Major spoilers for The Walking Dead (videogame/ comics/ TV show) follow. Read on at your own risk.
Uncharted. Metal Gear Solid. Heavy Rain. Mass Effect. These are all games that have, in one way or another, affected the way we look at how games tell stories. How they move us, how they convey emotions, how they make us care about the characters. A few years back, storytelling had little importance in games. It was an added bonus to have an excellent story in a game that was presented well, but never did people give it as much attention as it deserved. And then games like Mass Effect, Uncharted and Heavy Rain were released, all of which laid emphasis on storytelling, on presenting their narrative in a gripping, engaging fashion.
Few games have been able to genuinely move me over the years, and even fewer have made me shed a tear or two. Telltale’s The Walking Dead, based on the bestselling comics by Robert Kirkman, has to be one of those games. Not only does The Walking Dead have an immaculate narrative, it perfects the art of telling stories in video games a hundred times over and sets an example for games in the future to look up to.
When I first started playing The Walking Dead, I had no idea what I was getting into. I’m someone who’s been following the comics and the TV show for a long time, and I’m a huge fan of the universe, so I was expecting the worst when Telltale announced they would be making a video game rendition of the franchise, because I didn’t want to get my hopes up. But from the moment I saw Lee Everett sitting in the back of the police car, looking at helicopters and other cops and a deserted highway out the window, I was hooked. I knew this was something special.
I knew that Telltale had managed to do something I thought was impossible. They had captured the feel and the atmosphere of the comic book series perfectly. This was The Walking Dead, through and through. And to be The Walking Dead, it had to have some great characters. It had to have at least one breakthrough character that would connect us all to the universe, that would make us feel deeply about everything that happened in the game.
Ten minutes into the game, I found that breakthrough character.
A little, scared girl hiding up in her treehouse, talking to Lee through the walkie-talkie, Clementine proved to be more than an annoying, stupid, scared child. She was, first of all, extremely cute and adorable. But her courage and ability to take care of herself were shocking, and somehow, the game made us feel responsible for her. Everything I did all throughout the game, I actually did it to protect her, to make her feel safe. Everytime I did something bad and Clem didn’t approve, I felt ashamed of myself. And everytime I saw a smile on her face, my heart melted.
It was near the beginning of the game when I made a choice that would affect in what light Clementine saw me in that I realized that I actually cared about what I was doing. That is when I realized just how masterful this game was in its storytelling style.
And as the story progressed, I got to meet more characters, and each one of them was wonderfully written, and I actually did care about all of them. The hotheaded friend, Kenny. The hot TV reported with a gun, Carley. The carefree, ever so happy buy who wanted to be the Robin to my Batman, Duck. And even though I didn’t care about characters such as Lilly or Larry that much, I did dislike them a great deal. And the fact that the writers wrote them well enough for me to actively dislike them is commendable.
These characters really brought the game to life, and we cared about what happened to them. Whenever I had to choose between a few decisions in the game, I always thought about Clementine, and Kenny, and Ben and the people in the group that I cared about. They changed the way I played the game, the way I wanted to play the game.
But characters weren’t the only thing Telltale did a spectacular job with. The Walking Dead just delivered one intense and unforgettable moment after another, without fail, surprising us at every turn, making us jump off ours seats and screaming at the screen- “That did not just fucking happen!”
The St. John’s dairy was as creepy as Woodbury from the comics. I cared for Clementine and Kenny and Lee like I care for Rick or Daryl or Carl. The deaths of Carley and Duck shocked and saddened me like the deaths of Tyreese or Lori, even though I didn’t like her much. There’s just so much stuff in the game that I can never forget. The moment when Lilly just ook out her gun and shot Carley point blank literally made me jump off my seat and stare at the screen in horror. I was angry at her. I was seriously pissed. I left her on the side of the street, but when later Lee expressed some regret, I started feeling a little guilty too. Lilly had bee going through a lot of stuff, and her head was not in the right place. I should have brought her with me, confronted her and then I should have made a decision.
This game makes you want to do things as if you’re doing them in real life, as if the situations in the game are actually affecting you. The stories about Crawford were creepy, and they really did disgust me. The section in the sewers near the end of the fourth episode had me in chills, and I was jumpy the entire time. When Clementine was taken by the stranger, I actually worried about her.
And when Lee got bit, I freaked the hell out. Clementine was kidnapped, and my group needed me, but Lee was dying. There was no time left, which is, incidentally, the name of the fifth episode. But there was a lot that needed to be done. So desperate was I to be able to live long enough to help me group and to find Clementine that I chopped my hand off, the hand that had been bitten. Also, it looked very cool, but whatever. At least The Governor didn’t do it for me, right?
And then there’s the ending, which has to be the most heart-wrenching thing I’ve ever seen in any video game. Lee and Clementine are two characters I’d come to love throughout the five episodes of the game, and I really wanted to see them safe. First, the game went ahead and killed off Kenny. Then, it told me that Lee cutting off his hand had been for nothing. He was still going to turn. He was still going to die. Clementine had to shoot him. She did. Lee was dead, and she was all alone. The fact that she had seen her dead parents right before shooting Lee didn’t help her- or us- either.
The final moments between Clem and Lee brought more than just a tear to me eyes. They brought a stream. And I’m not ashamed of saying it. It cannot be described in words, just how touching and moving those final moments were. No game or movie or book this year has moved me the way those moments did.
If I had to say one bad thing about The Walking Dead, it would be this- it’s too intense. How’s that bad? It’s bad because it always kept me on the edge of the seat, toying with my mind and my emotions. All the time. There was not a single moment of peace, where I could take in the scenery and not worry about Clementine or the group. I always felt responsible, and I was always on the edge. I chose to do things that were not only questionable in the game, and not just because of what Clementine thought of me, but also things that actually made me feel a bit averted to what I was doing. I chose to smash Larry’s head in. I decided to let Doug get eaten by the walkers. I couldn’t stop Clementine from eating a little bit of Mark (I know it sounds funny when I say it like this, but it really wasn’t). I fought with Kenny when his son was bitten.
Lee’s final moments with Clementine.
The things that I did in the game affected me as much as they affected the game itself. And that’s how I know The Walking Dead not only succeeds as a storytelling medium, it blows most of its competition out of the water. No, The Walking Dead isn’t disappointing, as many of us thought it would be, I hold it in the same regard as the comic book series and the TV show, and that is the highest compliment I can give. Because as we all know, the comics and the TV show are freaking awesome.
It’s not about the zombies, or dismembering dead, drooling geeks, or blood and gore and chainsaws and sawed-off shotguns. I mean, it does have all those things, but those are incidental. There are some epic zombie dismembering moments, moments when you cut off limbs and shoot people in their faces. But Telltale’s The Walking Dead is, first and foremost, about the characters and what happens to them. Just like the comics and the TV show. That’s why this video game is a perfect adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s universe.
The Walking Dead is an emotional rollercoaster. I know that sounds like that kind of thing you read on the back of a game’s box, or the kind of thing developers say to advertise their games. But it really is. I honestly can’t wait for Telltale to release the second season. I’m looking forward to it as much as I am looking forward to the second half of the third season of the TV show, as much as I am looking forward to the 105th issue of the comics.
If you’ve played The Walking Dead, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you need to do it now. It’s not even all that costly, and the retail version is also about to come out, so now would be the perfect time to jump in. Play it for the story. Play it for the great characters. For the intense moments. For the emotional ending.
Play it for Clementine.