Storytelling in video games is difficult. On paper, they look like a perfect match, with the interactivity of games giving narratives an element of immersion and immediacy impossible in any other medium. But the reality is not that simple. Often, the more ambitious a game is in its story, the more embarrassing the blunders it makes. A straight transferral of a cinematic story into a game will never work because there are too many tropes that just do not fit. However, that potential for great storytelling in a manner unique to games is still there, and one of the best pieces of evidence for this is The Walking Dead.
Set within the universe of the brilliant comic book series, whilst also drawing on the hit AMC TV show, the game follows Lee Everett, a man about to be imprisoned for murder until the sudden outbreak of zombies across America leaves him stranded in a dark new world. Soon, he finds Clementine, a stranded little girl whom Lee takes responsibility for and tries to protect in this new violent and unpredictable world. This is only the very beginning of the game, but to reveal any more would be to spoil one of the more emotionally involving stories ever told in a video game. Much of this is due to its format, which modernises many of the conventions of classic point-and-click adventure games. In this sense, the game can be closely compared to Farenheit or Heavy Rain. Similar to them, The Walking Dead is akin to an interactive movie or TV show, and not a game as we traditionally understand them. But in many ways this is its greatest strength, as it removes what has always been the greatest impediment to storytelling in games: their internal logic.
It is this element that nearly always undermines a game’s storytelling efforts. TV shows or films, even novels and comic books, work on the premise that their world more or less follows the same conventions as ours. Yet, only the most inexperienced player could keep the same illusion in a video game. The internal logic of games may vary slightly, but ultimately there are some constants: there will always be something to be found if there are containers to be searched, every choice has a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ option, all boss fights progress through three stages, among more unspoken rules destroying any illusion of realism. The Walking Dead ignores this from the very start. The player cannot rely on any experience with how video games work. No matter how many drawers you open looking for supplies in the first house you come to, there’s nothing there to help.
Yet, the helplessness of the main character is crucial to the overall effect of the game. What makes Lee Everett such a great hero is that he is not a hero, or at least not a hero in the traditional action sense common in video games. He’s not even the leader of the group of survivors he joins. While he’s certainly capable, he’s no more capable than the player might be. In fact, the very first action sequence of the game is an agonisingly tense scene in which Lee fumbles to load a gun in time. He, of course, improves with experience over the course of the game, but never drastically more so than any other character, as all the survivors become more adept at staying alive. This creates an atmosphere of urgency in the game that really lets the characters and voice acting shine. Dialogue options for instance, have been a technique used countless times in RPGs and even standard action games, but here they play a much more important role. Without the comfort of knowing you can probably shoot your way out of any crisis, your relationship with the other characters takes on a life-and-death importance. This may raise plenty of groans from those who just want decent action gameplay, but often the best parts of the game are negotiating the fraught politics of your group of survivors. Even seemingly irrelevant dialogue options affect your relationships with them, which become essential as the plot thickens, the pressure builds and survival seems a nigh impossible prospect.
These smaller dialogue and action choices may make the game as a whole, but it’s the big backed-into-a-corner, either-or choices that make up its set pieces. While one could argue that a fault of the game is in only having ‘wrong’ choices available, this is an unfairly simplistic attitude. Whether a choice is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ depends entirely on one’s outlook. If you choose to save a character that you like and who is loyal to you, then that surely could be seen as a ‘right’ option. It may just be a consequence that someone else dies because of that choice. However, the most harrowing dilemmas by far come from the actions you choose to take in front of Clementine. While killing someone who threatens the group may seem like a no-brainer, the prospect of Clementine seeing you as a monster for such cold blooded murder may make you think twice. It’s just another factor you will have to consider, and another consequence you will have to live with.
Despite the game’s many achievements, it is still far from perfect. Often noted are the technical hiccups that sometimes slow a scene down. The graphics, also, despite using a gorgeous aesthetic to emulate its comic book origins, can at times be clunky and a little cheap, while the action sometimes suffers from a lack of innovation that the rest of the game stays free from. However, the more significant problems are the ‘bottleneck’ points in the story, where, regardless of your choice, things more or less work out the same way. These do not necessarily affect the game in the moment, but can undermine the significance of your choices in retrospect.
Nonetheless, you shouldn’t let any of these minor issues put you off. While there may seem to be so many obvious reasons to avoid it (not least including the over-saturation of zombies in video-games), the first few minutes are enough to dismiss any of these expectations. Instead, you’ll find an experience you won’t forget and a true development in gaming. With the second season beginning this autumn, and the expansion pack 400 Days already released (as well as The Wolf Among Us, a similarly episodic game from the same developers using the Fables license), there’s never been a better time to get caught up. It may not be perfect, but The Walking Dead truly is a powerful and original game.