Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Walking Dead, "A New Day" and "Starved for Help"

Developed and published by Telltale Games
Played on PC
       I love Telltale Games.  I’ve loved pretty much everything they’ve done since the first season of Sam & Max.  And one of the few games that gets excluded from that “pretty much” is Jurassic Park.  A pure disaster.  Advertised as Heavy Rain with dinosaurs, it came off like “I really love Heavy Rain and Jurassic Park, but I have no idea what actually made them good”.  After that, I was extremely worried about The Walking Dead.  After playing the first two episodes, The Walking Dead is what Jurassic Park should’ve been, and then some.
            The game takes place in the same continuity as the comics, but with a new cast of characters.  In the first episode, “A New Day”, we meet our main character, Lee Everett (Dave Fennoy), who’s been arrested and transported in a police car when the zombie infection starts.  After escaping, he runs into Clementine (Melissa Hutchison), and eventually another group of survivors as they try to get used to the new world.  The second episode, “Starved for Help”, picks up several months later, with the survivors low on food.  They meet someone from a dairy farm who promises both food and a safe haven, but, as per usual for the Walking Dead, nothing is as good as it seems.
            Like all of Telltale’s games, this is an adventure game, but of a different sort.  You don’t combine the rubber chicken with the molasses and feed it to the cat.  Instead, the puzzles are simpler and based in the zombie world.  For instance, one scene requires you to make your way through a motel parking lot filled with zombies.  The game’s main draw, though, are its conversations.  Rather than the standard adventure game procedure of “select everything, it doesn’t matter”, what you select does matter in how the characters perceive you and what happens next.  And most conversations have short time limits on choosing, so you have to think fast.
            The most amazing part of the game is the way your choices affect the game.  I’ll give you a tip outright: there’s an option to have the game give you story hints, like “Clementine will remember what you said”.  Turn that off.  The game is that much better when you never know exactly how your conversations and choices are going to change what happens.  There are some obvious big things.  In the first episode, when zombies attack, you have to choose between who’s going to live and who’s going to die.  This not only changes what happens in that episode, it affects the next one and how the story is going to play out.  And then there’s the smaller stuff.  In several instances, I was surprised when a seemingly pointless conversation was brought back up again.  There is a slight hiccup in the conversation whenever this happens, but somehow that just made it even better for me.  It was that feeling of “Oh man, it remembered what I did!”
            It also truly creates a character that feels like mine.  There are some things about Lee that are set in stone, like why he was arrested and his background.  But the player is the one defining his personality.  Is Lee going to be a peaceful negotiator in arguments, or is violence the answer?  Does he assume people can be saved from infection, or does he just kill them to make sure?  When Lee is given food to ration, who is he going to give it to and why?  All of these questions are things I had to answer during the game, and it engrosses me in each moment.  I don’t just think about the best solution.  There often isn’t a best solution, since somebody is going to be mad no matter what you do.  I have to think about what my answer is going to be.
            Of course, in a world full of zombies, there are zombie attacks.  These do rely on something like quick-time events, but they end up being frantic.  You don’t know when they’re going to happen, and you feel you have to act fast.  Considering that it’s really a slap on the wrist if you happen to die during one of these, it doesn’t feel too painful.  But something as simple as trying to kick a zombie in the head suddenly turns the simple conversation I was having into a sudden rush, and it works well. 
            The graphics also look good.  One of the big problems with Jurassic Park, and Telltale’s engine in general, is that it looks fine for cartoony licenses like Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit, but applying it to live-action licenses like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future ends up with very stylized or odd looking characters.  Here, by using cel-shading and basing itself on Charlie Adlard’s artwork, the game manages to polish over the engine’s problems without detracting from the mood of the game.  And when they show blood and guts, they don’t flinch about it.
            The Walking Dead stands as Telltale’s true transition from comedy to horror and drama.  It’s hard to judge the whole series on these two episodes, but if it continues in this direction, it stands to be a landmark for storytelling in games.

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