Member The Walking Dead?

Member the games you used to play? We member. The basement at the Hardcore Gamer office has a section known as the Crust Room, with an old grey couch and a big old CRT TV. All the classic systems are down there collecting dust, so in an effort to improve the cleanliness of our work space, we dust off these old consoles every so often and put an old game through its paces, just to make sure everything stays in working order. We even have a beige computer with a floppy disk drive.

The popularity of zombies just won’t die. Stories of reanimated walking corpses have been entertaining horror fans in cinema, literature and games for decades. The zombie infestation has even invaded popular military-themed games as activities that otherwise have no relevance to the plot. Most games will simply have players kill the endless hordes of shambling corpses without thinking twice. Telltale’s The Walking Dead has its moments of zombie killing, but it stood out from the pack of other zombie games.

The Walking Dead takes place in the same universe as the comic book and TV show, but s the characters and story are unique to the game aside from some cameos. The tale begins with protagonist Lee Everett handcuffed in the back of car en route to serve his prison time. The car where he’s the passenger goes off road after hitting a walker and crashes. Lee is banged up from the crash, but not in too bad of shape where he’s going to turn down an opportunity to avoid his incarceration, although being locked up is probably safer than what awaits him outside. He finds a house that has been abandoned, save for an eight-year old girl named Clementine. The world is going through a zombie apocalypse, except this world doesn’t have the word “zombie” so these shambling reanimated corpses are called walkers. It’s safe to conclude that Clementine’s babysitter and out-of-town parents have probably been turned to walkers themselves by this point, so Lee does the decent things and takes on a paternal role with Clementine, taking her with him to protect her.

Not longer after this Lee and Clementine arrive at Hershel Greene’s farm, a familiar location to fans of The Walking Dead. This is where Lee meets Kenny, Katjaa and Duck who become travel companions for a good portion of the game. Similar to the source material, a world that’s overrun with walking corpses is one where tragedy is a regular occurrence. Hershel’s farm seems like a good place to hole up for a while to figure out how to handle the walker infestation, but there is where one of the many events occurs where there is no good outcome. Herschel’s son dies tragically at the hands of some walkers, and the grief stricken farmer boots Lee and company off his farm.

The farm was an early place the crew sets up camp, but there are a few more places they end up after that. One of the things that made the story of The Walking Dead so interesting was that the titular creatures aren’t the main focal point of the story. The Walking Dead is about the characters having to cope with the fall of modern conveniences and having to survive with the people they end up with, not all of which are particularly pleasant to deal with. Some people are decent, but for everyone with diplomacy or survival skills there’s a racist, coward or incompetent moron to contend with. On top of the different personalities everyone is also trying to survive and look out for what’s best for them and their family, if applicable. People that would otherwise be enemies are forced to work together, but people who could otherwise be friends are conflicted by their own sense of self preservation. Despite all this conflict, Lee ends up becoming a father figure to Clementine in their brief time together, teaching her how to handle a firearm for her protection and cutting her hair for her own safety.

Someone once said they don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone. The Walking Dead is about choices, and that quote is applicable because just about every decision Lee has to make is going to upset someone in the group. It can be a frustrating design choice for chronic people pleasers playing The Walking Dead, but it’s part of what makes it so interesting. A lot of times there’s no good choice, it’s a matter of making the less bad decision. Does the player make a choice based on what they think is the best for the group, or do they make a choice based on what NPC relationships they’re trying to build. Leadership isn’t easy and Lee is going to piss off someone no matter what he ends up doing. Some of the choices have trivial outcomes on the story, while other choices result in a character’s death. Sometimes it’s a matter of choosing who dies or whether someone dies because of Lee. Having played through a couple times what the party looks like in the final chapter can be quite different.

The gameplay of The Walking Dead is mostly slow paced, and while the player controls Lee walking around and climbing on things, it’s not too dissimilar from a point and click adventure game. A lot of it is walking around, talking to people and going to find whatever item they need to manipulate some contraption to provide some basic survival need. Actually fighting the walkers is infrequent, and that’s mostly done through QTEs. The challenge is virtually nonexistent, but The Walking Dead is about crafting together an emotionally-charged story and not about being an action packed zombie killer.

Now about the ending, which should count as the obligatory spoiler warning. Games with sad endings aren’t unheard of, but they’re the minority among games. Lee had a good run through most of the chapters, trying to do his best to assume a leadership role and keeping Clementine safe, but just like the song says everything dies. Lee gets bit in the final chapter, and while he tries to persevere and possibly even take some drastic actions to fight off the infection, he eventually accepts his fate. And then he has to make an important choice: succumb to the infection and become a walker or have Clementine kill him. Neither choice seems that appealing, but that’s the world they live in. Neither option is right but players will figure out which choice they want and have their own rationale for it. The humane thing to do is kill Lee, but I tend to leave him alive. The rationale for that is he’s cuffed to a secure location so he isn’t that much of a danger. More importantly, he’s given Clementine his gun and she needs to survive without him. Euthanizing Lee is the kind thing to do for him, but the trauma of having to kill him would be a lot to put on Clementine’s shoulders on top of everything else. Plus that’s spending a round she may lead later against a walker who isn’t restrained.

The Walking Dead is a masterpiece when it comes to storytelling through gaming. The choices are not always easy and not all of the characters are likeable, but it’s hard not to become emotionally invested in what happens to the main characters. The Choose Your Own Adventure element was a novel approach to a game based on a comic book, but what sold the game was watching the relationship build between Lee and Clementine. The title itself was a big risk by having a game in an established universe starring brand new characters, but the gamble paid off as The Walking Dead eventually had four sequels, and while they all had their own merits, none of them had the impact that the original did.

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