Review: “The Walking Dead” Video Game, Season 1 (Mild Language)

Spoiler warning, of course.

I had a very long review over halfway written that was swallowed up by the internet gods, and so here is “The Walking Dead” Video Game Review, Take 2:

TL;DR: I tentatively recommend the game but only if you can get it on sale, because the story and gameplay are simply not good enough to justify paying the full price.

Full Review:

I have never played a more joyless, depressing, nihilistic game in my entire life. Major scenes include

  • You dying
  • A child getting bit by a zombie
  • You having to shoot that child in the head
  • You having to shoot that child in the head immediately after his mother shot herself
  • All of this happening directly in front of the father
  • Rescuing a character only for them to die later anyway (so, so many times)
  • Chopping off your own arm and then later learning that it did nothing at all to help you in the slightest
  • And, finally, lest we forget, you die. Get bit by a zombie and die. The end!

This game was more than depressing. It was nihilistic. It had no meaning except to say that life was shit and we’re all going to die, and nothing we do really matters.

The choice system of the game is an excellent example of this. First, the good: It’s probably the best I’ve ever seen such a system handled. Instead of saddling you with a “good” choice or an “evil” choice a la BioShock, “The Walking Dead” gives you a ton of situations where you need to make snap judgments and decisions. Instead of judging you for them later and sticking you with the moniker of “good guy” or “bad guy” the game merely takes the consequences into account and moves on. Whatever happens, you live with it. This is a major and laudatory development in the design of choice systems in gaming, and “The Walking Dead” is rightly praised for it.

Unfortunately, this is also one of the game’s biggest weaknesses. For all of the illusion of choice that you get in the game when you actually get right down to it the game is incredibly linear. Each episode (the game is split into five “episodes”) starts and ends at the same location no matter how you played through the game. No matter what happens, you’re going to die. No matter who you save, if the game decides they need to die later, they’re dead, and they just take the choice out of your hands next time. All of those little alliance-building decisions you need to make throughout the game? Window dressing, ultimately.

It took me a while for the light bulb to finally click on, but when it did I immediately started taking more risks. Run into the zombie horde for supplies instead of holing up? Why not! I’ll make it to the final episode! The most egregious example came during a point late in the game where you (Lee) have the choice to either leave Clementine (an 8 year old girl who has become a daughter figure to you) in a house while you go off on a supply run or bring her with you. Of course, I brought her with me. Why wouldn’t I? I knew Clementine had to survive, after all. For one thing, there was no way they were killing an 8 year old girl. For another, she’s on the cover of the sequel. And so here was Clementine sneaking into an area that is notorious for killing children, and I had absolutely no fear that this was the wrong move because I knew Clem would survive anyway. Spoiler: Yep.

The absolute worst decision in the whole game, though, comes in Episode 5 – the last episode. After you get bit by a zombie you have a choice to either have your arm cut off in an attempt to slow the infection or even stop you from turning, or to keep the arm under the theory that it’s not going to work and you like that arm.

Of course I got the amputation. And I was honestly, seriously hoping that, hey, maybe Lee would survive if I took this option. Maybe it would at LEAST be ambiguous. But nope. All they did was give you the choice to gruesomely chop off your own arm with the sole goal of grossing you out. It was cruel and unnecessary. It seemed like the game’s entire goal was just to impress upon you the fact that life is meaningless and hope is wasted. Sure, you save Clementine, but save her for what? A world where everybody is royally screwed over. And Clementine has had a lot of time throughout the game to come to the inescapable conclusion “I need to become a killer in order to survive, and not just of zombies”.

Now, these sorts of characters can be interesting, but this game made a sincere and concerted effort to beat you over the head with its special brand of ultra-nihilistic horror and depression. Wheeeeeee.

The plot hit so many zombie apocalypse cliches that somebody who was listening to me play in the background actually burst out laughing. It wasn’t that the dialogue was bad; it wasn’t. It was just all said a billion times before. And the plot of Episode 5 was just ridiculous. My one-armed character who just lost a ridiculous amount of blood and is dying slowly of a zombie bite was able to run across rooftops, make flying jumps, and at one point just take a meat cleaver and slash his way through a horde of thousands of zombies (in an incredibly badass scene, to be fair). I know I’m saying this about a zombie apocalypse game, but I’m going to say it anyway: It made no sense.

Now, with that said:

Somehow, some way, by Episode 5 I was really invested in the story. That final scene where Lee dies in front of Clementine is achingly sad, and kudos to the developers for creating such a strong emotional bond between you and her. When another character got overrun by zombies trying to rescue a different character my immediate reaction was one of sorrow. I was always tense, worried a walker (zombie) would come on screen and grab me when I wasn’t looking, a real achievement for the game. “The Walking Dead” excelled in atmosphere. Episode 2, my favorite one, especially had a creepy haunted house vibe going for it that fit the whole horror feel of the game beautifully. When it came to emotion and atmosphere “The Walking Dead” really shined.

And now, the moment of truth: What do I really think about the game?

“The Walking Dead” is a game that basically attempts to be the big-budget equivalent of “To The Moon”. It has extremely basic gameplay and its major selling point is its story and to a lesser extent its beautiful cel-shaded graphics. In “To The Moon”, it’s story and music.

In my “To The Moon” story review I praised the game for taking risks that major developers wouldn’t make by coming out and boldly announcing to the world “I’ve created a story so good that I don’t even need gameplay”.

I was unfair to the big name developers. “The Walking Dead” does exactly that, but with one crucial difference: The story wasn’t as good. It was good, don’t get me wrong. The story was engrossing and in its own way entertaining. But there was no sense of hope, no life, to the game, and it was so cliche-tastic that I can’t possibly just come out and call the plot great. The father/daughter bond Lee and Clementine develop with each other is done pretty well, but it ends up being done even better in “The Last of Us”. And if we’re comparing the story to “To The Moon”, well, forget about it. “To The Moon” blows it away completely. For that matter, “The Last of Us” has a better story as well. The story just isn’t bold enough to back up the big talk.

So, do I recommend it? Hmmmm…yes, I’ll give it a tentative thumbs up. I intend to get the sequel when it goes on sale as well. It was emotionally engrossing, the atmosphere was great, and while the choice system (the one major aspect of this game that sets it apart from everything else) was flawed it was sill an original idea pulled off quite effectively. Still, of the big three zombie games (“The Last of Us”, “Left 4 Dead 2”, and this) “The Walking Dead” is clearly the worst. Don’t get it unless you can get it on sale like I did. I ended up spending about six bucks and change, definitely worth the price. It’s not a great game, but if you’re in the mood for soul-crushing depression and bleak existential nihilism wrapped up within a cool choice system and pretty graphics, you can’t go wrong for six bucks.

And let’s face it, we’ve all had those days, right?

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5 Responses to Review: “The Walking Dead” Video Game, Season 1 (Mild Language)

  1. Ilíon says:

    “I had a very long review over halfway written that was swallowed up by the internet gods, and so here is “The Walking Dead” Video Game Review, Take 2:”

    That’s why you compose (and save) it as a document on *you* computer. Then post it.

    You don’t even need anything special to compost it: WordPad, which comes free with Windows, is fine.

  2. The Deuce says:

    I have never played a more joyless, depressing, nihilistic game in my entire life.

    That’s the impression I got from the reviews I’ve seen of it. They usually call it “gut-wrenching” or whatever, which I’ve come to realize nowadays usually translates to utterly bleak nihilism. Really, that’s what bothers me about the Walking Dead show too, and with zombie-based horror in general most of the time. Really, with horror movies in general nowadays. Heck, with fantasy fiction in general. I can take gore, but immersing myself in much nihilism really gets to me, so I can’t watch too much of it (and I find it boring too, once it’s clear that there’s no hope and so no point to the goings-on).

    For all of the illusion of choice that you get in the game when you actually get right down to it the game is incredibly linear.

    That’s how it almost always is with these “open-ended” games, really. The apparent choice gets funneled into one or a couple story options, which are similar but for a few minor variations. I mean, look at how even Mass Effect 3 ended up.

    Imo, that’s pretty much how it always will be. There’s no magical way of making a computer consciously figure out the consequences of an action and generate a story in real time. Each genuine story branch you create off a player’s choices is essentially another game you have to design – a game that only that portion of gamers who made the same choice will ever see. To make dozens or hundreds of possible branches would mean drastically increased work for diminishing returns. Better for the developers to just have one basic storyline that your choices can only make a few cosmetic variations on.

    • That’s the impression I got from the reviews I’ve seen of it. They usually call it “gut-wrenching” or whatever, which I’ve come to realize nowadays usually translates to utterly bleak nihilism. Really, that’s what bothers me about the Walking Dead show too, and with zombie-based horror in general most of the time. Really, with horror movies in general nowadays. Heck, with fantasy fiction in general. I can take gore, but immersing myself in much nihilism really gets to me, so I can’t watch too much of it (and I find it boring too, once it’s clear that there’s no hope and so no point to the goings-on).

      The interesting thing about this is that I just read John C. Wright’s novella “Awake in the Night”, which is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the last remaining humans are stuck at a sanctuary called the Last Redoubt of Man (if I’m remembering that name right). They know almost the exact date at which they’ll go extinct, barring a major miracle, and their little sanctuary is surrounded by an area called the Night Land, a Lovecraftian nightmare-scape almost completely pitch-black and populated by horrific monsters and unspeakable horrors.

      But the really interesting thing about this story? The GREAT thing? It wasn’t depressing. It wasn’t nihilistic. It was INSPIRING. It was hopeful. It preached redemption, forgiveness, loyalty, honor, and brotherhood, and it featured a higher power intervening in the life of a small hero to save him from a terrible fate. And all of this in a world that is probably the most horrifying I’ve ever seen besides the world seen in Harlan Ellison’s “I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream”.

      Now THIS was a true achievement. “Awake in the Night” was a masterpiece.

      “The Walking Dead”? Well, “The Walking Dead” was death. It did not inspire. It just despaired. It featured some nice character development among certain characters (*Cough*Kenny*Cough*) and it had some genuinely moving moments and great atmosphere, but it had no hope, no life. It was just walking dead.

      That’s how it almost always is with these “open-ended” games, really. The apparent choice gets funneled into one or a couple story options, which are similar but for a few minor variations. I mean, look at how even Mass Effect 3 ended up.

      Imo, that’s pretty much how it always will be.

      I’ve heard that “The Witcher” has a fantastic choice system, with meaningful differences.

      “The Walking Dead” doesn’t even need to have totally drastic changes, either. But along with the moral decisions (which were done pretty well) I’d like to see the other decisions MEAN something. For example, maybe if Lee cuts off his arm AND manages his alliances and makes his decisions correctly, he can survive.

      Now, the trick here is not to cheat the player “How was I supposed to know that Player A was on my side and not Player B!”, but if they could pull something like that off you can still hold to a general story going in roughly the same direction but with major differences in tone and potentially happier and sadder endings. Which, by the way, reduces the nihilism.

  3. I forget which episode it was, but there was a part where I chopped off a guy’s leg only to have him turn minutes later. Then I replayed that part and left him to the walkers only to have someone else turn minutes later. It all seemed pointless.

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