Playlist 2012: The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead PS3 | Telltale Games | December

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One of the conversations my generation seems most ready to have is what they’d do in the event of a zombie apocalypse:

  • Whose house doubles as a good fort?
  • Which local store would have the best stockpile?
  • Whose car gets away the fastest?
  • What kind of weapons could we make from what’s sitting in the garage?
  • Who would you band with, and where would you all rendezvous?

It’s a fun game to play, partly because there are no right or wrong answers, but mostly because you get to learn something new about the people around you. The Walking Dead runs with these sorts of questions while putting the safety of others in the mix, making each subsequent one more complicated than the last. It tells an excellent story about people you could relate to, and not just for being a game.

Every few years, game developers find an opportunity to set standards by taking advantage of new technology: dual-joystick controls, vibration, save files, 3D graphics, voice-acting, quick-time-events, online connectivity, downloadable content, motion controls, etc. There was a time when none of the above could be found in a video game (Pac-Man or Tetris, for instance), but it’s difficult now to find a game missing any of the above in 2012. Not only that, but the lines between personal computer, game console and mobile device are continually blurred as gamers seek access to their content from whichever screen is most convenient. With all these challenges met, where does that leave us?

Maturation of the stories only video games can tell is probably a good place to start. The Walking Dead occupies so many Best-of-2012 lists because it stands as one of the most easily recognizable examples of it. Similar to how The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time affected 3D adventure games or World of Warcraft framed the expectations of MMORPG’s, what Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead brings to the table is presentation. With a philosophy similar to Journey’s, it focuses on how you may react emotionally to a human situation, rather than to any numeric currency the game’s world might run on. Given a minute to choose at the end of the world, whose side would you take between two strangers arguing? If one of them pulled a gun out on you, or an abandoned child you’re trying to protect, how would you diffuse the situation? These sorts of questions don’t end with traditional rewards. They add layers of definition to your character instead of pieces of armor.

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Interestingly enough, The Walking Dead’s mechanics are quite familiar. There’s walking, talking, shooting, controlling a camera angle and moving a cursor, but it’s the way they’re dressed up and presented that creates a different language, and thus a different experience. Does that make The Walking Dead a role-playing game? An interactive-drama? A point-and-click adventure? Horror? All of the above arguably apply. Classifying a game’s genre based off its gameplay still makes sense in most cases (racing, sports, puzzle), but it’s a refreshing symptom of growth to see ones that can be categorized by their content more effectively than their mechanics.

Games with any whiff of high-production values are quickly compared to films because the latter is usually easier to talk about–and let’s face it: movies are easier to talk about because their vocabulary is less fleeting. This comparison is made begrudgingly, however, because gamers just want their favorite pastime to be recognized for the unique experiences it affords, rather than the ideas it may or may not be trying to lift. But I don’t believe comparing video games to movies is an inherently bad thing. More often than not, a shared visual language is constructive, and shouldn’t be seen as creatively unavailable to newer forms of media just because older ones have mastered it. Storytelling in gaming is getting surer of its footing, and The Walking Dead is one of the strongest steps forward.

twd-clemAdapting an existing property has historically been a death knell for past video games. Telltale Games both expands and reinterprets the creative thrust previously set in motion by two separate mediums (graphic novels and a television series), and in many ways bests both of them. Like any good story, The Walking Dead constantly had me on the edge of my seat, but not because I had no idea what was going to happen next. It was because no matter what happened, it was going to be up to me.

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