It was just before midnight on Saturday, August 17th 2013 when I had completed the last episode of The Walking Dead. My butt was comfortably sitting in an indentation on the left cushion of my second hand couch that was formed over the 6 or so hours it took me to play the last three episodes of the game. I was alone in my dark apartment, well intoxicated after drinking a fifth of honey Jack Daniels, watching the final credits roll on my 24 inch Asus monitor which was placed on a coffee table just a foot or so away from my face.
I was incredibly sad. I had just watched Clementine leave a security booth after she had watched Lee, her new friend and father figure die handcuffed to a radiator. Never had I felt such genuine and real emotion from playing a video game.
Once the credits stopped rolling, Clementine reappeared on the screen walking alone through an empty field. Her sad eyes turned to fright when she saw two figures walking on the horizon. The two unrecognizable humans stopped walking and stared at Clementine in the distance.
Tears. I started crying. My emotions were lubricated by the booze, but god damn how fucking sad is the end of this game? I spent 10-12 hours forming a relationship with Lee and Clementine, playing as them through countless hardships to have it all torn down at the end. Who are the figures in the distance? Are they walkers? Raiders? Christa and Omid? It was impossible to know.
I slowly turned off my PS3 and slid sideways onto the couch and drifted into unconsciousness. I awoke the next morning with a mild headache (I miss the days of little hangovers) feeling a bit embarrassed about crying the night before. I remember sitting in my own filth contemplating if I had played the best video game ever the night before.
Fast forward almost 4 years later and now I have played through the first season of The Walking Dead for the third time. I replayed it in 2014 when it was released on the PS4 and just recently on the PSVita.
The Walking Dead is more of an interactive drama than it is a point and click adventure as the recent Telltale games have become. The puzzles are quick and simple allowing the player to quickly advance the story. If everything is inspected and every conversation is had in every puzzle situation, each episode will only take about 2 hours to complete.
This was the first episodic game that I had played. The “next time on The Walking Dead” after episodes and the “previously on The Walking Dead” before episodes were so well done. They are jittery and take a long time load, but they made me want to play the next episode and made me excited before playing an episode. The “next time” after episode one stood out as being the most memorable. It ends with Lee lifting an axe above his head before the screen went to black. As the title for the second episode appeared on the screen you can hear Lee swinging the axe over blood curling screams.
The limited amount of game play is used well. Putting the player in the position of deciding who in the group of survivors should eat and who should go hungry forces the player to think about how they would handle that situation. It is still just a game but it effective at putting the player in the state of mind of the characters which in turn makes it easy for the player to become emotionally invested in them.
Back in the summer of 2013 I was still vulnerable to the “shock kill” of a major character in a story. I had only seen the first two seasons of Game of Thrones (the red wedding is in season 3) and had yet to see The Wire, so the unexpected deaths of Larry and Carley thoroughly stunned me.
In episode two when Larry had fell after suffering a heart attack and the conversation about preemptively destroying his brain before he possibly came back as a strong as fuck walker, I struggled with the decision. I hated Larry and didn’t want him to turn, but killing him before knowing definitively if he was dead caused me to pause. I decided to give Larry CPR to attempt to save him and after just a few pumps on his chest, Kenny dropped a salt lick on Larry’s head leaving just the bottom of his jaw intact.
Later in episode three when the group was ambushed and made an escape in the RV, Lilly started to go crazy. Kenny pulled the RV to the side of the road after a walker had gotten stuck in the front axle. Outside of the RV in the middle of the night on the side of the road, Lilly continued to accuse Carley of working with the bandits trading with them. After several minutes of arguing Kenny finally breaks the walker loose from the RV, walks over to the group and asks “now what the fuck is going on?” As soon as he finished his sentence, blood splattered onto his face. Lilly shot Carley in the face at point blank range.
Both of these moments left me startled with my mouth hung open.
Even during my third time playing through the game, I was surprised at how brutal the game is. Early in episode one after Lee entered Clementine’s home and spoke to her via walkie talkie, the dead baby sitter attacked Lee. Escaping the baby sitter is as easy as sliding backwards while giving her a couple of kicks to the face. Clementine came down from her tree house to Lee’s aid and handed him a hammer. To fully incapacitate the baby sitter, the game requires the players to strike the baby sitter in the head with the hammer 4 or 5 times. With each swing I grew increasingly uncomfortable and the ruthless nature of the game was quickly established. Similar moments occur in episode two cutting off the band teachers leg, and beating one of the St. John boys to a pulp, in episode four dropping Ben to his slow agonizing death, and of course in episode five when Christa cuts off Lee’s arm (I know all of these moments happen differently depending on the choices the player makes).
The Walking Dead won a gazillion game of the year awards because of its writing, cinematography, and characters. The player is forced to make several difficult decisions which often have no right choice. Depending on how the player makes decisions, and talks to other characters, some characters live, others die, and several less significant plot changes occur. In the end these decisions don’t really matter as they all lead to the same final climatic situation. This was the game that exposed me to “lets plays” on YouTube as I wanted to see how others played the game and why they made certain decisions. At the end of every chapter a screen is shown comparing your decisions to everyone else who played the game (almost every decision is 50% to 50% at this point as so many people have played and replayed the game making the opposite decisions to their first play through to experience the whole game).
The direction and cinematography made The Walking Dead feel like a real hybrid between movie and game. The attention to detail, imagery, and camera work is top notch. In chapter two when the group is trying to escape the room the St. Johns locked them in, they used a quarter from the pocket change of Larry to unscrew the air conditioner freeing up the vent. The quarter used received a short close up and was revealed to be a Georgia state quarter (the game takes place in Georgia).
There are countless moments of gripping imagery including the post credit scene of Clementine and the shadowy figures described at the beginning of this post. Others include the lightning storm as Mrs. St. John walked backwards into the hands of a walker while holding Clementine hostage, the starved young walker locked in the attic in episode four, and when Lee and Clementine escape the Marsh House walking among the walkers after camouflaging themselves in walker guts.
Consistent immersive cinematic cut scenes scattered through all five episodes make the player feel like they are playing a movie.
It is impossible to play through this game and not get emotionally attached to Lee and Clementine. Regardless of how you feel about annoying characters like Kenny, Larry, and Ben, the bond formed between Clementine and Lee is as real as it gets.
A bonus episode titled 400 days was released and served as a bridge between season 1 and season 2. Honestly I don’t think this DLC episode offered a lot to the Telltale Walking Dead universe but it is still worth playing before going into season 2. It features 5 different short stories where the back story of 5 characters is explored. All 5 individual plot’s involve the same gas station and reside in the same area of Georgia where season 1 takes place and feature some of the same locations. These 5 characters converge together at the end of the episode and some have cameos in season 2 depending on your choices.
The PlayStation Vita version of this game chugs along and performs like the PlayStation 3 version. Load times are long, the frame rate drops, the next time and previously on segments are jittery and have loading issues. It is playable, but it is a reminder of how much better Telltale games have improved performance wise.
That is all I am willing to ramble on about my favorite video game. I present you a toast of honey whiskey. To The Walking Dead. *Clank*