The dead have risen, and they’re shambling onto your video game console. They’re still ugly, they’re still hungry, and you look deliscious. Telltale Games has released the first chapter in their five-episode series of The Walking Dead, available for download on the Playstation Network and XBox Live. You know the zombies are coming, but no one else does, especially not your character Lee Everett; he has other things on his mind. As the cops drive him to prison, things seem pretty bad. Zombies, of course, make everything worse.
Episode One, “A New Day,” begins before the events of the comic and TV series, and gives glimpses of some of the characters you see in both, but the additional cast is equally compelling. The zombies are terrifying and pathetic. They shamble, they moan, they feed. While the art design is interesting, an obvious homage to Tony Moore, the penciler in the original series, Telltale manages to make the characters both unique and human. They’re stylized (not anime cute or comic book sexy), but in a way that reveals the character, some inscrutable, some frightening, some sweet.
Clementine, the little girl you protect (and who protects you), is absolutely adorable, and the team has given the director room for subtlety. Eye movements, body shifts and moments of quiet add amazing pathos and depth to the survivors. The team also does an amazing job creating mood with lighting and setting; there are a few moments that took my breath away. When Lee makes a transition between the outside on a beautiful summer day, sunshine and greenery, to the interior of an abandoned home, the bright yellows filter into oranges and reds in the darkness of the home. Immediately, you feel like an invader and in danger. My only beef is that I wish the zombies looked a little more human to make them more tragic and harder to kill.
Telltale Games is known for their point-and-click adventure games like Sam and Max and the Back to the Future series. They’ve changed the formula a bit on this one, and it works. The focus of the game is narrative—you are trying to survive—and, like the comic series, the game is ultimately about how horrific situations strip away the veneer of who we think we are and reveal our true nature.
You play Lee Everett, a former professor at the University of Georgia, intelligent, soft spoken and a murderer. The character himself doesn’t quite know if he is, at heart, an evil man. Besides, as another character points out, murder may be a useful skill in this new situation.
Pointing and clicking are utilized in this game, but sequences that rely on timing and aiming a reticule add nail-biting tension. The cinematic tricks and lack of complete control also add to a feeling of desperation and powerlessness. You are not a superhero with perfect balance and boundless endurance. You’re a regular guy in a horrific situation. As in other Telltale games, you have to find things you can pick up and figure out where and how to use them, but instead of moments of silence as you search the screen and puzzle, you feel engaged in the world. The characters have something to say, the story is the driver, and the settings are filled with atmosphere, so it doesn’t feel tedious.
The game doesn’t pull punches. Hard decisions need to be made, and if you don’t make them, the game will, as dialogue and actions are timed. There is a role-playing aspect as well where, as in Mass Effect, the game takes notes on how you respond, and other characters will remember your words and actions, leading me to believe that this will come to fruition as the series progresses. Is your Lee indecisive, protective, ruthless, opinionated, honest, afraid? You shape him. What do the other survivors think of you, and what kind of people are they? Will they be there when you need them?
For $5 dollars, you owe it to yourself to find out. Individually, the episodes are $4.99 each, or you can pay $20 for the bundle. For fans of the series, this is a must buy. Robert Kirkman, the series writer, assisted in making this game, and it remains true to the world and themes of the comic. Casual gamers, you are welcome, too. The controls are simple and the story strong, and while the game can feel frenetic and frightening at times, it requires more thinking than skill. The first episode runs about two hours, and there are reasons to replay. There are powerful moments I won’t spoil for you, but this is one of the rare games that can make you look at yourself and your world differently, and that’s an experience for everyone. The episodes will be released monthly, and I’m ready to eat my firstborn to get my hands on all of them now.
Frag Dean is a podcaster on Silly Frags, available on iTunes, Sticher and sillyfrags.com.