As video games have sought to be more and more "cinematic," we've seen developers load them up with often absurd amounts of non-interactive video sequences. It's never been something I was too keen on: if I want to play a game, I want interaction; if I want a passive viewing experience, I don't want to be knocked out of it by the need to press a button or two every few minutes.
So, from first hearing about Telltale Games' take on The Walking Dead, I was immediately sceptical. They've built the game primarily out of staged, pre-animated scenes and acted dialogue, the actions of my character continuing along a pre-destined path between each interactive interval. It sounded like just the sort of thing I'd hate.
Sure, there are scenes that allow the player to walk around a location in a more manual, stick-pushing fashion but the irony is, these "full control" sequences have ended up being by far and away the least engaging sections of the story. They're an engine for simple "take bucket to tap, fill bucket with water, pour water on fire" puzzle mechanics.
It's the other sections that are going to hook you and, as I've learned, create sustained levels of emotional engagement that no other game I've played has come close to matching.
Telltale Games' masterstroke, I think, is in having notifications pop up on screen whenever the player has made a choice or performed an action with ramifications worth underlining. Remarkably, there's an option to turn these off – and while I can see the value in this for seasoned players, I really think the newbie should be forced to confront a string of them before opting out.
Crucially, the notification doesn't explain what the ramifications will be – it's left to you to worry about that. And I do mean worry ; every time one of those dominoes toppled, I felt quite anxious about what it would mean for the delicate power balance I was trying to leave undisturbed.
As an example, here's how the very first scene of the first ever episode plays out. The player is given control of a character called Lee Everett, a college lecturer with secrets and regrets. When we first meet him, he's in the back of a police car, chatting with the cop who's driving him off to…
…well, I won't spoil that. Suffice to say, the zombie apocalypse intervenes and both characters find their futures are rewritten at lightning speed.
During this opening conversation, though, the player gets several opportunities to have Lee say something. He can be polite or impolite, honest or dishonest, interested in the cop or disinterested. Many of the things Lee can say will go without special notification from the game, but there comes a point when, up in the top left corner of the screen you'll read:
He will remember that.
And you've been introduced to the game's secret weapon: something you've elected for Lee to say has had a real impact on his future, and you've now been warned of it. Your actions have repercussions, the game is saying. Think about what you're doing. This cop will remember what just happened, and you will one day reap what you have just sown.
The deeper you go into the world of The Walking Dead, and the more desperate your situation becomes, the more people you'll meet and the more you'll need from them. You might need food and water, you might need shelter, or you might need trust and respect. You're certainly going to need people to cover your back in combat situations – eventually you'll be in the thick of it with walkers popping up everywhere. The likelihood of you getting these things depends, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, on the way you have conducted yourself, the attitude you portray and the choices you make.
The storyline is crafted in such a way that fundamental disagreements between the other characters will make it increasingly hard for Lee, and the player who guides his conscience, to remain impartial. You can't be on two sides at once, much less three, and even when you can duck the question, sitting on the fence will only get you so far with some of these characters.
The game is split into episodes, each one running to a couple of hours of playtime, maybe three, depending on what choices the player makes. During the first episode of each season, the stakes might seem to be relatively low but it's deceptive. The memories of the characters that Lee meets in this chapter can be very long, and the choices that any character might make in even the very last sequence of the very last episode can be traced back through the entire set of relationships.
The key supporting character in season one is Clementine, who Lee meets as an eight year old girl, home alone and surrounded by the walking dead. Her parents are on the other side of America, her supplies are running low and her self-preservation skills aren't quite up to her instincts.
The story of season one is the story of this relationship. Clementine is alone, impressionable and needs somebody like Lee to step up and do right by her. It's a noble set of goals for a lead character in a video game, but a player might, conceivably, start damaging the relationship between Lee and Clementine almost as soon as it begins.
And if the player is really reckless, or perhaps selfish, they could quite easily get Clementine hurt.
Though – and I hope it doesn't spoil anything much to say this – I don't think it's possible to get her killed. The proof, I think, is that season two gives the player control of Clementine and not Lee. This would not be possible if you could somehow fail Clementine so utterly and completely that she's dead. There are other ways to let her down, however…
Also note that players who have season one save files on their machine will have the ramifications of their actions as made throughout those episodes carried over into season two. Season two is very much a new game, and new players can very easily jump in and know where they stand from the off, but it's also a game that's smart enough to tailor its specifics to match the player's experience in the previous chapters.
It was only after playing the game on two different save files that I really saw how nifty it is. Many of the player's actions, including some that could seem catastrophic and game-changing, will ultimately lead to very little deviation in the broad arc of the storyline . Others, and it seems to be a healthy number of them, will have a huge impact on how the next scenes and situations play out and are presented. Because you don't know if you can pull back from any of your slip ups, every choice in the game starts to feel crucial.
And after you've been asked to make so many choices that impact on characters' moods, not to mention their chance of survival, you will likely get drawn into caring about these people. There's constant reinforcement of the notion that your choices count, and you can't fail but start to believe it.
All of this play with politics and diplomacy in The Walking Dead is what truly elevates it, and the puzzle scenes almost seem like a concession to video game convention. At times, the puzzle scenes even bring the game down a little.
A sad example of this is how, in the season two first episode, Clementine finds herself in a situation where she simply has to take a certain course of action to move the plot along. There's a puzzle to be solved, even if acting out the solution isn't what you might want Clementine to do.
In this sequence and a few like it, time stands still until the player concedes to a particular set of options. Admittedly, it tends to be a course of action most players would want to pursue, and executing it might be fun in its own right, but the illusion of branching options – just branching options, I was never under the delusion that my character had free will – is well and truly shattered here.
The game's combat scenes are partially successful. They're exciting and fast paced, well conceived and brilliantly imagined, just undermined by a single video game convention.
Because, unfortunately, most of these sequences present death as the negative outcome, and death means game over, and that means going back to last checkpoint. You can make a bad choice in a fight, screw up and know you'll get another chance. It's not like one of the scenes where the threat isn't to your life but to your relationships: upsetting a non-player character probably won't bring about an almost-immediate game over screen, it will more subtly alter the path of your relationship with that character and, in the structure of this game, that's far more important and emotionally engaging.
What works brilliantly in the combat, however, are the jump scares and startle mechanics. There are plenty of tricks from the movies at work here and it really was fun to realise how well timed they are, that players shouldn't let the BOO! moments make them flinch because it can throw them off their game and lead to some ridiculous choices.
And I will credit the game with some upsetting death scenes. While I know that my character's demise won't be final, it can still be disturbing to see them go in a horrendous, violent and cruel fashion. Not the sort of imagery you necessarily want in your head.
For just the reasons I was explaining above, however, the most upsetting deaths are those of the other characters and not the player character. These deaths don't get undone by a "Press X to Continue" message on a game over screen – they change the course of the story in an irreversible fashion.*
Experimentally, I discovered that some of the deaths are utterly inevitable but a surprising amount are not. Again, this was something really impressed upon me by playing the game on two different save files.
And when a life is spared – or, for that matter, spent – out of mercy, the impact is particularly memorable. Don't forget that in The Walking Dead, a bite from a walker doesn't have to be instantly fatal, and some characters maybe be so precious that you won't want to let them leave, let alone die, until it's absolutely essential.
I've played a lot of games that try to blend extended cinematics with interaction, but the recipe in The Walking Dead – and, for that matter, Telltale Games' Fables adaptation, The Wolf Among Us – is the best mix yet. It's a great platform they've built here, and it delivers the story really rather well.
And… yes, rudely dumped here at the end of my observations, I should also give all due respect to the writers. It wouldn't have mattered at all that Telltale Games have cracked the interactive storytelling mechanics if there wasn't a story worth telling with them.
The characters are, by necessity, very much three dimensional and you really can find their well-written subtleties drawn out by your gameplay. Reflecting now on some of the supporting players in season one – particularly Kenny, Ben and Molly – I can recall how they showed many sides, but always with plausible and perceivable motivation, most often motivation I was somehow entangled with. This required adept planning of the plots and astute balancing of dialogue. Well done to all involved.
You can buy a Season Pass for either season one or season two right now, with all of season one and the first episode of season two ready for download. I'd recommend you start at the start. And if you prefer physical media, PS3, PS Vita, X-Box 360 and PC users are in luck. Just make sure you don't buy the completely separate, and deeply inferior, FPS shooter The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct by mistake.
*There is actually a rewind option in which you can go back to various checkpoints and replay from there, making different choices and hoping to affect a better outcome. It's not available in game, though, but from the main menu.