"The experience is premium, and just knowing that we have to keep our hands ready on mouse and keyboard (i.e. finger on the trigger) is enough to maintain immersion."
While other five-year-olds were watching Disney movies, my parents and I stayed up late watching the Romero trilogy. By the time I had reached adulthood, I wanted to see a movie that tapped into the sociological and psychological implications of a zombie apocalypse, since most movies in North America and Europe so heavily focused on gore and little else. Fast forward to today, and I've got the shakes waiting for season 3 of The Walking Dead (TWD). Fortunately, Robert Kirkman decided to work with Telltale Games on a The Walking Dead episodic series. Episode 1 not only expertly parallels the feel of the comics and TV series, but the gaming experience is immersive with only a few hiccups.
TWD: Episode 1 follows Lee Everett, university professor accused of murder. Handcuffed in the back seat of a police car, Lee chats casually with the officer, unaware of the nightmare he will soon encounter. However, Telltale quickly moves on to the main course, and Lee finds himself in dire straits, wounded and without weapons. After meeting some people along the way, he quickly learns that his survival may depend on the kindness of others.
Prior to TWD, when people heard "zombie" and "video game" uttered in the same sentence, some would groan about yet another run-and-gun iteration of games past. What's refreshing about The Walking Dead as a series is its emphasis on people and how they react to adverse conditions revolving around undead, cannibalistic humans. Telltale remains true to the comic and show's approach, just in game form. In fact, one might even call this adventure title an interactive movie. Most adventure titles allow infinite time to explore vast areas, moving from place to place trying to find the right combination of items or to solve hidden puzzles. TWD, on the other hand, focuses on immediacy, since danger and impending doom is ever-present in a zombie apocalypse. Even in the most fortified areas, rations remain limited, and heading back into the fray is always an inevitability.
One cannot easily make mistakes in TWD. There are quick-time events, but difficulty is not the point. The fact that the player has to spam Q to stay alive is what's important. Viscerally, I understood that I would die if I did not spam Q and then hit E. I was fighting, albeit easily. Telltale isn't trying to kill the player so that they have to repeat the action – what's the point in that? The experience is premium, and just knowing that we have to keep our hands ready on mouse and keyboard (i.e. finger on the trigger) is enough to maintain immersion. Even talking has a timer, since players have to react quickly in life-or-death scenarios. Actions aren't always enough – in order to survive, people must communicate so that they can work towards a common goal. Frantically choosing the best option in a dialogue can be frustrating, probably because we're so used to sitting pensively as we decide the most strategic, nefarious, or true-to-ourselves choice. Actually, some folks might be off-put, since the timer is not always sufficient to read every choice, though these instances are few. In this way, Telltale Games does an excellent job of keeping the game fresh and fast-paced.
That said, they occasionally fall into old adventure game habits. The most lackluster parts of the game are those in which our protagonist, Lee, finds himself in a safe house, free to exhaust every dialogue option with each character and rummage around for any objects he can stuff into his pockets. Although I found the rest of my time with TWD engrossing, these were the times when I could have torn myself away from the computer. The more obsessive-compulsive amongst us may enjoy these parts, but for those looking for an enthralling, unique experience, these breaks slow down the game in an unwelcome way. Then again, our heroes need some time to rest, and when one's safe, rushing is unrealistic.
The bubble of immersion pops in other areas as well. I ran into a bug where I started a new dialogue with a character shortly after they started to talk to me. Both conversations took place simultaneously, but only the latter displayed text and choices. That same character began complaining that I was not responding to them, presumably because I had timed out of the previous dialogue choices. In another instance, I had been accused of assaulting someone when I had not; the choice had presented itself at the time, but I had chosen not to. This inconsistency happened a couple other times, and they were enough to jar me. I was left wondering if my choices mattered at all, despite the fact that Telltale boasted about that gameplay component in their trailers. It is true that difficult, substantive choices need to be made – and you had better believe they involve a timer – but I would hope that every bit of dialogue has some sort of influence.
But what is an interactive movie without the proper artistic direction and voice acting? Thankfully, you don't have to find out in TWD: Episode 1, because the graphics have a satisfying comic book style, and the voice actors help us believe these are real people. Every car crash, zombie groan, and shriek create an ambiance only matched by the TV series itself. Even as the gaming industry clumsily tries to master 3D graphics, we see grand strides being made by Telltale. Those searching for a darker, broodier vibe may turn elsewhere, as TWD can seem cartoony and bright. Zombies just scream grit... figuratively, that is.
Despite a few fumbles, The Walking Dead: Episode 1 is a resounding success. I can't wait for the next installment, and I have found myself reflecting on my choices, pondering at how events could have unfolded differently. This two-and-a-half hour game is most certainly a love letter to fans of TWD and zombies in general, but those who've yet to be bitten by the zombie bug may enjoy the experience as well.