Save the girl! Bash the zombies! Feel guilty about the choices you make! The Walking Dead: Episode 1 delivers tropes visceral and profound by lodging an edged tool into a few dozen skulls.
Before it became a hit television series on AMC, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead was a critically acclaimed comic series. While the fiction of zombie apocalypse has become disappointingly de rigueur, Kirkman’s tale of a Southern lawman waking from a coma into a world ravaged by the undead refuses to render itself to pablum. The TV series, though markedly different from its inspiring material, has maintained an equally commendable level of quality. So what better medium and what more fortuitous roll of the spin-off dice to squander that good will than as a video game thrice removed?
Sadly for my cynicism, that is not the case.
Telltale Games, purveyors of the least likely comeback genre in video game history — the point-and-click adventure — have delivered the goods with their latest episodic game. Earlier Telltale outings, notably Sam & Max: Freelance Police and Back to the Future: The Game, have playfully and enjoyable married comedy with the signature light puzzling of adventure games. Expectations were lowered, though, for The Walking Dead franchise, as their most recent release, a four-episode Jurassic Park tie-in, performed poorly due to an overabundance of button-prompting and unremarkable characters. The Walking Dead seems to have struck the proper balance, though.
The player directs Lee Everett, a prisoner being transported out of Atlanta who escapes the back of a police cruiser after a run-in with the newly wandering undead. In short order, Lee meets and comes to protect Clementine, a small girl who has weathered the first days of the outbreak alone. As companions you must guide them safely through the zombie nightmare. While there are moments of action in this adventure game, for the most part it is the story and characterization that gets the blood pumping. Lee is a rich character, and his situation vis a vis stewardship of Clementine is ripe territory. For as much grisly thrill as there is in hammering the skull of a zombie babysitter or distracting a horde of shambling corpses with a well-placed brick, it is the emotional ties in the story that drive your enjoyment.
As in all good zombie tales,the horror of the situation is secondary to the dynamic of the group, and The Walking Dead has dynamics to spare. As you encounter various groups of survivors in what becomes clear as the early days of the outbreak, tangled relationships are formed. You are repeatedly, but not excessively, stuck at untenable crossroads and forced to define Lee Everett. Will he let a belligerent survivor die as petty revenge? Is Lee the type of individual to abandon a moral code in the face of extremes? The best gameplay The Walking Dead exhibits is the tension-filled moments where you are choosing not how to save a person, but who will have to go unsaved. Also it’s also quite satisfying to push a Buick into a stumbling zombie before driving an awl through his head.
It’s difficult not to recommend The Walking Dead: Episode 1. Fans of the show and comic will find a rich middle ground between the storylines. Lovers of classic point-and-click games should appreciate the respectful mixture of traditional Graphic Adventure tropes with well-executed action sequences. And for those of us who just want to bash some zombie skull in, The Walking Dead gives that increasingly commonplace activity a emotional shot in the arm. A - Glenn Given