Telltale Games’ ‘The Walking Dead’ and the Power of Storytelling

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The Zombie Apocalypse has already happened, only not a way any of us really expected: It’s spread from games to comics, from films to TV series.

[Obligatory spoiler warning]

International ‘zombiewalks’ are arranged, stuffy scholars have climbed down from the ivory tower to throw their concerns into the fray, detailing what international politics would be if a zombie apocalypse happened – or what proper health procedures we should focus on in response.

And, like much of zombie lore, these forays often produce sluggish, boring, mouth-breathing examples of the entity it touches: whether its brain-devouring films, unnecessary and expensive add-ons and DLC’s, or a major comics publisher, starved as usual of creativity, opting to throw the zombie infection at established bases and saying “What if…?”.

But sometimes, it also does the opposite.

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In creating a video game of The Walking Dead, Telltale made the correct decision not to focus on the ubiquitous lead, Rick Grimes, and his group from the comics and TV series. Anyone who’s flagellated themselves on video games based on films or TV-series already knows gargling the properties that fulfils those mediums creates a grey sludge we can never swallow. Some excel, like Ghostbusters: The Video Game, but those are rare and lovely exceptions. Yet, even with Ghostbusters, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis (the original writers and stars of the first two films) chose to write a third, unique script instead of rehashing the first two films.

The point was a game was seen as an equally worthy medium to tell a new, additional story. Telltale have done this, too, refusing to do what almost every other creative team does when putting a franchise into the video game medium. It is this failure, of treating the video game medium as merely a kid’s vessel, the equivalent of a throwaway toy that comes with a MacDonald’s Happy Meals, that creates nonsense like House MD, the CSI games, Shrek, and so on.

The Game Itself

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In The Walking Dead game series, Telltale provide us with Lee, an intriguing lead character – who for once isn’t a typical, white soldier-dude, but an African-American ex-history professor and convict (which is a bit unfortunate) with a sketchy past. Lee is roped into looking after a little girl, Clementine, recently orphaned, like most of the world, due to the undead. Not only is she one of the most realistically created children in video games, but for once, she’s not merely a vessel for creators to point to and say “Feel sorry for that! Look at it! It’s a small person! Care!” Indeed, we do care, but not because we’re being commanded to for the sake of the grey slop called plot: we care because she elicits frailty and strength; we care because she draws inspiration from our actions and inspires us toward better ones; we care because our responses shape who we are to her and everyone else, but it also shapes her. What makes her work is that instead of being attached like a wart, she’s an additional character who is also shaped by our decisions in a game. Though we control Lee, it is both Lee and Clementine who face the consequences and grow as such.

Decisions, small and big, that you make from the beginning come back to haunt, digging themselves up from the graves of history. And these continue to play and shape how others react.

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Here’s an example: Kenny, a man I met early in Episode 1, was fast becoming my friend – despite my decision not to save his boy. The boy was saved, but regardless Kenny never forgot I chose to save another’s life. Kenny, despite this, offered to help me since he recognised that situation being neither black nor white, though he tended to forget this when he wanted to chastise me. Because of Kenny being forgiving and aiding, I came to his defence when we met a new group of survivors; I showed loyalty, checked up on his family and generally did the best I could.

However, he began saying some pretty irrational things in Episode 2 that I thought threatened the group’s survival. However, I didn’t want to make my scepticism of his views public, so I sat on this fence when he came into conflict with the other leader of the group. Eventually, he saw my fence-sitting as betrayal itself and this became a splinter digging its way to the quivering heart of our friendship. In Episode 4, things came to ahead and I, as a player, finally lost it and swore like a pirate at Kenny, shutting him up and, indeed, out of my life.

But it wasn’t just dialogue options and excellent voice-acting: it felt weighted, thorough, exhausting. It felt like a confrontation I’ve had many times before with friends and family, after trying my best to do good by them. Even as I write this, I’m irritated and feel betrayed by Kenny. It is this that Telltale have managed to do so well: creating depth and weight to anchor decisions, colouring them in with smart gaming dynamics, weaving strings made of an appropriate and attractive gaming engine, and plotting arcs and themes that are well-told, even if on a few occasions it flirts with cliché.

Conveyor Thinking

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Instead of utilising the medium, the properties, and even the limitations of the video game medium to benefit story and flesh out worlds, too often creators give us the grey slop of conveyor thinking, scraped from the bottom of the boring barrel. Whether this comes out in the mould of yet another modern combat shooter – I defy you to distinguish box art and in-game shots in Google Images for this term – with its greys and guns, its Arabs and arrogance, or uninspired fighting game with ludicrous plots and characters with bigger swords and breasts than brains, we must should stop limiting ourselves and developers must stop limiting us.

Or, rather, embrace and accept the limitations of our medium and work with the contours of these boundaries: just as novels do, just as films do. Telltale have seen the strengths of this medium and have built toward the goals Kirkman attempts more successfully than the comics and TV-series. Characters matter, relationships are difficult, threads fray.

Telltale should be congratulated for creating such incredible depth, brilliance and meaning into a game that I never thought possible. They have reaffirmed why it is games, above TV, films and even novels, that any creative writer ought to be aiming at. It is worth respecting, especially if this is the kind of power and brilliance and awe that can be elicited from a player, using an engine and graphics that would probably get laughed out the CryEngine parties.

It may not be the most attractive member of today’s games, but it’s the one I’d want to spend time alone with and get to know. I think more of us should, so hopefully the other, attractive but boring slop will die a death from inattention.

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