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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #19—Telltale’s The Walking Dead

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OnlySP Favorite Games 19 - The Walking Dead

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s game was famous in its first season, which we cover below, and has managed to soldier on despite its developer’s sudden, unfortunate demise.

#19. THE WALKING DEAD, by Sep Gohardani

The first season of The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games from its position as an indie developer of adventure game adaptations to widespread recognition for creating something special. As a company, Telltale had already worked on big licences before, with titles including Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, but this game marked a change in style for the company, thanks to a focus on a more cinematic brand of storytelling that put the onus on the player to make vital choices that change the direction of the stories. Now on its fourth and final season, which—to everyone’s relief—will see a conclusion following Telltale’s sudden, shocking demise, the series revolutionised adventure games and had a large impact on the way games can tell stories.

At the beginning, though, uncertainty must have been present. When the focus is on characterisation and story rather than major gameplay elements, ensuring that the story is gripping and the characters engaging enough to make the game worthwhile is hugely important. In the end, these factors were not a worry at all.

Based on the successful post-apocalyptic horror comic book series by Robert Kirkman rather than AMC’s TV show, the game borrows the general premise of the comics and sets itself in the same universe, though it harbours only a loose connection.

The first season managed to take that inspiration and turn it into more than the sum of its parts, telling a deeply touching, powerful, and always engaging story that had many twists and turns, but also felt deeply personal: the relationships between the characters always coming to the fore. The season also made sure that, while story and character took the front seat, you never felt disconnected from events and was directly involved in all major moments, whether that was a bitter argument or a tense escape from walkers.

The way the game involved players in those arguments shaped their relationship with the characters, and while the game obviously hit major plot points whichever path you choose, those decisions have an integral effect on the atmosphere and on what each major plot point means to both the player and Lee as the main character.

Quick-time events are a much-maligned gameplay mechanic, and they are not ideal in every situation, but they were a staple of Telltale’s repertoire for action sequences. They serve a functional purpose in involving players in chase sequences and intense, dramatic moments, to a varied degree of success. Sometimes, the mechanic works well and exacerbates tense moments—especially in the presence of a major threat of failure—while, at other times, they seem more like an excuse to involve the player in a moment where otherwise they might not have been. This disparity has continued throughout the franchise and permeates Telltale’s other games, even if the latest season has made some effort to vary things with an update to some gameplay elements. Nevertheless, the mechanic is perfectly serviceable in this context and serves as a framework for the main attraction of the game.

The main character, Lee, develops a relationship with an eight-year-old girl named Clementine over the course of the first season, which forms the basis for the rest of the game and is a central relationship that will be remembered for years to come. Not only is their developing father-daughter dynamic touching, it also acts as the emotional anchor on which the rest of the game revolves. The dialogue shines here, as players watch Clementine grow up and come to understand the world the characters now inhabit, slowly becoming less and less reliant on her adult companion.

This trait, coupled with the harrowing events they have to come through together (in the first season, Episode 2 and the farmhouse come to mind, as well as the extremely powerful final episode), serve to shape her view on other people and the world. The player is able to affect Clementine’s perspective through dialogue choices, and the consequences of that really comes to the fore in Season Two.

The groundwork laid by Season One makes it the most important and most valuable of all four seasons, but that does not mean that the series did not build on it successfully. The episodic format lends itself to short, sharp, incisive storytelling and makes the player’s involvement truly impactful. That sense returns in Season Two, with the aftermath of the harrowing and emotional events at the end of the previous season, which was one of the most affecting conclusions ever in gaming.

Since the player’s focus shifts squarely to Clementine as the new protagonist, the game does a great job of making felt the consequences of Lee’s actions, and allowing you to decide how Clementine tries to put his advice in to action. The narrative is equally harrowing in the second season and refuses let up at all, filled as it is with tentative alliances and both the best and worst of humanity. The second season is another exercise in excellent writing with a commendably powerful, resonant finale that really drives home what the stark, hopeless environment of a world so thoroughly destroyed by walkers can do to people who were once fast friends and companions.

While the third season is generally regarded as weaker than the others, Telltale’s decision to try something new and change the formula a bit is admirable. This season focuses on a different family for a while, as Clementine’s role becomes more of a supporting one and players experience the world through different eyes. This season maintains an admirably strong level of writing throughout and offers a suitably gripping experience without ever having the emotional resonance of the first two seasons. Nevertheless, it sets up the final season well, and the idea of having a break from the main story is certainly an interesting one that serves to build the tension, rather than provide instant gratification or continue on endlessly like versions of this franchise in other media, (looking at you, TV show).

Luckily, even though Telltale’s demise has led to the cancellation of other much anticipated series, including The Wolf Among Us, Robert Kirkman’s Skybound has saved The Walking Dead’s final season and is allowing this great series to come to a conclusion. Before everyone came to understand the situation the company was in, it had released the first episode of the finale and, at that point, its blend of great storytelling and some new gameplay ideas meant that it felt fresh and exciting, boding well for future episodes.

With Clementine now a carer for a young child, her story really has come full circle, and her struggle to take care of AJ makes up a large part of that first episode, particularly as she comes to meet a new group of children who seem perfectly happy to take them in, even as AJ continues to have behavioural issues that would be challenging at the best of times, let alone in a world crawling with walkers and murderers.

The second episode, which is strong in its own right and serves as an excellent midpoint, for a while looked like being the last ever episode after the studio’s sudden closure. Now, that we are set to receive a conclusion (the third episode releases on January 15), players can now breathe a sigh of relief and be happy in the knowledge that this excellent series, which has helped to change the face of both adventure games and storytelling in the entire medium, will receive the conclusion it richly deserves.

Thanks again for voyaging back to great games past with us. Do you have a favourite season of a Telltale series or another episodic adventure series you would like to share? By all means do so in the comments, and we will see you back here next week for another of OnlySP’s 50 favourite games.

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OnlySP 50 Favorite Games

OnlySP’s Favorite Games #34—Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us

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OnlySP Favorite Games 34 - The Wolf Among Us

Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. The game this week is another Telltale series (The Walking Dead is at #19) that continued to push the envelope for adventure games.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 1

#24. TELLTALE’S THE WOLF AMONG US, by Sep Gohardani

In 2012, a video game adaptation of the popular comic book and television Show The Walking Dead catapulted Telltale Games from niche studio obscurity into the limelight. The company’s model of securing the rights to popular IPs and moulding them to its adventure game format resulted in other acclaimed titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Batman that sought to twist the common formula and offer something different in those massive franchises.

In amidst the rising tide of their reputation, the company took a chance on something that was not quite as big or as popular, opting to give the Telltale treatment to Bill Willingham’s long-running comic book series Fables. What ensued was a wonderful twist on the tale that quite possibly makes The Wolf Among Us Telltale’s greatest achievement amidst a plethora of other very creative work.

The game is set in a world where fairytales are real, but not in the way one might expect. Instead of a magical far off land, the game is set in Manhattan (though maybe that is Manhattan for some), in a specially created enclave called Fabletown. This small settlement is where a plethora of characters from famous fairy tales and myths have been living after having fled the Homelands, which is now ruled by a mysterious, dark Adversary whose draconian regime became too difficult to bear.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 2

Those who escaped have managed to assimilate in to America without much trouble due to cloaking magic, while any non-human ‘fables’ must use an enchantment known as a ‘glamour’ to maintain a human appearance and not arouse suspicion, or be taken off site to The Farm, a refuge that those who cannot change their appearance go to.

Bigby Wolf (formerly known as the Big Bad Wolf) is the Sheriff of Fabletown in the year 1986. He is charged with maintaining order, but Fabletown is not too eventful of a place. Soon, however, trouble is brewing and a simple trip out to help someone get home starts to unravel to reveal something dark and insidious in this last refuge of the great Fables.

This is a game that nails its tone. As soon the opening titles appear, Jared Emerson-Johnson’s brilliant score, and the moody, purple lettering of the title make clear that the game was going to be drenched in noirish atmosphere. The art style welcomes this theme: it is vivid and evocative, but never overstated, providing a rich setting for the characters and embodying both the darkness of their situation and their new gritty reality.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 3

The player takes control of Bigby and is tasked with figuring out why things are getting increasingly out of hand when no one can afford them to, meaning lots of detective work. Bigby himself is fascinating. He is the gruff, sardonic, chain-smoking main character one might expect from a game like this, but he has nuance under that exterior. He is moulded by the decisions the player makes. The extent of the choices available mean that the way Bigby interacts with those around him dictates what the most important aspects of his personality will be, whether that is compassion, dedication, or a thirst for blood. Adam Harrington is brilliant in the role, and was well deserving of his BAFTA nomination, his main triumph being the subtlety in his line delivery and the way he makes each version of Bigby feel a bit different.

As everything unravels, Bigby slowly finds himself having more and more dots to put together as each environment contains clues and answers that are pivotal to figuring out how to stop those at the heart of the problem. This example demonstrates how immaculately written the game is that each of these moments feels gripping, from the very beginning of the first episodethrough to the end. The way the mystery is built up, with all the twists and turns along the way, makes for a thrill-ride worthy of any famous detective.

But not just the mechanics of the plot make the game Telltale’s greatest output. The characterisation of each and every one of the prominent characters is fantastic. Each citizen of Fabletown feels unique, with their own issues and opinions and sometimes even skeletons in the closet that Bigby has to deal with, and those character moments indelibly affect the way the game plays out and what sort of person Bigby wants to be. Notably characters like Snow White, who here is pragmatic and adamant that the rules in place keep the Fables safe, do end up having an impact on Bigby and his decision making, while others, like Colin the Pig, can help to show a different side to him, presenting him with many dilemmas along the way.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 4

In this way, The Wolf Among Us becomes more than just a simple detective story. The game becomes a rich, intricate world full of complex interpersonal relationships that is barely managing to hold together and is straining even more while the mystery is solved and the threat is increased. These relationships become central to the game’s moral dilemmas, and in true Telltale style these are difficult decisions to make because the characters feel important, their perspectives understandable, their circumstances challenging. Bigby’s journey through these problems shapes him and those around him, ultimately deciding the future fate of Fabletown and potentially bringing him eerily close to the villain of the piece.

In a certain way, one can easily guess the kind of experience Telltale will provide for them in gameplay terms. The gameplay is fairly standard, and quick-time events make up a large part of the gameplay in moments of action or urgency, while exploration and discovery are encouraged in the detective work. The gameplay can at times be frustrating, but it is ultimately a mechanism to further the story and allow the player to shape Bigby in their image, according to how they would try to solve the problem.

Despite some frustration with the aforementioned quick time events, The Wolf Among Us is the adventure genre at its best. The perfect mix of characterisation, intense action, and world building works well in tandem with Telltale’s tried and tested gameplay and art style, the latter of which here is perfect. Emerson-Johnson’s score is always evocative and adds more texture to that innate feeling of immersion that the game provides. That the game will now no longer be getting a sequel due to the studio’s closure is a giant shame, but at least this example of video game storytelling at its best was made to show how it is done.

The Wolf Among Us gameplay screenshot 5

Do you have a favourite adventure game that did great work in story, but perhaps never had a fair shake? Maybe you could recommend the game for other players—why not join in the discussion below? Next week’s game also did great work with game narratives, though it is very much not an adventure game. In the meantime, you can follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.

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