Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Significance of The Walking Dead (Spoiler Free Edition)

I really like Telltale's The Walking Dead. In fact, it's probably my favorite game of the year, and that's saying a lot. It's easily Telltale's best game, and I really liked Puzzle Agent, Poker Night At The Inventory, and what I played of Back To The Future. The Walking Dead is a game which, I feel, finally gets everything right that Telltale, and the video game industry in general, have been trying to get right for so long. I'd even go so far as to say that The Walking Dead feels like a progression of the medium.

For those who don't know, The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games, is an adventure game tie-in to Robert Kirkman's extremely popular comic series The Walking Dead. I say tie-in because, unlike the television show, Telltale's The Walking Dead is not an adaptation of the comic books. It tells a different story, with different characters (or occasional appearances by characters from the comic), set in the same world with the same zombies. It's even considered canonical with the comics, as a matter of fact.

The major "hook" of the game is that it presents you with extremely difficult choices, and gives you virtually no time to select them. Unlike the morality systems in games like Mass Effect series, though, these aren't black and white, right or wrong choices. In most cases, there's no "good" answer, and both options outright suck. The spirit of the game is simple, showing you the cold reality of what this sort of apocalypse would be like. Even those who jokingly (or seriously), say that they're ready for the zombie apocalypse to hit, will find themselves faced with situations they've never considered. And, even more interestingly, the series drama doesn't come purely from the zombies, it primarily comes from the people.

The episodic format for games has been around for a while, but I don't think it had really been done right until now. Telltale's experimented with it with things like Back to the Future, and that was all right, but splitting it into episodes like they did, didn't really add anything to the game that splitting it into chapters wouldn't have achieved. Poker Night at the Inventory was presented as the pilot for a new series, but that was two years ago, and nothing more has come of it. Even huge companies like Valve struggle with the format, as evidenced by the infamous lack of Half-Life 2: Episode 3.

The Walking Dead, however, actually feels like it benefits from the episodic format. The weight of each choice the series faces you with is so heavy that, to be honest, I felt like I needed the month long break between episodes. Each time I finished an episode, I felt like the worst person possible. In fact, this is the first episodic series I've played where my advice would be, even if you've waited for the full series to come out, give yourself some time between each episode to decompress, and reflect upon the choices you've made. I wouldn't have said that for the episodes of Half-Life 2, or for the episodes of Back to the Future. While it was fine that those game came in the episodic format, the episodic format did not inherently enhance the experience, as I felt it did with The Walking Dead. In fact, in the future, I hope Telltale sticks to the episodic format even more strictly, keeping a solid month by month release schedule, and sticks to it (although I realize why they would be hesitant to do so).

But what really makes The Walking Dead so special, in my opinion, and what makes it beat out great titles like Mass Effect 3, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Torchlight 2, FTL, or They Bleed Pixels, all astoundingly good titles in their own right, as my GOTY, is that it feels important to me. And it feels important to me for one specific reason; The Walking Dead is not fun. It is not a fun game. Allow me to explain.

Up until this point, games have always been about being fun. And don't get me wrong, that's great. I love fun games. But the thing is, The Walking Dead manages to be a great, super engaging experience, without being fun. The Walking Dead is not a fun experience. It's stressful. It's emotionally distressing. The choices you have to make are horrible. It makes you care about characters with wonderful writing, and then has horrible things, up to and including random senseless death, happen to them. It's a grueling experience, and the fact that it manages to be so engaging, and such a great experience, while also being one that's not "fun" in any sense of the word, seems super important to me.

Back when film was first invented, most of the earliest films were comedies. The reason why was simple, slapstick comedy is easy. That doesn't make it lesser by any means, and I absolutely believe that comedy can be art, but with the medium being so new, and so primitive, comedy, or eventually more "fun" adventure films, were a simple way for the medium to become established. Once people had started learning the medium, and it had become more established, we started seeing the beginnings of what film would become. It wasn't until the later days of silent films, and the early days of talkies would we see films start to tell dramatic stories which were designed to emotionally engage the viewer. Movies like Gone With the Wind, for example, couldn't have existed in the very earliest days of cinema, because the format wasn't established enough for anyone to know how to use it to effectively tell a dramatic story, so comedy (slapstick and otherwise), were used to learn, and evolve the medium. This was a very important step in the evolution of film.

I feel like that's what we're seeing here with video games. Before this point, games have been about fun. That's not a criticism, that's a fact. Even games which I feel are indisputably art, Bioshock, Wind Waker, Mass Effect, have been about providing the player with a fun experience. The Walking Dead is the first game where I wouldn't say that hold true. It's a great experience, it's a great story, it's a great game, but it's not "fun". I'm not sure if The Walking Dead is the first game to do this, but it's the first game I've ever felt this way about, and it's the first game to do this which I feel has achieved this level of success.

I don't think The Walking Dead is the Citizen Kane of gaming, by which I mean the game which will sort of legitimize the medium in the eyes of the art snob out there (not that it needs legitimization), but it does feel like a progression of the medium to me, and one which I'm excited to see. Everyone should go out and play The Walking Dead right now. It's a great game, and possibly a very significant one for the future. It's seen such success that Telltale, a studio which I feel has always struggled to find it's place, between mild successes like Back to the Future, or critical and financial flops like Jurassic Park, has already announced both a Season 2, and a game adaptation of another popular comic book series, Fables. Not only is Telltale's The Walking Dead the best The Walking Dead there's ever been, it's an astoundingly huge success, in a year where even big studios have been coming under fire for their restriction of player choice.

Go play The Walking Dead. It's really good.

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