Moral choice is nowhere near even close to being a new thing in video games these days. I have made choices that have, destroyed the food supply for an indigenous race, not killed a gun runner so I can extort money, weapons and information from him later, I killed a good friend so that I could gain the support of another dude with far greater connections (and score his killer apartment), I have saved and conversely harvested creepy little girls. I have done all of these things because in some way or other it has helped me to reach my own ends. From making me a more badass Jedi to giving me more currency to upgrade my plasmids, all of these choices have given my game some form of mechanical reward to help me on my way.
For us older kids, who played PC games back in the nineties, will recognize the style of gameplay on offer here. You will essentially guide your character, Lee, around various environments, interacting with items and people to find the right combination that will move the story along. As conversations play out, inevitably conflicts emerge between members of the group. From time to time, notifications come on screen telling you that one of the characters will remember what you said, which will have an effect on how they act towards you in the future. Then there are scenes in which you must act. Whether it is when arguments take a turn for worse, or when zombies attack, you must act and act quickly. The consequences of your actions can vary from people being pissed or conversely grateful to you, characters dying, or a game over screen. While the choices you make won’t necessarily cause greatly different stories to play out, they will change how things around these major events play out.
This all sounds pretty generic as far as games go these days, but the true brilliance of this game comes in how Telltale Games manages to subvert your expectations of how their established systems play out. This subversion creates some of the most intense story beats I have even experienced playing any game. At one point in the game, I actually stood up and yelled, “What the fuck!” at my TV screen. These moments manage to use all the best, most impactful, types of scenarios that make the comics and TV show so compelling. I often felt that they hit even harder here due to my direct involvement in them.
All of this would be well and good to create an interesting experience, but the developers really went the extra mile to pull you into the world of The Walking Dead. Typically, the situations in games that ask you to make moral choices are very black and white. As much as they have tried to make them gray, too often it boils down to, be the good guy and put yourself at a slight disadvantage, or be an ass hole and take the reward. Even really well written games like the Mass Effect series has fallen to this trap, but Telltale has thoroughly broken this gameplay trope. There are no extra weapons or armor, no currency to benefit you in an economy. There’s only Clementine. Early in the first episode you are introduced to this little girl who is completely on her own (after you smash her babysitter’s head in with a hammer), and decide to help her find her parents.
Clementine is Lee’s (and your) moral compass throughout the game. Everything you do in the game is reflected back on you through this character. No one is going to ever give a shit what Kenny really thinks about Lee (you), but when it comes to Clementine, the idea of her being afraid or upset with you, because of your actions, is untenable. This was cemented early on when I took a hardline action, not knowing that she was watching at the time, and the look of terror on her face actually made me feel disgusted in myself and question my motives. Again, by simply putting Clementine in the position to witness me do something terrible, no matter how justifiable it may have been, the developers completely changed how I approached every decision after that. After that, it was never about, “what will put me in the best position after this?” it became,”what will Clem think of me?”
This is, in my opinion, where this game will hit or miss with players. If you are willing and able to really put yourself in Lee’s shoes, then this one character will change the way that you play this game, versus any other game with similar mechanics. If you can’t put yourself into it, I’m sure this game would be a tedious bore. I had never imagined that a video game would ever really make me care for a character in any way close to the way that the best books or movies have, but the characterization of Lee and Clementine’s relationship is so strong, so well crafted, that my emotional investment in it was essentially complete. A truly impressive feat considering what a cynical brute I have become in recent years.
While this is certainly not a perfect game, audio cutting in and out and strangely looping in one instance, some graphical stuttering, and glitches abound (one particularly memorable one occurred in a conversation with a character sitting playing a guitar when the camera would point at him, his character model would be standing up, so the camera was pointed at his junk and the guitar was swaying back and forth, sticking out of his pants), can sometimes hurt the immersion but never comes close to reducing the impact of the game. That being said I strongly recommend that everyone play this game. Even if you have never read the comic, haven’t watched the show, hate zombie fiction, don’t like video games, this is a piece of fiction that has something to offer everybody. There was a series of ads back in the eighties that EA did that asked, “Can a Computer Make You Cry?” After playing this I’m inclined to believe so, and that has made me change what I believe games to be capable of. Game of the year.
4.5 out of 5