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Everything Matters: THE WALKING DEAD, Ep. 1

February 17, 2013

Simply put, I am blown away by the first installment of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead. I knew going in that it was supposed to be great, but I didn’t know what to expect. This is a story-driven game, so how much interaction was I going to have? Would I just be selecting a few dialogue options now and again? Well, yes, you do, but right from the start it’s made clear that what you say in those conversations actually matters. The consequences of your actions are not always immediate, but the game hints at the significance of your choices with text that appears at the top of the screen: “You checked on Clementine”, “You showed an interest in Kenny’s family”, “Lilly remembers what you said about her”, and the like.

Because of these hints, there wasn’t a moment when I wasn’t careful about how I responded when talking with others. And the game puts a timer on your responses, solidifying the feeling that everything you say (and do) matters. Furthermore, there’s rarely an easy decision to make: it’s not clear whose side is better to take, who’s worth saving, or how much information you should be sharing about your own past. There’s always the looming concern that the wrong decision will turn around and bite you down the road. But that’s exactly what makes The  Walking Dead different from other games: I didn’t spend my time trying to find an optimal outcome—there isn’t one.

It’s remarkable how the weight of the decision-making makes the game feel so realistic. I was surprised to find myself feeling legitimate empathy for the characters in the game, which doesn’t usually come easily to me in games. The good writing and voice acting animates a variety of personalities, and like in real life, there’s no way you can get along with everyone: you’re bound to step on some toes (or punch some jaws). So when you need to settle a dispute, siding with the people you like means you push away everyone else. Relationships are both messy and important to keep healthy, and it makes you care about maintaining them.

So when you’re asked to choose between saving two people you like, it’s all the more difficult. At the end of this episode, as everyone’s scrambling to hold the zombies at bay until Kenny gets the car, both Carley and Doug end up in trouble, and you can only save one. On the one hand, Carley is handy with a gun, and you’ve had more of an opportunity to bond with here through conversation. On the other, Doug’s a good guy and already saved Carley by himself, so he may be a good asset in the future. It seems as if the game nudges you toward saving Carley, since Doug is presented as a computer geek who “surprisingly” is pretty handy to have around (based on Carley’s account of her rescue), and you don’t have much of a chance to get to know him yourself. Even still, I was torn between the two, and as the time to save them slipped away in slow motion, I couldn’t decide. And my indecision killed them both. … And then the game went back to the last save.

Honestly, that doesn’t surprise me (all the extra writing would be a big undertaking), and it’s not a huge deal, but imagine if such indecision, resulting in the death of both characters, was a legitimate outcome. Imagine if I had to face the consequences of being responsible for letting two people die when I could have saved at least one. Surely the other survivors would be extremely hesitant to trust me with their lives, and no doubt the horrific weight of my error would steel my resolve to never let it happen again: already in mind I’m starting to think about whom I care about more, or whom I find more useful to keep around. Those are some dark thoughts to be thinking. So even though I don’t actually have to live (in the game) with both of their blood on my hands, it’ll still change the way I play. It’s just too bad that I wasn’t punished. That surely would have stuck with me for a long time, both in the game, and out.

As a story-driven game, The Walking Dead does also suffer from a few contrived plot points (though they don’t take much away from the experience). One particular example is when you need to distract some “walkers” outside the pharmacy by turning on the TVs in the front window at the electronics store across the street. You get your hands on a remote, and one character, Doug, just happens to know the TV codes to program a universal remote so you can turn them on from a distance. The light does little to attract the zombies, so you must throw a brick at the front window so the static is more audible. But how likely is it that these TVs, which would all be turned on on a normal day, would be un-muted, with their different feeds creating quite a racket for the store staff? Or maybe they would all be tuned to the same station? But that’s not really the point, because by the time I considered that, the fourth wall had already been broken. This is picky, I know, but little details like this draw attention to themselves when the rest of the story is so compelling and believable.

Minor nitpicks aside, I say again that this game blew me away. I’m excited to see how my decisions affect things in future episodes: based on my experiences with consequences in this first one, I have complete trust that Telltale will do something significant with them (and it helps that I know that all of the episodes received high praise, and that the game received several awards for storytelling and was “Game of the Year” at several sites). I’m also interested at the idea of going back through the game a second time to make different decisions, though considering that this first run-through already compelled me to often act as I would if I were really there, I would have to spend some time thinking about what sort of person I’d want to play as, lest my choices be inconsistent. Though with that said, it would be instructive to see how well the story holds up if you continually oscillate between personalities. But that’s all something to consider later. For now, I’m going to let this all sink in.

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