Telltale’s fantastic Walking Dead game was a surprise for several reasons. Not only did it reverse the studio’s reputation for middling-to-unsatisfactory games, it will no doubt be in the running for many a publication’s Game of the Year award. It proved that good writing and characterisation can carry a video game, that the point-and-click adventure game still had some life left in it, and that choice and consequence can feel vital and terrifyingly important.
And on top of all of that, its episodic structure may well signal a change in the way we consume games.
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the game premiered back in April. It feels like it’s been with us for a lot longer than that. Over the course of seven months and five episodes, we all became wrapped up in the harrowing, zombie-filled story of Lee, Kenny, Duck and, of course, Clementine. With the release of last week’s season finale, the story that began in April finally came to an end.
When I think back over those months, the most remarkable thing wasn’t how good The Walking Dead was, it was the way we all experienced it. Every six weeks or so, a new episode would come out. We’d all quickly play it, and then talk about it, and anxiously await the next one. In that way, it was unlike any game I’ve ever played.
The debut, “A New Day”, impressed us with its credible characters and interesting dilemmas. “Starved For Help” threw up some schlocky thrills, but more importantly, demonstrated that the first episode wasn’t a fluke, and that the series would likely be strong throughout. And the third episode, the emotionally devastating “Long Road Ahead,” immediately put the game in the running for best-in-class.
What was so cool about all of that was the timeline over which it happened. Because we had to wait between episodes, we the audience could digest and discuss each new entry, and the game became a social phenomenon to an extent that few other games are. With each new release, people would be on Twitter, or Facebook, talking about the latest development, dancing around spoilers, fretting about the fates of our protagonists and comparing notes on the decisions they’d made. It stood in contrast to the way it goes with most video games, where people chatter for a week or a month after the release date and then move on to other things.
The rare long-lived game, like Borderlands 2 or Skyrim, carries on past this point, but many games, particularly AAA console games, seem to lose their critical mass of interest within about six weeks. But not The Walking Dead. Here we are, still talking about it, seven months after its release. To put that in perspective, the much-hyped Fez, blockbuster Max Payne 3 and excellent Trials Evolution were all released at around the same time as The Walking Dead. But Telltale’s game retains far more conversational capital now.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that The Walking Dead was terrific. It was daring and smart, brave enough to allow for real tragedy, and emotionally affecting without feeling manipulative. It was based on a popular intellectual property, and came along right when some people were getting frustrated with the AMC TV show based on the same series. (Though I’d argue that the series has finally found its footing in this new season, but that’s a separate article.) All of that played a vital part in the game’s success — note that I didn’t write this article about Telltale’s similarly episodic but less successful Back to the Future and Sam and Max games, and certainly not their by-all-accounts risible Jurassic Park game, which was meant to be released episodically but wound up being lumped together into a single release. It also helped that the game was released on just about every platform possible, from PC to Mac to consoles to iPhones, giving it a much larger potential audience than your average video game.
But the role of the episodic model in The Walking Dead‘s success shouldn’t be overlooked. I found it refreshing to experience a game in the same way that I experience TV shows. For once, I wasn’t way ahead of a bunch of my friends, I hadn’t already finished, and didn’t have to wait for them to catch up so we could talk about it. By necessity, we were all on the same page, and so conversation flowed so much more freely. Wouldn’t it be cool to see more games like this?
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that The Walking Dead will change everything. No single game could. The current way we create and consume games is pretty established, and any change will happen in bits and pieces over time. And just as single-serving movies exist alongside TV series, massive one-shot games will continue to exist alongside episodic ones. But Telltale’s success could send a signal to other developers and publishers that the episodic model really works, when done properly. Most AAA publishers gamble huge amounts of money on making a splash and quickly selling millions of copies, and find little relief in post-release-window sales. Most games need to do big business in their first month on the market, otherwise they’ll be deemed failures. It’s a crazy and unbalanced model, and it’s in need of some alternatives.
Episodic games like The Walking Dead could offer an avenue for change. For seven months this year, it was possible for fans to get in on The Walking Dead while it was still happening. For seven months, people talked about, recommended, and hyped the game. And now that it’s finally complete, even more people can buy it as a complete package, a “Season 1 DVD”, if you like. We won’t have final sales numbers on The Walking Dead for a while, but it’s a good bet that sales of the game continued at a much more consistent rate since April than, say, Max Payne 3. And more to the point, it was a fun, different, and refreshing way to experience a video game.
The Walking Dead isn’t the first episodic game ever — Telltale has been pursuing this course of action, with limited success, for years. But Walking Dead is certainly the most successful one, and as such is something of a proof-of-concept. I’ve had hopes for the format for a long time — the episodic structure is why I will always prefer Mass Effect 2 to the other games in the series, and I find that I have more fun dissecting TV shows in real-time with my friends than I do games. In fact, I’d argue that in terms of structure, length, and format, story-based video games share more in common with television programs than they do with films.
We live in a golden age of television, where visionary writers and showrunners have embraced the TV format to tell long-form, novelistically satisfying stories. From The Wire to Deadwood to Mad Men, TV has granted the opportunity to tell complex, rewarding stories with a more flexible structure than film. It’s no coincidence that Game of Thrones, the defining epic of the past (and likely next) several years, is happening not on the silver screen, but in living rooms.
With that in mind, it’s not such a stretch to imagine that Telltale’s The Walking Dead game could be a sign of things to come. And if more games were to follow in the footsteps of television, it could be a very good thing indeed.