The Walking Dead: The Game was one of my favourite games of last year. In fact, I’d be pushed to say it’s one of my favourite games of all time. Let’s get one thing straight however; I hate point-and-click adventure games. I didn’t enjoy Broken Sword, I didn’t enjoy Monkey Island, I didn’t even enjoy Grim Fandango, often hailed as the pinnacle of the genre.
I find the worlds static, the dependence on puzzle-based gameplay frustrating, and the characters and environments over-dramatised. Combine this with dry humour and quirky dialogue to encapsulate what I feel is essentially a niche genre, targeted at the eccentric and unconventional of the modern world.
Despite all this, I loved The Walking Dead: The Game. But then The Walking Dead: The Game was never really a point-and-click adventure. Despite its episodic format, the game stuck true to the mature narrative and storytelling of its comic counterpart, a product that I only explored post-game completion.
Whilst environments were static, the pace of the game was much faster, emphasised by the niggling fact that zombies were always a shamble or two away. Puzzles were implemented, but took a back seat to the narrative, and made sense within the context of the surroundings, opposed to the baffling combination of items required in other games of the genre. Dialogue was excellently written, and arguably features some of the best voice acting ever heard in a video game.
Taking place in the same world as the comic and TV series, the story focuses on Lee Everett, a university professor and convicted murderer. A far cry away from the heroic antics of other video game protagonists, Lee’s history and background is left ambiguous, and open to the player’s interpretation. Furthermore, this chequered history also summarises the core foundation that overshadows the entire game. Nothing is ever black and white.
Sentenced for murdering his wife’s lover, his plight is something we can all empathise with, if not justify. The thought of returning home to find our partner in bed with someone else is an image none of us would wish to see, therefore it’s not difficult to identify with Lee’s actions. By setting Lee up as a flawed character, Telltale immediately make him human, as opposed to the robotic American heroes that populate the gaming world.
More significantly, Lee is black. Video games have a habit of stereotyping and typecasting characters based on appearance, if only to help gamers visualise and identify individual characters, especially when there are so many to remember across a short campaign.
He walks with a swagger, curses on every other word, and can often be found participating in a power trip? “He’s the black dude.” She panders to your every need, thanks you at almost every turn, and has large assets (and we don’t mean in finance)? “She’s the hot female.”
So it goes on in gaming, but it takes games such as The Walking Dead to make us realise skin colour, your body shape or attractiveness don’t matter. They shouldn’t matter. Actions define a game, not appearance, and Telltale nails this spot on, creating a character that everyone can identify with, and not because he’s stereotyped, but because he’s human.
Thankfully, the characterisation of Lee isn’t just a one off, and for most, probably isn’t regarded as the highlight of the narrative. That spot will most likely be reserved for Clementine, a young girl who finds herself under Lee’s care after being left home alone. Whilst innocent and vulnerable at first, she quickly adapts to her surroundings, with Lee becoming mentor, friend, and eventually a father, as the uncertainty of her parent’s whereabouts extends.
Whilst Telltale claims the story and narrative is shaped by the choices the player makes, there’s always a fixed linearity to proceedings that the player can never deviate from. To summarise, after leaving A, you may be able to do B or C, but you will always end up at D. This foundation underpins most decisions throughout the game, but it’s not until you reply the game a second time, or take to Youtube to watch other playthroughs that you realise the overarching storyline is essentially a constant.
Nevertheless, the game still feels like your story, thanks to its wide selection of dialogue choices, which allows you to define the way Lee interacts with other members of the group. Therefore, it’s not so much the story that is tailored by the way you play, but the characterisation of Lee.
Whilst zombies are a part of The Walking Dead: The Game, they merely serve as a backdrop for the tense interactions between the real threats of the game, humans. When action does kick off however, affairs are resolved via a series of QTE’s. Some may argue this implementation is cheap, and over-used in modern gaming, restricting player input for favour of cinematic action. However, this helps keep the tension and anxiety a constant high, where battling with the controller and mashing buttons are the most successful methods of resembling a grapple with the walking dead.
Telltale isn’t afraid to take your dearest from you either, with a wide range of characters experiencing death over the course of the game. Rather than losing sidekicks or under-developed characters however, The Walking Dead: The Game often snatches those at the forefront of the narrative, leaving you with a cast of little personality and lacking background. As you start to attach yourself to these characters, the game pulls the same tactic once more, pulling on your heartstrings repeatedly until you become overwhelmed with emotion.
It’s no surprise then that The Walking Dead: The Game is critically acclaimed, and if you haven’t experienced Telltale’s bleak world of despair, you owe it to yourself to do so. As a result, my anticipation for the second season couldn’t be higher, despite details being scare, although production has been confirmed.
We expect that the second series will stick to its point-and-click adventure roots, with a genre turnabout unlikely, especially as The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct encroaches on first person shooter territory. What is unknown however, is the new role in which players will be cast. Without giving direct spoilers, we already know we won’t be returning as Lee, which leaves things wide open for interpretation. Whilst many feel the baton may be passed to Clementine, I personally feel that she featured better as a facilitator of the narrative, with her protection providing purpose to the story. By casting players in this role, her safety is essentially guaranteed, at least until the end of the season, therefore removing some of the tension that gripped the first series.
I’d personally like to return to the second series as Kenny, another flawed character whose fate was left unknown at the conclusion of the final episode. Despite his brash, aggressive attitude, his heart was always in the right place, with the protection of his family always at the forefront of each and every action. By reuniting Kenny and Clementine, and eventually Omid and Christa, Telltale can set up a good foundation for building a new group, and providing a fresh narrative for season two.
What I’d like to see more of however, is the smaller interactions that often got overlooked as the first season progressed. Whilst interacting with a photocopier or rummaging down an alleyway may seem monotonous and insignificant, the perspective offered on such actions post-apocalypse cause more room for thought than perhaps predicted.
An interaction with a photocopier can quickly be turned into a brief dialogue about the menial nature of office life, a recap on the world that once was, providing brief respite from the harsh nature of Telltale’s world. These little snippets could really help to provide deeper immersion to The Walking Dead, where subtlety reins king.
Finally, I’d like to see Telltale live up to the expectations set by their initial statement, whereby the player was told actions would define the story and be tailored to specific choices. Ultimately, this wasn’t true, as explained earlier, and by providing greater scope in progression, this will help increase replay value, as well as give those choices a greater impact.
It shouldn’t be long now until we hear word on an estimated release date for the second series of The Walking Dead: The Game, if only to capitalise on the huge success of the first series. Seriously, if you haven’t played this game, download it now. Whilst the concept may be focused around the walking dead, the characters presented are more human than any other game to date.
Just don’t become too attached. You’ll only have your heart broken.
A Mind at War With Itself: Hellblade and the Lived Experience of Mental Illness
*Note: This article contains spoilers for Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and references to mental illness. Reader discretion is strongly advised.*
More than six months on from its initial release, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice’s dedication to an honest portrayal of mental illness through the protagonist, Senua, ensures the game remains one of the most meaningful and affecting of recent times. While discussion of media products’ value has turned the past few years to focus on inclusive portrayals of race or gender, the mentally ill remain underserved. Too often do depictions of depression, anxiety, and psychosis latch on to the simplest and, in some ways, most offensive stereotypes. Seeing Max Payne or Sebastian Castellanos trying to drown their sorrows is a world away from my experiences. By contrast, Senua’s struggles—from both a narrative and allegorical standpoint—are more relatable. In focusing on accuracy above all else, Ninja Theory succeeded in creating a title capable of resonating with an audience normally forced to the fringes in fiction, and, for that, the team deserves to be applauded.
Hellblade’s surface-level portrayal of psychosis has been lauded from many quarters, including being named as Game Beyond Entertainment at the recent BAFTA Game Awards, yet the adventure doubles as an allegory for life with mental illness. The opening moments set the tone of the title as Senua, beset by disembodied voices, steers a primitive canoe along a fog-shrouded waterway. The tranquility of the surroundings contrasts against the maelstrom of sound, and therein lies the first hint of the game’s deeper engagement with its central topic: unlike injury, physical deformity, or racial and sexual difference, mental illness has no easily recognisable signs. An individual looking on sees only another person, while the sufferer is being torn apart by the conflicts running through their mind. However, those voices—the Furies, as Senua thinks of them—are central to more than just Ninja Theory’s depiction of psychosis and, by extension, the Hellblade experience; they are also integral to the message that the game ultimately conveys.
Senua arrives in a strange land where mutilated corpses stand as a warning of horrors yet to come. Though players do not learn it until later in the journey, the character’s quest in this faraway place is to bring her lover, Dillion, back to life by descending into the Viking underworld of Helheim and confronting its nightmarish deity, Hela. Given that the game is burdened by the weight of reality through Senua’s movement and the level of detail, the mission seems incongruous.
However, this dissonance contributes to the allegory. Mental illness is fundamentally irrational—the sufferer episodically or eternally unhinged from reality. External circumstances may induce or exacerbate conditions, but the insecurities arising from them are rarely easily attributable to a clear source. Thankfully, I cannot claim to suffer from issues as intense as those of Senua, but I can understand her plight. We with broken minds feel disassociated from those around us and unable to relate. As such, although outreach programs are a noble endeavour, their premise is flawed. When trapped in the throes of a negative or deranged mindset, letting someone else in feels dangerous:
‘What if they don’t believe me?’
‘How will they judge me?’
‘What if I hurt them or, worse, they hurt me?’
Even knowing that such doubts are nothing more than the illusory creations of my brain, when they run rampant, I am unable to contradict them. These false realities overpower my seemingly tenuous awareness of the objective world. Finding a buoy to cling to in the storm-tossed waters of mental tumult is nigh impossible, but I have someone and Senua had Dillion.
As such, Dillion is far more than a MacGuffin; he is a symbol of the path out of the darkness that Senua had begun to walk. Therefore, her determination to bring him back to life is not just another fantasy video game objective, but a cry for help. Senua wants to be healed. However, to do so, she must undertake a harrowing journey that will force her to confront both internal and external demons.
Before Senua can pass through the gate to Helheim, she must enter the realms of the gods Valravn and Surt to make them bleed. In the story, these two beings appear as little more than obstacles to be overcome, and the puzzles that lead to them border on busywork. The aforementioned gods are of far greater relevance in the allegory as they stand in for the first phase of healing: diagnosis. Together, they reflect the lived experience of mental illness.
Valravn is a god of illusion; thus, of the two gods, he is the easier to contextualise as a metaphor of Senua’s psychosis. As players progress through this section of the game, they solve optical-illusion-based puzzles by utilising gateways that alter parts of the environment. This alignment of mechanics and the subjectivity of perception results in the level being a reflection of the struggle to recognise reality. For Senua, that means realising that the voices that plague her are not external beings, but manifestations of her subconscious and, therefore, are unable to guide her. For me, the battle is to remember that other people will not judge me negatively offhand.
Similarly to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and psychosis, social anxiety has been trivialised by its use in the vernacular and mistaken for a desire to avoid interaction. My experience is the opposite. I would relish the freedom to attend events or talk to people in social situations comfortably, but these things are trying, and I invariably end up drained or on the verge of tears. In a crowd, I feel overly alert for even the faintest hint of danger, and, in conversation, I am tormented by thoughts and fears of what the other party thinks of me. Though these worries make daily life difficult, I have no idea if they have a firm basis in reality. Subjectivity overwhelms objectivity, which is also true in Valravn’s realm where illusion rules over the material world.
Surt is different; rather than reflecting the experience of mental illness, his flames describe its nature. Fire makes for a powerful metaphor. When controlled, the heat and light afforded by flame is comforting, but, loosed, it becomes all-consuming. One of the most frequently overlooked qualities of ‘abnormal’ mindsets is their ability to self-perpetuate. Though they can destroy lives, the abject greyness, voices, or delusions become a solace. Far from feeling ruinous, they reassure against stressors and daily rigours. In Surt’s world, the inferno rages at the touch of an external catalyst, leaving Senua’s only option to run, terrified, towards a gate and break through to quell the flames behind her. This gameplay conceit echoes the often episodic experience of mental illness, as well as the struggle of escaping its grip. One does not simply walk out of a warped mindset—a breakthrough is needed.
Identification is necessary before hope of healing. Overcoming Surt and Valravn reflects the former process, allowing the gates of Helheim to open so that Senua can confront her demons. At that point, the title’s focus shifts from the present to the past, beginning by revealing Dillion’s role as a symbol and, later, a guide to help Senua flee from the harmful influences that permeated her youth. The series of diverse challenges that ensue is a kind of therapy, delving into some of the watershed moments of her past, clarifying and correcting misconceptions presented earlier in the adventure. In the present, as in the past, Dillion arms Senua with the tools to challenge those people and voices who try to silence and subjugate her by revealing the truth that she is not cursed, but ill and misunderstood.
With these challenges complete and the legendary sword Gramr in her possession, the protagonist embarks on the last part of her journey. Hela’s final guardian is Garm, a half-rotted beast that uses darkness as its weapon. The implication is clear: throughout the game—as in wider discussions of the topic—Senua has referred to her mental illness as a darkness, so this penultimate battle is intended to strip away remaining misconceptions and free herself from her psychosis. Subsequent events seem to confirm her newfound freedom as she steps through a mirror and leaves behind her Furies.
However, as with everything in Hellblade, reality is to be questioned. Hela is not the goddess that Senua believes she is, but a manifestation of the core of her own psychosis. During the battle, Senua realises the unintentional evil done by her father in his attempts to expel her demons, contextualising the realms of Valravn, Surt, and Garm as extensions of his actions. According to common belief, these epiphanies should enable Senua to overcome her issues and emerge as a well-adjusted member of society. Instead, she is forced to fail and fall without ever having been able to lay her blade upon her final adversary.
In taking this approach, Ninja Theory displays both boldness and maturity. Nonetheless, this seeming death is not the end. Hela takes Dillion’s skull and casts it into an abyss, following which she transforms into Senua. By conflating the two characters in this moment, Senua’s development is emphasised; though she needed Dillion to help her see that she was not cursed, she no longer needs to rely on him.
The truth that Ninja Theory conveys so effectively is that mental illness is not an adversary to be defeated or an obstacle to be overcome. As time has passed, I have developed an awareness of the beginnings of an episode and formed an ability to analyse what in my life can be changed to mitigate its impact. Furthermore, though another person may be able to provide guidance and assistance, the struggle is always deeply personal. We can often barely describe the wars that our minds engage in against themselves, and we certainly cannot invite someone else in to fill us with rainbows and sunshine.
As the sun breaks through the clouds, revealing one of the most breathtaking sights in all of Hellblade, Senua’s Furies return, rejoicing at still being alive. The protagonist had to ‘die’ because she tried to reject them. She smiles to hear them again, having realised that they are a part of her, as mental illness always is. Living with such problems can, at times, be a harrowing, seemingly impossible task, but to deny them is to deny the self.
I could write volumes more about the levels, enemies, mechanics, and story of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice and how all of these disparate elements work together to present a more cohesive and compelling experience than almost any other game built on the same scale. For now, though, all I have left to write is thank you to the development team for having the courage and conviction to bring this game to life.
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