Since April, I had been engaged in the episodic The Walking Dead series that Telltale Games released onto multiple platforms. As someone who had read Robert Kirkman’s amazing monthly comic book series but hadn’t watched the hit television show on AMC, I knew I was probably not the market it was aiming for. You know who I was, though? Someone in need of a change when it came to the survival-horror/zombie genre. The last new thing I had sat through was Dead Island, a game that had promised to breathe new life but ended up being, at least to me, the loud and visceral death knell of the zombie era. Our beloved survival-horror was becoming a joke and instead of taking it to a new and previously unexplored territory like the emotion and sacrifice of leaving your loved ones behind, people were just marketing games off of headshots and hand grenades. Blood splatter as far as the eye could see but yet, you couldn’t find a single bit of depth among the lot.
Playing the first episode of The Walking Dead, entitled A New Day, has you meeting your lead character, Lee. This first walk in Lee’s shoes will set the stage for the rest of the series and when the brief episode ended, I had a taste for how we’d play the game and a bit of an idea of what I’d be looking forward to in the series. It wasn’t mind-blowing, but you did make some pretty guttural decisions that reminded you — quickly at that — that this was about survival. Adrenaline pumped a bit; I gleefully told everyone that I thought it was fun and the series was going to be decent.
Skipping forward to episode five, the last of the “season,” as Telltale calls it, and I’m beside myself. The game that has been nominated for countless honors at this year’s Video Game Awards had silenced me and almost stopped my heart. I had trekked through episodes two, three, and four and while they were extremely shocking, deep, and held a lot of gravity over my head, none of them would hit me like episode five did. Granted, I’m not in the market to spoil anything for anyone when it comes to games — it’s not my thing — but I do want to tell you that there was a moment in this game where I wished my real life experiences were weighing on me to the point of tears.
That’s what this game does. It takes it out of your hands as a game player and it puts it your hands. You’re not controlling just a character named Lee; you are Lee and you’ve got people to protect and a little girl in your care. By timing your every reaction and answers to questions, it’s telling you to think with your gut and by letting you know when characters remember and/or react because of your actions, it’s letting you know the consequences. This “game” stopped being a game back at episode one and here I was, sobbing into my t-shirt’s collar and holding my face.
On one of the podcasts I co-host, we discussed the many points that you can take and how some of the choices that Telltale gives you stop being ones that even maybe the creators had thought about. Where you choose to save one life because you think it could be a romance down the road and that the other guy just wasn’t as notable to you — you realize that’s human nature. Seeing an abandoned car in the woods with boxes and crates full of food when you have a huge group of people to feed seems like a no-brainer, right? You take it. You have to think, always, about the safety and welfare of your group and especially that little girl.
As a parent, the bulk of my decisions came when I treated Clementine, the young girl that Lee finds alone in a treehouse, as if she were my own daughter. Sure, that was both a blessing and a curse because many of my other friends (every single one of my good friends had purchased and played this series. If that doesn’t tell you its popularity, I don’t know what will) were looking at it from a different angle. While I wanted to protect and shield this little girl from the horrors that were right outside of our reach, I had to check myself and remember that this wasn’t me and that Clementine wasn’t my actual daughter. As the game progressed, however, Lee evolved into far more of a fatherly figure than just “some guy” who found her and the relationship turned into being one of the most compelling pieces of drama in games today.
As credits rolled on episode five of The Walking Dead, I just sat there, legs folded and eyes soaking wet. I didn’t know that a game could make me feel that level of sorrow and this is after having played every game I could get my hands on for the past 20-some-odd years. I sat there, holding my controller and watching as the game gave me just a little bit more to see that what I did wasn’t all for nothing — and that my decisions led to this. Think about that though, you know? The game reacts to your decisions. It wasn’t just this carefully timed grouping of situations that the game publisher knew you’d choose and everyone got the exact same story. When I met up with my friends last week to discuss the game and do a show based on episodes one through four, we realized that the stories could change so much. Sometimes characters we thought were never meant to continue on past the first episode were able to surge forward if we responded in a certain way. Saving one person could change the outcome of the whole story and even how people treated us and that, honestly, was the most fascinating concept.
In my game, my number one concern from beginning to end was Clementine. I let absolutely nobody stop me from this goal and, much like I would do in my real life, not once did I falter just for the concept of safety. Perhaps that’s what Telltale wanted; it wanted to explore every facet of the human condition and did it within the confines of a beautiful graphic novel come to life. Once the game ended and it was sitting on its title screen, I pulled my daughter into my bedroom and hugged her over and over. She cupped my face, seeing I was in tears and asked what was wrong and I told her I finished the game and what had happened.
And my 11-year-old, in all of her decade of wisdom, a child who I have raised to have this impressive, mind-blowing imagination, kissed my forehead and whispered:
“Momma, it’s just a game.”
Winning Game of the Year from Spike’s Video Game Awards was no fluke on the part of this unlikely behemoth and it was because, for once in years, we were moved by the story and not the flash-bang of computer generated graphics. Lens flares weren’t swaying us out of sync with the core grit of humanity and all of its fallible, fleshy splendor; that’s what draws people towards this series and keeps them planted.
What about you? Have you played the series or are you just a fan of AMC’s show based on Robert Kirkman’s hit comic books? Are you, like me, proud to see a revival in story over visuals in games?
[Images courtesy of Telltale Games]