Developer: TellTale Games
Platform: PC, iOS, Consoles
Release Year: 2012
Nobody expected The Walking Dead to be good, let alone great. Telltale Games had made a name for themselves on Sam and Max, keeping the spirit of 90s Adventure Games alive with absurd comedy and item-combining puzzles. Yet The Walking Dead, the company’s 2012 flagship release, appeared to be not only lacking in their trademark humour, but by all accounts barely an adventure game. On top if this, it came out in 2012, at the peak of The Walking Dead’s cultural relevance and popularity. The games industry has a less than stellar track record when it comes to timely adaptations.
But while The Walking Dead could easily have taken the cheap and easy route, it instead chose to be one of the most honest and powerful adaptations in games. It begins as a more traditional adventure game with moments of impactful choice, taking cues from TellTale’s prior work, folding in dialogue and choice elements from Mass Effect and Heavy Rain. Yet throughout the course of the five episodes, the game evolves in front of you, shedding all unnecessary formal elements with each release, until an extraordinarily confident climax which lets go of difficult puzzles or world-changing choices entirely to hold itself up on emotional content alone.
That emotion is given such strength thanks to the game’s core humanity. The Walking Dead is an intensely empathetic and moral game, always managing to avoid stepping into nihlism despite the bleakness of its genre work. A character’s betrayal is treated as a desperate act by a human being still trying to do the right thing. A post-apocalypse society that purges the weak to maintain strength is immediately revealed as immediately and wholly irredeemable. The memorable moments in Lee and Clementine’s relationship are not those most shocking, but those most intimate.
And that is the great triumph of The Walking Dead, a runaway mainstream commercial success not in spite of, but because of its intimate construction. A game in which choice and consequence are used to neither empower or shock the player, but to add thematic richness for its own sake. A post-apocalyptic story which weaves values of empathy and and trust into its texture without indulging in easy provocation.
When the credits roll, it leaves you to consider the five traumatic episodes, the moments of overwhelming heartbreak and quiet triumph, and passes on its final moral. It’s impossible to stop the world from falling apart sometimes, but it’s always worth taking the time to try to build it back up, no matter how little time we may have.
Clementine will remember that.