of value, sometimes not. If you’re using a mouse, the cursor will be a small, 4 arrows pointing inward. If you see something intractable, one of the cursors will highlight a button to be pressed for either looking, touching, grabbing and other actions – including using an item. Using the game-pad, it’s much the same – only a little chunkier. Playable with both, I used the game-pad.
Fairly quickly into the story, you are tasked with your first choice. This, like many of the choices, is a timed response – although I won’t ruin it for you, there’s no real way to avoid what happens.
The game shares much of the same dynamic of the show. Suspense is prolonged, and in order to instill fear into the mind of the player where the graphics simply cannot, choices are often vague, with the playing having to point (look) in the right direction in order to even be presented with a choice. This works really well, and although you won’t panic and tear your hair out a-la Amnesia, TellTale have another way of making you want to not die.
Pokemon caps, a kid called Duck and dude with a secret.
Having escaped that which I shall not spoil, you’re introduced the ambiance of The Walking Dead. Although there’s no free exploration to speak of, there are moments where you’re channeled through some pretty enough scenes in order to invoke a sense of scale and surroundings. The first area decisively leading you to what seems to be an abandoned house. Nothing in this, or any other TellTale game goes without some dialogue for longer than about two minutes – so as you search the area, Broken Sword Style, Lee will quip, contextualize and generally open himself up to the player.
At this point, if you weren’t satisfied with previous TellTale titles, it’s as though the developer crammed a whole bunch of reassurance into one house. Coming across an answering message, Lee learns that the owners of the house are on holiday. Message one explains how the husband has been attacked–but he’s fine–explaining they need to stay over-night. The second message goes on to explain how his conditioned is worsened, and, the final message, as you probably expect, is absolute chaos. “Baby, if you hear this – call 911 and wait for them to arrive.” At this moment you realise this isn’t a kids game – prior to any swearing or violence, TellTale portray a genuinely chilling scenario, and with promise of characterization, all of that which the graphics could not ensure has been covered through means of empathy – and it works.
At the same moment you realise the game has substance, you’re tasked with your first real action sequence. Having located the daughter of the estranged parents, you’re ambushed by woman with serious issues, shuffling backwards to make your escape. As you’d expect, hammering the A button on my Xbox controller was enough to ensure Lee’s safety – but a little aiming and action timing also got me kicking her in the face. This wasn’t enough to kill her, unfortunately, which is where the 8 year old handed me a hammer and I gratefully smashed the zombies face in. Hello, Walking Dead, you haven’t changed at all.
At this moment you’ll be hooked, as I was, and the charming Clementine - Lee’s new burden – is a really fine example of how in touch with gamers TellTale really are. With the iconic Pokemon cap on and the toughness of a tom-boy, Clementine serves as Lee’s emotional anchor, and helps him secure some help.
I’ve spoken in great detail about the action sequences so far, and I don’t want spoil the game for you – so I shall move on and talk loosely about what it is you should expect from Episode 1, and how well the dynamic works.
Chatting, learning – being human. Empathy is key.
It’s up to you who you are to Clementine - when asked by a stranger, I had the option of saying I was her father, ‘some guy’ or a neighbor. For lack of a better explanation I said that I was her neighbor. In the top left corner, I was told that the character I was talking to noted this choice. It’s true, in The Walking Dead your choices and reactions really do – and I mean really do – affect the game. I’m not talking about some loose Mass Effect nonsense where your choice determines the out-come of the conversation, which has no affect on anything else – I mean, if you treat characters right, they’ll be sure to side with you or aide you when you need it. It’s a subtle, intuitive system – and it’s all about building trust.
Between all the action there are lengthy, albeit integral, opportunities to talk to all the characters. You can’t really skip these, and you’ve to talk to every single one until the options are entirely milked. This isn’t unwelcome – since the writing and voice acting really is superb, and it isn’t a laborious chore to listen to all their trivial conversation – since none of it is really trivial.
In all fairness, though, if you’re unable to sit through lengthy, fairly static scenes of conversation with–sometimes–little interraction, then TellTale games aren’t for you. With fairness to the developer, they have made it patently clear what the game will entail by this point – but I can see some people growing tired of the inability to skip dialogue. If it is any consolation to those people: talking to strangers and turning them into friends is 80% of the game, and without that… or… without a want for that, the humanism isn’t there – and it wouldn’t be The Walking Dead.
Women and children first!
TellTale are mean. They force you to love the characters, and then have you pick which one dies – more than once. Although I won’t say who, or when – there are times when Lee must directly pick who gets to live and who gets to die. Given that everyone has family, these choices can’t be made lightly – but they must be made quickly.
Picking between a male or a female, an adult or a child isn’t really an easy task. Given so much history and dialogue between the characters, you’ll want to know what exactly changes before you make your choice – but you can’t know, and you just have to live with it – for 4 more episodes. That’s what make this game great… the feeling that the decisions you make directly affect the entire experience. And that isn’t ‘dev talk’, it’s actually there.
Another reason it isn’t easy to pick is because each character is unique. They’re well written, funny, and human. I’m really not one for getting immersed in characterization - often video-game characters are about as shallow as a Dan Brown novel, but TellTale have genuinely excelled in this regard. Be it a lovable, rugged dad – doing his best for he and his foreign wife, or an asshole with a heart condition who’d sooner punch you in the face than let you talk to his daughter, their lives are in your hands.
If I wanted a soap opera, though, I’d watch TV
True, video-games aren’t conventionally lengthy, written cut-scenes in their entirety – but there is action here. In a parking lot, for example, Lee and a very special guest (who I won’t ruin for you) are tasked with finding weapons and taking out 5 zombies. Crouched behind a wall, you get to look to your left, right, and above. Look for too long and you’ll get spotted – but plan your moves right, and you can shuffle across, acquire the items you need and put together a plan to take out the lot of bad guys. By this time, you should love the characters enough not to mess up.
Although not the prettiest of games – the cell shaded graphics reference the comic book well – although I’d be lying if I said they couldn’t be better. It’s a blatant console port, and with some jerky cut-scenes (at least for me) it could do with a little patching, but overall it looks great, with character emotions evocative and real. The zombies, by far the best looking models in the game, do look scary – so much so that they even veer on breaking the art-style, perhaps intentionally. Fully animated, through your television, and this is a fantastic looking story game, though – where graphics really come second to character.
At 20.99 (GBP) for a five season pass, released in monthly episodes, the price almost merits this initial episode alone. Clocking in at around 3 hours, you get two movie’s worth of entertainment. Whilst I’m not naive enough to expect each episode to be as long and of the same quality, with some I’m sure falling short of expectations, I’m glad I have four months more to look forward to.
Is this fan service? I don’t think so. Although it flows in the same way that The Walking Dead does, and includes a surprise guest, this is really for fans of these episodic cut-scene style story games of any genre. Fans of The Walking Dead, if not into this kind of game, will find more pleasure from Dead Island – but for those of you who love the graphic novel and the television series, and love these kinds of games, this is a real treat – and one that cannot be missed on PC. All the episodes are included with the PC purchase, so you’ve very little to lose… well… other than the characters you learn to care for during your journey in The Walking Dead.