Monday, July 23, 2012

The Walking Dead review

Fashionable zombie pop-culture bores me. I have a negative interest in anything to do with zombies. And yet... there is DayZ and now Telltale's latest adventure game series, The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead is the only adventure game in the last fifteen years that simply must be played. Why?
  • The narrative and plot are compelling
  • The script is good
  • The characterisation is generally quite good
  • The puzzles are a balance between tricky, frustrating and satisfying
  • The art style is really good
  • The interface is one of the best I've seen in an adventure game
But importantly, it's because
  • It appears to have meaningful choices at almost every node of the dialog tree
  • What you need to do to survive is a great blend of disgust and grotesque fascination. (I think I've said "Oh my God!" more times playing The Walking Dead than any other game!)
Many dialog trees in the game have a timer on them. You often need to respond in moments. This is the most fantastic innovation in adventures games since the dialog tree was created. I doubt The Walking Dead was the first to use it, but it uses it extremely well. It's so tense. I was often locked in indecision. Occasionally, I simply couldn't decide, resulting in awkward silence. I love how not saying anything is an option! Of course, no matter what you say, it can't matter too much, yet it doesn't feel like that at the time. And that's the important thing.

Often events don't go the way I wanted or how I expected, but I just went with it. It's part of the story and it all seems meaningful. Only once have I re-started a section because of the way things turned out. This is great in two ways; 1) even though things don't necessarily go the way you wanted, it's not necessarily bad enough to force you to rewind and 2) I care enough about some events that I simply can't allow the game to continue after an event that was simply too wrong for me to be happy with. That might sound contradictory, but isn't.

The reason why DayZ and The Walking Dead are such good zombie games is because they're not really zombie games. DayZ is about the other people you play with, whether other survivors or bandits that hunt you. The Walking Dead is all about the other characters in the game. The zombies are there in a way that function almost as a relief. Zombies are simple. All you have to do is kill them (again). It's everyone else you have to be worried about. (But that would make a great twist, if zombies weren't exactly as we assume. If they transitioned from a Nazi SS officer to an Itialian fascist infantryman, then you'd have a whole new depth of narrative to explore.)

Episodal format? Seems like a dodgy way to get people to pay for a game that isn't finished. Episodal gaming is a bit of a relic in the era of kickstarter. It's proto-kickstarter, where some of the risks are put onto the consumer rather than all. In effect, I don't mind at all. In fact, I think I prefer it. I don't have the desire or time to sit down and play a game for hour on end. This way I can play it in chunks over a period of months. At episode two of six, I feel like I've gotten all I thought I would get from this game and I'm not even halfway. If quality drops by the end of the season, I don't think it matters. It's already been a whole lot better than many games I've played recently (looking at you Diablo 3).

This is the first game in years that I want everyone to play. I'm not just talking about my friends that don't play games anymore now that they've "grown up." I mean, my mum. She should play it. Sure, it's horrific, but it's done so horrifically well.


  1. "The reason why DayZ and The Walking Dead are such good zombie games is because they're not really zombie games". That sounds about right. I guess one is a multiplayer FPS survival horror game, with zombies, and the other is a well written adventure game, with zombies. They are both good other games before being zombie games. It sounds like these games work because they balance the content and the context of the zombie in the game mechanics and narrative. I presume a pure 'zombie game' would be playing the role of the zombie in some way?

  2. I don't think you need to go that far - I'm not even sure how you could play as a zombie if they're not sentient. I can easily think of one game that is almost wholly concerned with zombies; L4D. There is almost no narrative and hardly any dynamic between the players (if you don’t co-operate it’s to your detriment.) It’s just zombie killin’. (And you can “play” a zombie too!)
    I wonder if they’ll release L4D2 properly once we have an R18 category in Australia. Might be worth playing when/if that happens…