After last year’s Jurassic Park, Telltale left some of its oldest fans—most of whom just happen to be adventure game fans—asking if the company had abandoned its roots. Telltale has always taken a casual approach to its games, but this one in particular was considered by many players to be too much of a diversion from the thoughtful puzzling and exploration adventure games are known for. Will the trend continue in their next episodic series, The Walking Dead? Rest assured, it’s not Jurassic Park with zombies. But judging from my early look at the first episode, A New Day, this series will also be fairly different from the traditional-style adventures Telltale cut its teeth on.
The game’s protagonist, Lee, is a former college professor who was recently convicted of murder. As the first episode begins, Lee is in the backseat of a police car on his way to prison. Conversation with the cop behind the wheel eases you into the controls and provides an early demonstration of how the many choices you’re confronted with in The Walking Dead will subtly shape your playing experience.
During this sequence, you get used to the game’s basic mechanics. On a controller, the right stick is used to look around and pan a cursor across the screen. When this lands on a selectable area (represented by a white dot), one or more action options become available, corresponding to the controller’s four face buttons. For example, you can choose to look at or talk to the cop, with each of these actions mapped to a different button. Depending on which responses you choose during this conversation, you may learn a bit about Lee’s past and how he met this fate, or the officer may prattle on while Lee just looks out the window at the emergency vehicles speeding into Atlanta with their sirens blaring.
Either way, the small talk is short-lived; a sudden collision sends the police car spinning down the embankment and Lee, still handcuffed in the backseat, blacks out. When he comes to, Lee sees the officer lying a few feet away in a trail of blood—as if he was not ejected from the car, but dragged from it. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you already know what Lee’s about to discover: zombies have taken over Atlanta. And they’re hungry.
Not a fan of the undead? Don’t let that turn you off. Telltale points out that although this series deals with a zombie apocalypse, Robert Kirkman’s comics are really about the people trying to survive. This is true of the game, too, with most of the episode spent forging relationships with other survivors and dealing with the emotional toll of this sudden catastrophe.
With the cop down for the count and Lee’s prison ride interrupted, you next learn how to move Lee around using the controller’s left stick, and how to pick up objects (move the cursor over one with the right stick, then press a button to pick it up). I played on the Xbox 360 and didn’t see the PC controls firsthand, but they were described to me as using a combination of the WASD keys for character movement and the mouse for cursor movement. On-screen icons helpfully show what Lee is carrying, but this isn’t a traditional inventory that you can rifle through at will. Whenever an item you’re carrying will work with a particular hotspot, you’re given the option to use it as one of the available actions, with no experimentation required. This minimizes the challenge but also keeps the focus on progressing the story rather than stumping the player, so whether you’ll like it or not probably depends on why you’re playing in the first place.
After a few harrowing encounters with the walking dead, Lee meets up with a first grader named Clementine, whose parents were out of town when the braaaaiiins hit the fan. Together they make their way out of Atlanta, eventually traveling with a few other survivors to Lee’s hometown of Macon. The episode has few moments that I would characterize as puzzles, and even these didn’t really jump out at me as such—both because they’re fairly straightforward to solve and because they’re neatly tucked into the story. I’ll admit, the adventure gamer in me wouldn’t have minded a bit more challenge. But as someone who plays for story first, I was generally satisfied with the game’s brisk pace and the types of activities I was confronted with—especially since the “tailored experience” afforded by Lee’s various choices adds an unusual dimension to the storytelling itself.
This choice system is one Telltale has toyed with in the past, with insubstantial decisions like selecting a fake name for Marty McFly carrying over from one Back to the Future episode to the next. In The Walking Dead, such choices play a more central role, with small decisions (such as whether to lie or tell the truth about Lee’s situation) influencing how other characters perceive Lee and how they proceed to interact with him throughout the episode. A few choices, such as the decision to save one person’s life over another’s, will even have ramifications beyond this episode, with the game remembering your choice and tailoring future episodes accordingly. Some decisions have better outcomes than others, but from what I could tell there are no wrong choices, so you can follow your instincts without having to worry about what you’re “supposed” to do.
This isn’t the first game to boast player choice as a feature, but it’s the first I’m aware of that lets you in on the impact of your choices, via on-screen “story notifications.” For example, while conversing with the police officer in the car, if you have Lee mention that he’s from Macon, an on-screen notification lets you know that the officer picked up on this. The dialogue that follows is tailored to the fact that the officer now knows Lee’s hometown. I liked the meta-experience of seeing the impact of my decisions, but the notifications can be turned off if you prefer not to peek behind the curtain.
In most cases, the choices you make won’t lead to massive differences in how the story unfolds, but they do customize the playing experience in a way we haven’t really seen before in adventure games (and certainly not in previous Telltale games). Perhaps the closest comparison is to the character customization in an RPG, but rather than leveling up Lee’s stats, you’re leveling up (or down) his personality traits such as honesty and loyalty, which then leads the characters around him to perceive and treat him accordingly. Having only played through the first episode, it’s hard to say exactly how much the choice system will define The Walking Dead’s overall gameplay, but I’m intrigued by the possibilities.
The first episode’s gameplay mainly consists of dialogue and basic exploration, with a sprinkling of Quick Time Events tossed in. These are limited to zombie encounters and are quite simple, usually involving rapid pressing of the A button followed by a single press of another button. (It’s possible to die for failing a QTE, but during this playthrough I never did.) Generally only one such event occurs at a time, unlike in Jurassic Park where several minutes might be spent slogging through one QTE after another. The change of pace during these encounters increases the tension (as you’d expect, coming face to face with a zombie!), but personally I didn’t feel like these sequences added much to the Walking Dead experience. That being said, there are few enough and they’re over quickly enough that their presence is easy to overlook.
Also unlike Jurassic Park, whose plastic-looking characters strayed a bit too far into the uncanny valley, The Walking Dead doesn’t try for visual realism, instead emulating the comics on which the game is based. The stylized characters and environments appear hand-painted, with texturing, shading, and imperfect outlines that give the feeling of a graphic novel come to life. Fans of the series will recognize a few familiar faces among the game’s minor characters, but this is not a retelling of Kirkman’s comics. Rather, Telltale’s Walking Dead episodes recount a parallel story unfolding in a different location during the early days of the zombie apocalypse. The basic facts and framework remain, but the story and major players are brand new. For those worried about canon, never fear: Kirkman has said that he likes what Telltale’s done with the license.
At the risk of giving it a backhanded compliment, The Walking Dead is more of an “interactive movie” than a traditional adventure game. For me, that’s quite all right; your mileage may vary. Its lite gameplay will probably raise some eyebrows among Telltale’s oldest fans, but it’s certainly adventure gamer friendly, with an emphasis on story and without heavy reliance on quick reflexes. And fans of The Walking Dead comics should appreciate how true the game is to the source material, both visually and thematically. As for how this unique approach will go down with adventure game fans, we'll soon see, as the first of five episodes will launch for PC, Mac, Xbox Live Arcade, and PlayStation Network in late April.