I've heard people say at one time or another in my life that honesty is the best policy, so I'm going to go ahead and be honest with you before I start this... I'm not sure I have the ability to write this review. Typically I find that reviewing games is pretty easy for me, I can tell you what mechanics work and which don't. I can tell you if it looks good and performs well from a technical standpoint. I can tell you if it ultimately is fun to play or not. The Walking Dead is not a perfect game in a lot of ways. For instance there are numerous occurrences of graphical glitches. There are framerate problems; one section in episode 5 has you climbing a ladder in what is supposed to be real time but feels like slow motion. There are unforgiving and badly handled action sequences where failure is determined by your ability to click something in the time allotted. The problem with reviewing Telltale's episodic take on The Walking Dead is that none of that stuff is important to my enjoyment of the game.
How do I explain why a game's narrative is exceptional and groundbreaking for the medium of video games without spoiling it? It's sort of a double edged sword in that I want people to play it but the biggest selling point is a narrative that I absolutely refuse to spoil in any meaningful way. I'll do my best here to set the scene.
The Walking Dead is a point and click adventure series told in 5 installments. You play as Lee Everett, a recently sentenced murderer on his way to serve a lengthy prison sentence. Lee's back-story is kept intentionally vague, you as the player are to determine if he's a good person just like the people he meets along his journey. Long story short, Walking Dead stuff happens and you find that it's you and an eight year old girl named Clementine trying to survive in the zombie apocalypse. If you're familiar with the tv series you'll find that the game follows a similar narrative structure in that your relationships with other survivors are the focus and a larger story of why the dead are walking and trying to eat human flesh is rarely (if ever) addressed.
The characters are so expertly crafted, they're all hopelessly flawed in one way or another but are all still inherently good in some way. Clementine is a naive and scared little girl, it's your job to comfort and protect her and it's easy to forget you're even playing a game. There's a choice in episode 4 where you can bring her with you on a dangerous mission or leave her behind in relative safety. That shouldn't be a hard choice but thought of putting her on someone else's watch was unbearable, I felt a compulsory need to protect her at all costs. I felt as if I couldn't put someone else in charge of her, she was my responsibility.
Gameplay wise it's a typical adventure game in that it you move Lee with the left stick and click things with the right. Lee can investigate and interact with objects in the world in order to progress the story. It differs in other titles in the genre in that puzzles are rare and you almost always know what to do in all situations. The real focus of the gameplay is centered around conversations with other survivors in the world and making decisions that impact their perception of you. Anything you do in the world can and will impact what happens in the narrative in subsequent episodes. You can have a discussion with another gamer about this game and they may have had a completely different experience. These branching paths are brought back together in sausage like fashion for design purposes. You are after all playing a game, even if it's easy to forget.
Much like a real zombie apocalypse would be, the choices you make are never exactly pleasant. A particularly bleak choice in episode 2 has you deciding the fate of another survivor in order to protect the rest of the group. Telltale has crafted the story in a way where it's impossible to get a narrative that isn't dark, depressing, and crushingly bleak. The choices you make can and will kill other characters that you've grown attached to in the story. The game is very good at filling it's world with dynamic and interesting characters and taking them away from you and making you feel responsible for it. The end result is a game that is perfectly designed for episodic gaming in that you'll feel so terrible by the end of each episode that the month off is extremely welcome. You could theoretically complete all 5 episodes in a Sunday afternoon but the emotional roller-coaster accompanied with each chapter is best experienced as a standalone game.
I've always felt that video games are capable of telling stories that movies and television are incapable of due to their interactivity. A story told through a game doesn't necessarily need to have the same beginning, middle, and end for all players. The Walking Dead doesn't fulfill that goal completely, but it marks a progressive move forward in that regard. A game like Mass Effect promised something similar years ago and failed to deliver earlier this year with it's 3rd iteration. We've never been closer to a new kind of interactive entertainment experience than what The Walking Dead represents. It's a mostly standard game with an absolutely powerful and emotional narrative that I won't soon forget. It's proof that technical deficiency and boring mechanics can be overcome.
Bravo Telltale, you've created something special. You've created a game that's barely even a game that I cannot stop thinking about. You've created a new gold standard for any arguments I'll have in the future about "games as art". You've completely obliterated my ambivalence towards point and click adventure games. You've created the best game of 2012.
To anyone reading this: play this game, it's probably available on at least 2 devices you own and the entry point is a measly 5 bucks.
Frames Per Second is my regular gaming feature here on YPOIW. You can contact me on twitter if you have any comments or concerns with this piece. This feature will be taking a week off as I'm going on vacation, I look forward to having you next time.