The Walking Dead is Telltale Games newest foray into taking a hot property and making it into an adventure game. The trappings of an adventure game are present though modernized; puzzles involving item use, the importance of initiating conversation with those around you, and the screen wandering pace. However, besides just streamlining dated adventure game habits for contemporary audiences, Telltale also pointedly informs you before each episode that the choices you make determine the course of the game. This suggests that the player can make fundamental calls that have lasting consequences. Is this a watershed moment for videogames, whose strength lies in interactivity? No game has meaningfully accomplished this before, due to the complexity of arranging stories that branch. Consider; with only 1 meaningful decision at the halfway point of a game, you could be asking the developers to create an entire half of the game that the player may never see. Rather than solve this issue, The Walking Dead has instead done a magic trick. And like any magic trick, your enjoyment of the game will be dependent on your suspension of disbelief.
In magic, the one of the most important parts of the setup is to build a mood, as it helps you control the audience’s attention and abets the misdirection. Regardless of The Walking Dead’s structure, it is a very well-produced illusion The Walking Dead is an excellent simulacrum of the stories and themes in the TV show, hitting many of the same beats very effectively. Building the core of its post zombie apocalypse around the relationship between stand-in-father Lee and the vulnerable and impressionable Clementine, the narrative weaves through the disintegration of societies and families with expert set pieces and conflicts. Taken as just a movie (which is I think a valid way to criticize this as The Walking Dead is barely a game in the traditional sense), the dour tone revisits familiar genre tropes (and even familiar situations lifted from the TV show) with strong and expertly voice acted characters that help it to exceed B movie expectations. Telltale has written very believable and unique people with strengths and weaknesses you wouldn’t expect, and even when you can guess where everything is going it’s interesting to see how this particular group gets there.
Visually, the Walking Dead uses a deliberately cartoony cell shaded look that is evocative of the comic book source material and hardly diminishes the brutality present throughout. When things are running on all cylinders though (there are some noticeable technical sputters), there are moments of trepidation followed by violent dispatchment. Often this involves quicktime inputs necessary to put a screwdriver somewhere it shouldn’t go. Several times. These segments are probably the most effective gameplay and make you feel slightly horrified at your own actions, giving the player violent autonomy which they may then regret taking. Small puzzles of the “bring this here” variety are sprinkled throughout but mostly you get the sense these are time wasters, as “solving” something is just doing everything the game lets you try. Most of the time you’ll be pondering dialogue choices or on occasion making a major choice that affects the lives of your companions.
The presentation of the story and minimalist gameplay ensures that the illusion of choice present in The Walking Dead is compellingly decorated. Regardless of your choices though, in the end all roads lead to Rome. It’s an interesting new direction they’ve pushed decision making in games but the developers still hold all the keys. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game before that could be so beloved on one play through and leave nothing for you on the second. As more developers push the edge of how to make player decisions meaningful, maybe one day the player will have actual autonomy beyond just whether to lose or not, or destroy meaningless polygons. This is why the Walking Dead is exciting, it gives you a glimpse of what that kind of control would feel like. My advice is play it once. Enjoy the illusion, consider the playthrough your personal experience of the narrative, and call it a day.