No Win Scenario: Telltale's The Walking Dead Season One
Following the immense success of AMC's television adaption of Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead, video game studio Telltale Games took the next swing at adapting the graphic novel. Debuting in 2012, Telltale's Walking Dead The point-and-click, choose-your-own-adventure, episodic style video game blew expectations out of the water. The studio earned numerous "Game of the Year" awards across critical platforms, along with praise for the unique art style, visceral moral choice system, as well as strong writing and voice acting. This was not the only attempt at a video game property based upon the popular graphic novel, but it has been the most successful one to date.
2013's Walking Dead: Survival Instinct hedged its bets by basing the story around one of the show's most popular characters, Daryl Dixon. Unfortunately, not even allowing players to step into the crossbow wielding badass could help Survival Instinct battle the tepid critical reaction. IGN touted that Survival Instinct "gives licensed games a bad name" and others bemoaned the massive missteps taken with a promising franchise, when 2012's Telltale game was such a success. While Survival Instinct is directly based upon the world the AMC show created, Telltale instead crafted new characters within the existing rules of the zombie apocalypse. Why was the point-and-click, classical adventure style game triumph over the seemingly more zombie-friendly FPS? Does Telltale's Walking Dead give licensed games a good name?
In my estimation, what it ultimately boils down to is the episodic format of the game, which in turn allowed more of a focus upon character development and story. By choosing to release five short episodes periodically rather than trying to come out with a single completed game, Telltale allowed themselves room to breathe. You play as Lee Everett, a man who is heading towards jail when the zombie apocalypse starts after a conviction for murdering the state senator that was sleeping with his wife. After freeing himself from a wrecked police car, he finds a young girl named Clementine who is all on her own. Her parents are stuck in Atlanta, likely killed, and her babysitter has gone decidedly green and flesh-eating. Lee decided that he cannot leave a child alone in the zombie apocalypse and promises to take care of her. Thus begins the epic that is Telltale's Walking Dead. Lee and Clementine, moving throughout the apocalypse, with a rapidly dwindling number of survivors in their main crew. The decisions that the player makes affect not only Lee's chances of survival, but the group's as well. Do you prioritize saving the group? Protecting and feeding yourself? Or do you prioritize the little girl, Clementine, whom Lee has appointed himself guardian for? Is it possible to help everyone?
The short answer is no. It is not possible to help everyone. It is not even possible to help most people, sometimes including yourself (Lee) and Clementine.
When writing on Telltale's latest venture, I touched upon how Telltale's Game of Thrones expertly mirrored the subversion of audience expectations in regards to how to play the titular game. Playing the typical video game hero is not an ideal that can be clung to within the Game of Thrones, and neither can it be adhered to in Telltale's Walking Dead. Sure, you can throw yourself at the noble hero archetype with all your might, but all those speeches and promises will only earn enemies. Telltale's Game of Thrones reiterates that such nobility has no standing in the real world, while Telltale's the Walking Dead revels in throwing the player into impossible situations before standing back and crossing its arms expectantly over its chest, eyebrows half raised as if to ask, okay what now tough guy?
It becomes quickly apparent that Lee is not the master of his own destiny. He is shifted from bad situation to worse situation, clinging desperately to Clementine along the way, forced to watch as the group around him is decimated by both the living and the dead. The revolving cast of characters around Lee and Clementine argue, shout, fight, and sabotage their way though the apocalypse, each with their own agenda, each with their own to protect. It becomes apparent that each character is sizing those up around them and making a distinct list of people they would not lose sleep over needing to bash their brains with a cinder block should they suddenly stop breathing. The decisions you make influence which allies you have backing your decision making process, which enemies you have earned the ire of, and the game quickly becomes navigating these dangerous people you're surviving with as much as it is about surviving the walkers.
As with the comics, the main thesis of the Walking Dead game is that the biggest threat to the group is people, rather than walkers. People are smart, they are volatile, they are more selfish and able to lie. Manipulate. Change allegiances. Is Lee an understanding, generally cool guy? Is he the violent type, who is as comfortable with threats against the living as he is with decapitating zombies? The player decides just how uncomfortable the apocalypse is, with plenty of opportunity to turn on other survivors.
The final episode of Telltale's Walking Dead's first season is the crowning glory of a game filled to the brim with emotional moments. I played the final episode half curled in the fetal position, so tense that I slammed my fingers against the keyboard prompts with too much force. The final episode ties the loose, hanging strings of previous potentially winnable scenarios into big, lavish bow of eventual defeat. Winning the game goes from surviving to that happy ending, to instead sacrificing yourself so that another might have that shot. To lose the player character in the manner he was lost, slowly having to impart to a little girl that it wouldn't be okay, was the more jarring, emotional experience I have ever had within a video game.
Walking Dead is all about the no win scenarios, because in the end, the survivors were the true walking dead all along.