I think one of the hallmarks of a good critic is when they can separate their personal and subjective opinions from the technical and objective facts of an experience. Similarly, I think one of the hallmarks of a good game is where the quality of the product is such that I cannot help but be impressed even if I don’t have fun. This isn’t the same thing as a product like Spec Ops: The Line, where I recognise full well that the story arc is meant to confront grim topics of the human condition, and where the ability of the game to draw me in despite its poor mechanisms reflected its excellent narrative elements. I liked Spec Ops: The Line because I felt it was a powerful statement about a genre of video games that I felt deserved to hear it. I was, essentially, a choir to which Spec Ops: The Line could preach.
The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has nothing for me… but it’s a fantastic game nonetheless. It’s not that I’m against any of the elements within TWD; it’s a point-and-click-as-if-most-games-aren’t does-this-word-mean-anything-adventure game, a genre I like a great deal. It’s innovative in how it approaches major plot points compared to other games of the same ilk like Monkey Island and Full Throttle. It also works from an existing, stable canon, which is reasonably internally consistant and remarkable for its treatment of character in a story that normally strives to be short, drawn out long. TWD is, essentially, a remarkable collection of positive traits.
I don’t want to give examples of how the game handles things, partly because choice, and how players do – or don’t do – things is part of how the game’s plot changes. It’s a deep game, and a cheap one, with replay value, a focus on character drama and a short-term common-sense approach to point-and-click puzzle solving. It rewards some element of exploration, but also restrains the player in time-sensitive contexts. Conversations, like real conversations, have timers, meaning you can fuck things up by not committing to actions. This draws the player in to paying attention as conversations happen, and control is given to you and taken away from you in equal measures in order to force that attention. Sometimes, things will become more complex in a classic movie way – you can fumble and drop a shotgun shell, and have to pick it up again, while something bears down on you. These would be irritating in a game that was less well-paced, would feel like they were designed to pad out run time, but in this game, they’re used to increase tension.
Why then, did I start with hedging? Why was I nervously talking about games of quality versus games of personal enjoyment? Because The Walking Dead‘s subject matter is to me, excellently excecuted crap. Zombie Apocalypse fiction is a genre which has, essentially, one story, with varying depictions of understanding of scale. While World War Z broke new ground, discussing the notions of governmental control, the applications of military failures, the infamously controversial Battle of Yonkers, any ‘on the ground’ Zombie Apocalypse story summarises as People Are Assholes To One Another In The Wake Of A Society-Destroying Event. I’ve seen that story; I’ve watched it happen, and it always happens the same way. Children appear so they can mournfully say ‘I like my daddy and being alive,’ then we watch in horror as the sanctified protections of the society in which we live are stripped away, oh, terrible tragedy.
Essentially, TWD is a very typical example of a story within its framing device. It’s excellently made – characters have depth and character arcs, there’s a good handling of the culture and background, things like racism and paranoia and loss of families and there’s non-stereotypical treatments of characters of all walks of life… but none of this quality rises above its source. It’s despair porn, and it simply doesn’t do anything for me. While I laud the game’s design, and I want other people to play the game just once to experience the excellent interface and branching storyline, I am nonetheless ambivalent to the game as a game.
An opinion I’ve withheld is whether or not the game is a good buy for an existing fan of the series. I don’t know, because I’m not a fan of the TV series The Walking Dead, nor the comic books. Are these the same characters? I don’t know.
Buy it if:
- You’re an afficionado of story-and-dialogue driven character-based video games.
- You like Zombie Apocalypse fiction.
- You want to take notes for how to make a good adventure game narrative.
Avoid it if:
- Zombie Apocalypse fiction doesn’t interest you.
- You favour puzzle games with perfect solutions, and like to take your time finding them.
- You dislike tension and fast social decisions with uncertain outcomes.