I wanted to like the television adaptation of The Walking Dead when it premiered on AMC back in 2010. I like zombies; I like Frank Darabount. I'd heard nothing but good things about the comics the show was based on.
And I liked the pilot; I really did. But immediately after that... they lost me. The show almost immediately became a ploddingly paced snooze-fest broken up by moments of excitement that weren't worth the wait, populated by underdeveloped characters who frequently behaved like unforgivable imbeciles. If anything it got worse in its second, full season, which was a farm-shackled slog broken up by just enough excitement to keep people hopeful that it would get better.
I approached Telltale's The Walking Dead video game with some scepticism. I've been reading the books, which have only served to make me more frustrated with the show. Could a video game adaptation really be better than a TV adaptation?
Sure, the game's writers have talked about how much regard they have for the source material. I heard good things from some other folks who had played tha game, so I fired the first of Telltale's five planned episodes up. What do you know? It's very good.
In fact, I like the Walking Dead video game a lot better than the TV show. Here are 5 reasons why.
The Characters Aren't All Tools
The fact that protagonist Rick Grimes is the most interesting character on the TV show says less about what an interesting character he is and more about how uninteresting everyone else is. It's only in a few raw moments (the final scenes of the second season, for example) when we get a look at how interesting he could be as a character.
The game's protagonist Lee Everett, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. He has a criminal past that we don't quite understand, and even though we don't know what he's done, we're forced to make decisions about how clean we want to come to the other survivors. Some of them take him at his word, others are suspicious.
His relationship to his family and his ex-wife are complicated, and we learn about them through casually tossed off bits of conversation and, at some points, grisly discoveries in the game.
This is primarily Lee's story, but the other characters I met offered just enough in their limited screen time to make me interested in them. And the young girl Clementine (who I'll get to in a minute) is another well-done interesting character. Best of all, the game features Glenn, who is by far the least-toolish character on the TV show. It's a veritable cornucopia of non-toolishness!
I find that I want to know more about Lee, and I'm happy that there will be five more episodes in which I'll get to do so. Rick Grimes, on the other hand, has had two seasons worth of TV show to make me interested in him, and yet despite flashes of interestingness he's still kinda of just this guy, you know? And the less said about those goons he hangs out with, the better.
Turns Out Mopey Conversations Are Better If You're Having Them
In any zombie apocalypse, there's going to be some downtime; moments when you and your fellow survivors sort of just look at one another blankly, think about the horrible things you've seen and done, and sort of... cope.
In all its forms, The Walking Dead works very hard to conjure those moments; the comics spend page after page looking into the darkness of a soul without hope. But in the TV show, that navel-gazing slows to a glacial pace, and characters spend ages staring into the middle distance, blandly mouthing vague statements about being sad and feeling anguished about this or that. Aside from a couple of the main characters, we aren't given enough information about any of them to find it interesting.
The Walking Dead the game has had a fraction of the amount of time to work with, so its characters are even less developed. And yet, I find that I'm invested in the bland conversations and the shell-shocked mumbling, and I'm eager to know more about all of them. That's mostly because I'm actually doing the mumbling, and making choices.
Watching a character be vague about his sketchy past isn't all that interesting. In this case, playing as a character who is attempting to be vague about his sketchy past is much more so.
The Kid Isn't A Complete Effing Moron
In fact, Clementine is pretty great. She's cute and funny, smarter than she lets on, yet she still acts like a kid. She's one of the most realistically drawn kids I've encountered in a video game in some time.
I spent the entire first chapter having Lee tell her half-truths in just the way that we really do with young kids — I'm not going to spell out for her that her family is most likely dead, and I'm not going to tell her the full story of my checkered criminal past. I could if I wanted to (those are dialogue options), but those just aren't things I would tell a little kid.
I like her and I found that I (and by extension, Lee) wanted to shelter her from what was happening as well as I could. I'm interested to see how her relationship with Lee changes over the course of the next four chapters. I hope nothing tragic happens. Knowing The Walking Dead, my hopes are most likely in vain.
Compare that to the Walking Dead TV show, where we spent the entirety of the second season anguishing over dumbarsed Carl who left the cars like a huge dumbarse and wandered out and got shot, in the way that only a real dumbarse could. Ugh. Go away, Carl. Go off with your dumbarse mum and get turned into a zombie or something. Maybe it would make you smarter.
I Don't Long For Zombie Attacks
The TV version of The Walking Dead tends to be at its best whenever action is either happening or is about to happen. A tense buildup to a bloody confrontation in a bar was my single favourite sequence of the entire series to date. The season 2 finale, which I only recently got around to watching, contained the most engaging extended sequence the show has had in ages. But too much of the series up to then, hampered by uneven writing and budget limitations, has to take place in between zombie attacks. For whatever reason, the show-runners have been unable to turn this weakness into a strength.
Conversely, the action sequences in The Walking Dead game are its least interesting part — and that's by design. It's essentially a point-and-click adventure game, and the Heavy Rain-light controls in combat aren't really designed to be difficult. Despite a couple of harrowing encounters, I never came all that close to dying in all of episode one.
Rather, the game lives in the moments immediately after combat, when you had to make some terrible choice or other and then decide how to rationalize it to everyone else. It's where the game central theme comes into play. And hey, speaking of choices and themes...
There's A Clear Central Theme, And It's An Interesting One
The Walking Dead is a game about choice. We often hear that in branching games like this — "This is a game about choice." Well of course it is! The ability for players to make narrative-altering decisions is one of its defining attributes!
But unlike some other choice-based games, The Walking Dead has something real to say about choice, Namely, that in the heat of the moment, difficult choices barely feel like choices at all. Every time Lee looks back at a difficult choice he made while under pressure, he says something that feels true: It didn't feel like a choice because he didn't have time to think.
"Sometimes," he says, "we don't make choices; we just do what we do."
Compared to the TV show, that theme feels focused and surprisingly fresh. The show feels like a bit of a muddle — sure, it plays with themes, but they're kind of lost in a vague stew of sadness and ennui. After watching for hour after hour, I'm still not really sure if the show has anything to say.
The Walking Dead comics will likely always stand above their offspring — they provide the series with its soul. (Its black, black soul.) But I'm heartened to see that the writers of the Walking Dead game appear to understand that source material, and have been able to execute it more convincingly and interesting than their TV show-making counterparts, at least so far.
Even if you've never played a Telltale episodic game before, this one really is worth playing. I'd describe it as "all of the parts of a zombie apocalypse that you haven't yet played in a video game." I hope that sounds like the endorsement that I mean it to be.
I enjoyed the hell out of Telltale's The Walking Dead, and find myself very much looking forward to more episodes. That's something I haven't said about the TV show since the second episode.