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.