Grateful 365 #6 – The Walking Dead Video Game

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Damn you Telltale.
It hurts so good that I love you.
I love you so badly it hurts.

I meant to do a grateful post and then a review and then a decision breakdown and analysis.

Somehow I managed to make the first two one post unintentionally.

Super short version?

I LOVE THIS GAME.

Slightly longer short version?

Sometimes either chemo or neulasta or both make sleep hard. Often it’s easy to resent that fact.

This game took one of my uncomfortable-to-be-alive nights and turned it into a reason to play a game.

That game got me so emotionally involved that it carried me out of myself and into a story.

While trying to hold myself together, it urged me to concentrate on, care for, and cry for something else entirely.

Catharsis is a beautiful thing.

This is more than a game to me, and many others. It’s escapism at it’s finest. It’s an experience. It’s nouveau tragedy done right.

It’s art.

Click above for “Take Us Back” by Alela Diane, the haunting end credit song from The Walking Dead.

Preface


It seems that there are a good number of people who like The Walking Dead TV series, and several representatives among my friend-group have insinuated in the past that I probably would too.

Bandwagoning aside, I tend to trust my friends on these kinds of things. They get me.

However, I tried The Walking Dead (the show) awhile back and found it– well– boring. Sure, it was set where I live. Yes, it’s really cool to see recognizable landmarks on screen. Hell, there’s still a chance that I might revisit the series one day and give it more than 2 episodes to build momentum and catch my interest.

When I heard about the game by Telltale, I wasn’t really given the chance to even contemplate skepticism.

When I was hearing about it prior to the final chapter dropping, it was like someone recounting “Hey, this one time when it was the zombie apocalypse-“. It wasn’t “some game,” it was an experience they were having and had to put on hold between chapters.

Excitement built until the final chapter was finally released, and at that point it seemed like an iron curtain descended. The obvious emotional investment was still there, but they could only say so much.

Them: “Oh. My. God….This game, man. I may never be the same…”

Me: “Really? You finally finished it?”

Them: (hollowly) “Yeah.”

Me: “So? How was it? Anything funny happen? That character you didn’t like get turned into zombie kibble?”

Them: “Dude- SO good. And Ben? I can’t even….the ending it just. It…holy shit. SO good, but, man…..”

Me: “…that told me a sum total of nothing. What happened?! Why is it so good?! Why do your eyes look haunted right now??”

Them: “NO.”

Me: (Blinks in surprise) “…No?”

Them: “I WILL NOT ruin it for you.”

Me: “-but I may never play i-”

Them: “NO. Just no. I can’t.”

All they would tell me is that it hit hard and fast and in every single one of the feels.

I was beyond intrigued.

At the time though, I wasn’t really playing many video games. (Time constraints, y’know?)

Time passed and with the game ended, I pretty much just forgot about it.

It was around the time when I started having my first medical issues that I received some giftcards for Steam- an online gaming store/library/community.

It was easy incentive to log on and go shopping.

It wasn’t long before I rediscovered the beauty of losing myself in a game. We’ll leave other titles for another time, but it wasn’t until December that I remembered the topic of this post.

Video Games Awesome, a series that I can guarantee I will likely post about next recovery week, had their Christmas Special. At the end of that special?

The Walking Dead: Season 2, Chapter 1.

Not because it was happy. Not because it was Christmassy.

They played it because the fan outcry was SO enormous and it was newly released.

It only took me hearing them discuss it to start looking up the title on Steam as they went.

There it was. And there was all of Season One. And there was the remainder of my gift cards in my wallet.

I watched most of the playthrough, but looking back the only thing I really gained was an appreciation for how much they loved this little pigtailed protagonist. I wanted to know WHY.

Desperately.

I love you Clem~! >w<

I love you Clem~! >w<


The Walking Dead Season One – Gameplay


I purchased that night, but I didn’t download or play until about three days ago.

It begins like a movie and in medias res (more on that in “Story”).

You meet yourself, learn the game’s premise and get the basic controls of the game.

These controls fall into two categories: timed multiple choice questions and quicktime events. It’s a unique recipe for a unique style of game-

This is not survival horror.

This is not FPS.

This is not even an “interactive story” in the way that many dating sims, eroge, or other interpersonal dialogue driven (generally Japanese) games are.

If I could coin a term, I’d call it tailored atmospheric action role play.

Shorthand? This is decision driven roleplay with quicktime action.

Quicktime? I hear you say.

Yes, but don’t close the browser yet, okay?

Let’s start at the “atmospheric” and “role play” portion, shall we? Earlier I mentioned dating sims and eroge. I’m sure that there are other genres out there with similar mechanics, but these happen to be what I’m familar with.

Generally speaking, these genres use player dialogue choices to determine one of several preset outcomes of the story. You play coy during dialogue choices with Aki and then (rather than him taking you to the dance Saturday) you find yourself on the progression line to a run-in with Hikari down at the train station.

The Walking Dead utilizes this mechanic by allowing you to choose how the protagonist, Lee, will interact with those he meets. If you leave a certain option on, a small pop-up will appear when you make a decision that may alter the course of the story.

Kenny will remember that...

Kenny will remember that…

How others in the story treat you will also be affected.

Also: your decisions are timed.

(I’m not entirely sure still what happens if you choose nothing in time, but I think you remain silent. (I don’t know why I was so terrified of it happening, looking back. I guess I was afraid that Lee would implode if I didn’t pick an answer before the white bar ran out!) )

Every now and then there are MAJOR turning points. These turning points are displayed in a graph at the end of each chapter, allowing you to see how your decisions compared to the rest of the player base. If nothing else, it’s an interesting feature that invites you to examine either your playstyle or personality…or maybe both.

Most action sequences involve mouseclicking a highlightable target before the computer deems your attempts at hand/eye coordination a joke. These moments are often followed by a queue to tap one key frantically and then prove you’re paying attention by awkwardly jamming your finger into another key. (QQQQQQQQQQQQQQQQ E!!! for most PC players.)

QQQQQQQE

Frustrating? Sometimes.

Hear me out though– there is something about a scripted event requiring you to a)assess b)recognize and c) respond that accelerates your heart, boosts your adrenaline and makes you feel accountable. Sit behind someone playing this game and wait for these moments.

Should they fail (and oh, they will fail sooner or later), it will be a string of curses followed by an enraged deluge of excuses. We, as players, don’t want our character to die. When it happens because we weren’t observant or quick enough…it doesn’t feel good. The gory death sequences ensure that you’ll want to get it right next go.

In context, with the atmosphere the game builds, quicktime events are effective.

Yes. I said effective.

I will not say that they aren’t annoying as an out of tune kazoo at times. They certainly can be.

They can break the flow of the story. They can bring you out of the experience. They can piss all over your parade.

…And in some sick, stupid way that’s what makes them work – after awhile, you FEAR them.

On a side note, the autosave is well executed and you rarely have to play back extraneous portions of the game after death. There’s also a super convenient “copy save slot” if you’d like to explore multiple choices.


The Walking Dead Season One – Story


Guys, if I haven’t convinced you to pick up this game yet– please, please read the following section carefully.

I love this game. This game is easily one of my favorites I’ve played EVER.

You begin as a person you know nothing about and then BUILD your own personality as you play. Most characters are CHARACTERS and not ‘extras,’ ‘filler’ or ‘fodder’. You come to care about people as you pick sides. You grow into your role. You see obvious (sometimes fatal!) consequences of every action and the end screens remind you that the story could have gone differently had you chosen otherwise.

The story is engaging, exciting, and atmospheric.

For me, it was especially strong because I live in Georgia. I know the places they visited and recognized buildings and landscapes.

Even if you don’t know the area, you begin to feel safe in certain areas and apprehensive in others. You become immersed and once you play through a chapter, it’s excruciatingly hard to stop there.

That said there are flaws.

#1 Uneven Decision Weighting

Every now and again–even if you’ve picked every “good” answer for a certain character– one of those major plot points will crop up. Choose wrong and suddenly your buddy will seem to forget everything else that’s transpired and turn against you.

#2 Weird or Misleading Choice Wording

Whoa guys, hold on! I thought I picked "everyone take a deep soothing breath- yes, I know it sounded like 'he's stealing, she's a slut and all your momma's smell like feet,' you got my sentiment, right?  ...guys??"

Whoa guys, hold on!
I swear I picked “Everyone take a deep soothing breath”
Yeah, I know it sounded like “Everyone take a deep soothing breath because Kenny said your momma smells like cheese and your daddy’s starting to rot,”  but that’s not what I meant!!

Sometimes you read something one way, select it, and the resulting dialogue is NOT what you’d intended.

For example:

“He’s bit. Get him out of this house!”

a) “No. He stays.”

b) “Yeah, you’ve got a point.”

c) “What would you do if he was your brother?”

d)”Everyone calm down!”

Let’s say you’re trying to keep the peace and pick “d”. Lee might say the following, “Everyone calm down! Listen, I know it’s not easy to hear, but he’s going to turn. We have to do what’s best for the group and get him out NOW.”

…WHAT??? I didn’t want to boot him out the door, I just wanted to make everyone stop yelling until we figured out whether or not he was bitten!!!

or c) “What would you do if he was your brother? Would you just throw him out to become one of them before you knew for sure? What kind of selfish sack of shit are you?!”

…O>O whoa, whoa, whoa!!! I thought we’d be engaging his empathy here, Lee– not trying to encite a fist-fight! What the hell, man?!!

In a game dependent on the idea of free choice, this can be really irritating.

#3 Fated Events

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Sometimes bad shit happens to good people. Real facts.

However, in a game where free choice is key, it can be really upsetting to try your damndest to protect/kill/discourage/encourage/ etc. another character only to realize a few hours later that their destiny was written regardless of what decisions you had made.

I lost someone I saved in chapter 1 in literally the blink of an eye…and it was shocking.

On the one hand, it was phenomenal. No one is safe to the whims of fate.

On the other, it was discouraging. No matter how I play, certain prompts in the plot WILL happen.

Great if you’re a fatalist, but not so good if it happens too often.


The Walking Dead Seaon One- The Payoff


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In before the spoilers. (Don’t worry, that’s another post!)

I’ll level with you here: The Walking Dead has moments when your heart will warm with affection for the characters and, given the right decisions, your opinion of mankind in its darkest hour might elevate to something like admiration or hope.

There were many scenes that made me smile, laugh, shake my head, and fall in love with the fiction I was interacting with.

However, this isn’t Disney, it’s the Brothers Grimm.

It’s the zombie apocalypse, and Telltale Games make a point of driving the most painful aspects of that home.

You may not cry, but if you leave the final chapter unaffected, you were guarding yourself and denying that oh-so-beautiful catharsis this game can deliver if you let it.

It has the best of humanity (or it’s potential. it’s play dependent.) at it’s heart, and because it understands that goodness it expertly exploits, endangers, and ultimately decimates you emotionally.

It. Is. A. Tragedy.

A good one because what you stand to lose– the stakes if you will– are central to the plot from beginning to end.

There is no McGuffin, because you have the important thing with you all along.

The final choice is fated, unchangeable, and puts your two primary goals in direct opposition with each other.

The last scene? I stand by each and every word I chose and decision I made.

I had been in pain prior to deciding to stay up all night playing, and was likely still in pain.

…but I don’t remember how my body felt when I finished.

I went into my final chapter with everyone. I’m proud of that, actually.

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Didn’t I say we’re strongest together?!

I lost people along the way, and while I played 90% of the game by “no take-backs” rule of thumb, during that final chapter, I made some exceptions.  Truth be told- the second I saw what might happen to my friends, my wards, my family– The second I feared I might lose them in these final moments, I quickly backed out in an attempt to see if a different choice might save them.

I couldn’t help it.

We’d come too far.

Flaws. Fights. Feuds. Whatever–!

I had played Lee like I hoped I’d behave…with one exception that I didn’t correct. It had been a choice. I made a choice…. and while it was pragmatically correct, it was morally wrong. I left it though because I played it like I might have lived it.

Mistakes and all.

It’s that kind of thing that pulls you in and makes the ever nearing end that much more suspenseful and poignant. You, on some level at least, become Lee.

I was so engrossed in the game that anything my actual nerves were telling me were either ignored or incorporated.

I remember how 2am felt, but at 6am I don’t remember how I was.

I remember the state of my heart and the beautifully rendered expressions on my character’s face though.

I remember how Ben and Kenny and Lee and Clem were.

And oh, I cried.

Crosslegged on the bed, encapsulated in pillows and melted icepacks and blankets, a disgruntled cat on either side and no light save the dark glow of The Walking Dead on my face… I clicked and I wept without shame.

I clicked through my options and I spoke my chosen words to the screen in an encouraging whisper. I tried to keep a stiff upper lip.

(For her sake, y’know?)

I wished wellness and safety and strength to a person that didn’t exist…

And doing so, I vicariously made myself stronger for her sake.

So that’s 2000 odd words about why I’m grateful to have this game.

2000 odd words that I hope might have convinced someone to give it a chance.

2000 odd words that are an earnest wish that more games like this be made.

I’ve played a lot of games, and while easily entertained, I’m not so easily moved.

Thanks The Walking Dead Season One.

I’m not done with you yet as a topic for writing, but today, I’m certainly grateful for your reprieve from reality.

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