If you’ve interacted with society at some point over the past two years, there is little doubt that you have at least heard of The Walking Dead. The franchise has been alive and flourishing in the comic book industry since 2003, but has only recently reached pop culture mega-star OMGWTF status within the past two years due to the AMC television series. While the TV series shows no signs of slowing its unrelenting charge into future seasons, Robert Kirkman, the creator of The Walking Dead franchise, saw fit to let their brand be developed in another form of media, the almighty video game. Thank God.
The TV series is nothing short of true pop culture phenomena, and it has been dubbed the most watched TV show on the planet. But does the game hold up to the standard set by the show, and the quality demanded by its rabid fan base? Many would say (me among them) that the TV series is the show of the year. The only question that remains is this: Could Telltale’s The Walking Dead really be Game of the Year, or is it just capitalizing on the success of its TV cousin?
What does it take to be game of the year? What qualities must a game have that would earn this prestigious honor? There have been many great games this year, all with their strengths and weaknesses, but most have one undeniable and ultimately crippling hindrance: competition. While competition is absolutely essential to the interactive gaming industry as a whole, driving developers to make bigger and better games, too many games find themselves floating in a sea of mediocrity, desperately trying to separate themselves from their genre with new features and slightly different gameplay.
The Walking Dead has pretty much eliminated this issue, considering there really isn’t anything like this game this year. Sure, Telltale could have made another generic shooter, dropped some zombies into it, stamped The Walking Dead across the title screen, and stood there while their pockets became lined with our hard-earned money. But they didn’t. What they created was an original, story-focused, character-driven zombie survival experience that was delivered episodically, keeping us on the edge of our seat for the past seven months.
So let’s talk story. I won’t discuss any of the actual story elements here, because they deserve to be experienced spoiler-free. Unfortunately, storytelling is a dying art in the gaming industry. However, The Walking Dead is one of the best stories I have ever played in a video game, period. It is completely original, written for the game exclusively, with the visual style of the original comic book series. You won’t see your favorite characters from the show or comics here (a few comic cameos notwithstanding), but what you will see is a defined group of very different characters, all with their individual struggles, baggage, and agenda. The different characters work beautifully together, creating tense conflicts where you, as the main character, will have to choose sides and eventually create enemies and allies within your group. This is definitely the core of the narrative, and it allows you to explore several different outcomes in each episode.
In addition to the character and relationship dynamics presented, this game injects real emotion into the story. Not just emotional portrayals of events on screen, which are there as well, but also decisions that impact gameplay and determines who lives, who dies, and repercussions for your actions. At many points in the game, you will be faced with terrible choices; you’ll have to decide between two friends, whether or not to save someone, or how you will accomplish a plan. These decisions will affect your band of misfits, their perception of you, and your ability to control them as a group. All of these mechanics give you a sense of emotional investment in these people, literally putting their fate in your hands.
It’s not all rainbows, teddy bears, and puppy farts though, because The Walking Dead also delivers where it really counts in the zombie apocalypse: the scares. Each episode contains panic moments, which are tantalizingly tense and sometimes diabolically difficult. These real-time events were designed to catch players off guard and to make them curse uncontrollably at the screen. (I don’t know if that second part is true for everyone; that was just my personal experience.) To add to the tension, these events are timed, so if you take too long you could end up as a zombie buffet. No worries though—if you die, you will restart at the last autosave, but you can still go through a panic sequence several times before you get it right.
I also felt a real sense of uneasiness any time I was outside of the confines of the group stronghold. Any time I spotted walkers, geeks, or biters (whichever name you prefer), I felt an impending sense of doom, normally punctuated by some sort of attack or event to keep me off balance.
All of these elements (and the entire game for that matter) are delivered with cinematic flair, the likes of which you typically don’t see outside of Hollywood. The comic visual style of the game is beautiful and translates well to the screen. The cinematography is top-notch, and the scenes are constructed as though they were made for film or television, which brings additional quality to the depth of the characters and events.
This control scheme is as brilliant as it is simple. It limits the player to the confines of the story, while still giving you all the tools you need to succeed in any given sequence of play. Basically, you can move through the environment and select items you have collected that are relevant to the part of the story you are playing. No need for complex inventory systems or even a HUD. Ultimately, the control setup keeps the player focused on the story and the characters, and not on going rogue and killing all of the zombies in Macon and later, Savannah singlehandedly.
The Walking Dead game has made it apparent that you can do something different in this industry and still be successful. Telltale took a risk with this game, but their attention to detail and production quality have delivered us an amazing game that is deserving of its lineage. I only wish there were more companies out there willing to take these risks and bring us new and exciting content as Telltale has with this title.
In the end, The Walking Dead’s story, characters, and fresh gameplay are the key factors that separate it from the pack. In short, this game is definitely one of the best of 2012 and absolutely deserves to be in the running for Game of the Year. Can it win? We shall see.
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*