The Walking Dead is lovely in the most horrifying ways. Some people have asked me why anyone would want to subject themselves to something that outwardly seems so depleting. It’s depressing. Haunting. This isn’t one of those games where you face a harrowing plot, but end the story on a happy note by conquering the evil bad guy in charge of destroying the world (or whatever).
This story is a hopeless one. Like I said: depressing.
You know straightaway that most of the survivors you travel with will die, perhaps even by each episode’s end. Worse: some might betray you. You know that resources only grow more scant as threats grow more infectious. You know all this, and yet you still play.
Because sometimes the most beautiful stories are also the most disturbing ones. The great thing about interactive fictional worlds is that you get a chance to explore scenarios you will never otherwise experience. Even the ugly experiences are worth investigating. I dare say you learn more about your own character during your toughest times than your brightest days. The Walking Dead serves as an experience that’s the worst of the worst. It gives you a chance to explore your emotions and leadership abilities throughout them. It exposes you to, yes, some downright abysmal situations and people. But you don’t play The Walking Dead because you’re a masochist. You play it because it gives you the opportunity to experience what would be a life-changing event, but from the comfort and safety of your own home.
Growing up, my parents would often tell me that they wish they could pass on everything they’d learned from their most negative experiences so that I wouldn’t have to go through something similar just to learn the lesson for myself. Video games grant you that opportunity. And The Walking Dead executes it beautifully. And horrifyingly. And convincingly.
The Walking Dead is, without a doubt, my game of 2012. It’s well-written, and paired with some great performances. Because of this, I loved some characters; I took Clementine under my wing, but because I felt that obligation myself, not just because the game told me to do it. I hated other characters; Lilly can be torn apart by walkers for all I care. Telltale’s episodic adventure game moved me to feel both of these things. I quickly became invested in the characters that I attempted to lead to safety, a target that was constantly on the move.
Even as this first season came to a close, and as hope drained and darkness came crashing in like tunnel vision, I knew I had to push on. To test how well I can think on my feet no matter what this game throws at me. To see the end of the story fulfilled. But, mostly, to ensure Clementine’s safety. It’s rare that a game will connect me to a digital being so powerfully. But The Walking Dead is also a rare kind of game. And through all that darkness, having to witness the worst in people, there was always that one ray of sunlight to keep me going: the brave little girl who always looked up at me with trust. Bad things make you appreciate the good things even more, and that’s somehow beautiful. It’s the exact kind of beauty The Walking Dead is all about.
The decisions you were forced to make along the way didn’t mould the entire world around you. But it changed who you were — and who Lee was — and it changed the group dynamic. As you played and as you made these life-changing decisions, you saw your relationships with people change. Sometimes uncomfortably so. The Walking Dead makes you regret the things you’ve done, even when you had the best intentions. In any other game, regret would make me load up a previous save. But I savoured these sad moments Telltale forced me to swallow down. Because they were decisions I made, and they reflected who I am and what I choose to do in the face of danger. Regret — like doubt and fear — is part of the survival experience, and The Walking Dead is a simulation of all those feelings. It’s the closest we’ll get to experiencing the real thing.
This game is not about the guns, and it’s not even about the zombies. It’s about people. And about just how awful they can get when push turns to dead things gnawing on your flesh.
On top of its emotional prowess, The Walking Dead followed a smart model: episodic releases. Like episodes of your favourite television show, The Walking Dead‘s episodes were followed by deep conversations and analysis. It kept players actively interested and intrigued. And it kept us all on the same page.
Even though the mobile version is plagued with bugs and inconsistencies, and even though players reported some other bugs on the other available platforms — 360, PS3, PC — it’s hard to argue with such a beautifully sombre story.
At the very least, no other game this year made me cry and smile at the same time.