One of the many reasons why libraries integrate games and gaming into their collections and programming is because games are a powerful storytelling medium. Whether a group of friends create a story collaboratively over a tabletop role-playing game (RPG), or an individual uses a video game to craft his own fictional universe and adventures, playing games flexes creative muscles and engages imaginative thinking.
The Walking Dead, from Telltale Games, is probably the best example of this to be found among recent game releases. Not only is it set in the same world as the award-winning comic book and TV series, it’s also an exercise in dramatic storytelling and character development. The game takes the old reliable “point and click” adventure genre and expands on it by adding real-time events that require careful timing and split-second decision-making—and, often, those decisions mean the difference between life and death.
Gamers take on the role of Lee, a former professor on his way to prison for a crime he may or may not have committed. The opening scene is both a tutorial and a prelude. The tension builds as Lee has a conversation with the officer taking him to jail, and suddenly a zombie lurches into the middle of the street, causing a terrible car crash that renders Lee unconscious. When he awakens, he’s confronted by the same officer—who’s now a zombie. In a moment of panic, Lee uses the officer’s shotgun to kill him, and the game begins in earnest.
As Lee, players explore the world of the undead, interacting with their environment by picking up and using objects, talking to characters, and—when necessary—fighting zombies. Unlike the focus of most zombie games, the emphasis here is not on eradicating the living dead with an arsenal of firearms and brutal melee weapons. Instead, Lee must build meaningful relationships with other characters, from a little girl who survives on her own and a well-meaning but paranoid farmer who takes in other survivors to a tough reporter who’s a crack shot with her pistol. No two characters are the same: some are likable but terribly unfit to survive in a world overrun by zombies; others are crude and violent and generate little sympathy; still others slowly earn Lee’s trust and begin to trust him in return.
If two characters have an argument, Lee can choose sides or stay neutral. If more than one character is at risk of dying, the player decides which one to save. While some actions are necessary to make the overall story progress, the details depend upon the decisions made when tough choices are presented.
Actions shape the story line
Unlike most games with “choice and consequence” mechanics, however, the actions taken during this game shape the story line in a variety of ways. In most RPGs, for example, a character’s overall reputation of being good or evil will alter the quests he can attempt, which merchants are available for business, and which nonplayable character will become a love interest. In The Walking Dead, the impact of choices are more personal. If a character is left to die, his loved ones will become hostile; side against a character in an argument, and she’ll remember it when the main character is in trouble. Conversely, if a player shares his food, others will remember and repay the kindness.
This give and take makes the experience feel less like a game and more like a true storytelling exercise. Most of the time, decisions must be made within mere seconds. There is no carefully crafting the villain or hero, just gut instinct.
The design of the game is fairly straightforward and simple. What really sells the effect of Lee’s choices and his interactions are the game’s visuals and voice-acting. In each environment, Lee can interact with objects or characters. The objects he acquires may be weapons, tools, medicine, or food. On-screen prompts guide the gamer through the possible actions, but they can be turned off for a more challenging and immersive experience.
Combat with zombies (zombat?) is based on timing: simply target the zombie, follow the on-screen prompts, and let Lee do the rest. That’s not to say that the combat isn’t challenging; some zombies are faster or stronger than others, and each is able to kill with a single hit.
Like everything else related to The Walking Dead franchise, this game is a roller coaster of emotions and a test of nerves. It’s not for everyone; graphic violence, profanity, and an overall pervasive atmosphere of terror and desperation more than justify the game’s M rating. For those willing and able to play it, however, there’s a unique experience to be had. Rarely in a game does a character’s death actually feel tragic, and rarely does a choice feel important and meaningful.
It might not win any prizes for its game design and core mechanics, but The Walking Dead builds upon simple apparatuses to craft a gripping and engrossing narrative experience.
Until next time, keep repeating, “Just one more level.”