2012 Video Game of the Year Nominee: The Walking Dead
Over the past several months, Telltale Games has been releasing an episodic adventure game set in the universe of The Walking Dead. Players control the protagonist, 37-year-old, ex-teacher and convicted murderer, Lee Everett, during the onset of the zombie apocalypse. Before his journey to the “big house” is complete, a car accident presents Lee the opportunity to escape as well as introducing the “walkers.” While fleeing from a shambling herd of walkers, Lee jumps a fence and, in due time, is introduced to Clementine, an eight-year-old girl who’s parents have not returned from a trip to Savannah. These two characters, and their relationship, drive The Walking Dead from being an adventure game to being a game which demands attention. In my case, this attention cements the game as my nomination for GFBR’s 2012 game of the year.
In essence, The Walking Dead is a point-and-click adventure game which has been updated to fit a more modern age. Through the use of an on-screen reticule, players can interact with all manner of objects in the environment, or they can interact with the tremendous cast of characters found throughout the five episodes released in season one. Telltale twisted the traditional adventure game through the use of timers (of varying length) for all the decisions facing Lee. During stressful moments, like being attacked by the walkers (found throughout the adventure), the timer is relatively short forcing the player to act quickly in response to what is presented to them. This helps tremendously in creating a feeling tension and dread — something that is absolutely vital to the authentic Walking Dead experience. Furthermore, presenting limitations on interactions with all of the characters removes the player’s ability to try every single line of dialogue, and forces consequences upon the players.
That said, many consider choice to be a vital component of the charm and the power of The Walking Dead, but I feel this is, albeit ever so slightly, misguided. Specifically, the illusion of choice is what empowers the game. Many choices in the game change the context of the situation, but will not change the overall plot. This means, that while each player may have distinctively different methods of performing various tasks, eventually the writers, Sean Vanaman, Mark Darin, and Gary Whitta, manage to funnel players towards specific, and inevitable, plot points.
Upon the first time playing The Walking Dead, it seems to be fairly diverse and open — allowing any manner of ways to reach the end. However, after experimenting with other decisions, or for those who wish to play through a second time, the limitations become immediately apparent. This is not to imply that this is by any means a drawback. Instead, I view it as a boon to The Walking Dead as forcing players down specific junctions in the story allows for a more hand-crafted, and, by extension, a more powerful experience. Also, the five episodes released thus far are only season one of what can become a serialized adventure. Whereas, with an open-ended game, ultimately one game would have to be considered canon for the purposes of creating a second season.
Unfortunately, with so much focus on dialog and character relationships, it is nigh impossible to discuss the impact The Walking Dead can create without an impressive investment to build proper context. Combining this with the desire to avoid any spoilers for those of you who have not gone through the game yet, means that I shall avoid that topic. Suffice it to say, during an interview with Greg Miller on IGN’s YouTube channel, START (starting at 16:15), Dave Fennoy, the voice actor for Lee, actually tears up during a recording session claiming, “…I found myself connecting to that character, with Clem, more than I could have ever imagined.” Even without the context of the game, this should clearly demonstrate that the game is powerful.
What really drives The Walking Dead into becoming my nomination for Game of the Year is that it single-handedly managed to alter my perception about the future of gaming; particularly in relation to storytelling. Inherently, the inclusion of a difficulty curve and various obstacles to provide challenge to a player, work against storytelling. Every challenge added can act as a barrier which can inhibit players from experiencing the story, either in the sense that it merely shifts player’s attention towards the mechanics (and away from the story), or in the sense that the challenge can be too great for some, preventing those players from ever finishing the game and the plot. Furthermore, while other games have experimented with the episodic format, The Walking Dead, perhaps by having the television show being released in tandem with the game, proves that it can be a successful business model, which will hopefully lead to interesting future enterprises.
The Walking dead is available on PC, Mac, iOS, Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network.
While The Walking Dead receives my nomination, there are two other runner-up titles to round out my top three games of this year: Journey and DayZ. Journey fits alongside The Walking Dead as being a game which has created a powerful experience through storytelling. Journey, on PlayStation Network, differs in the sense of it being an implied story which allows players to take as much, or as little, as they can from their time in the game. This single paragraph is not enough to give Journey the coverage is deserves, so I’ll leave Craig’s previously written review as the gold standard.
Conversely, DayZ is nearly completely lacking in plot, but the unique experiences that emerged from the combination of unique mechanics place DayZ firmly as one of my most beloved, all technical issues included, titles of this year. DayZ is a testament of uncompromising design, despite merely being a mod of Arma 2, which skyrocketed up the best-selling list on Steam for weeks as players swarmed to the world of Chernarus. Whether designed to do so or not, DayZ challenged me in ways that I never imagined, even going so far as to confront my sense of morality and humanity, something worthy of note. Furthermore, the mod of DayZ has become successful enough to warrant it becoming a standalone title currently speculated for a release in 2013 through the aid of Bohemia Interactive, Arma’s developer. DayZ is available only for PC at the moment, given its reliance on Arma 2.