Telltale's The Walking Dead does what few horror games ever think to do: establish a normal world before sending it all to hell.
A few months ago Thomas Grip, co-founder of Frictional Games, the developers behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent, wrote a blog post about the ten ways horror games can evolve. Grip makes a lot of good points, but the first one that stands out to me the most because it almost never happens in video games is the idea of establishing a sense of normality:
In most games the player usually starts out in some strange and not very normal situation…However, much of the good horror in other media starts of very mundane. They build on having the audience strongly relating to what is taking place and being able to draw close parallels to their own lives. For horror games this would mean to establish a very familiar situation and then slowly introduce the horror there. The goal is for the terror to not just be inside the game's virtual world, but to reach into the real as well. ("10 Ways to Evolve Horror Games", In the Games of Madness, 26 April 2012)
Then, as if right on cue, Telltale Games released The Walking Dead, which does just that.
The Walking Dead starts with a car ride and a conversation. Lee is riding in the backseat of a cop car, which I assume is not a normal situation for most people, but it is close enough to reality that we can relate to the situation in general, if not the specifics: a car ride and a conversation. The game then does a good job building a sense of unease as the two characters carry on a mundane conversation.
Depending on your dialogue choices, you might learn why Lee is in the backseat of a cop car or you might not. It’s interesting that Telltale provided dialogue options that purposely prevent any character development. This option renders the conversation nearly pointless at first glance since it doesn’t advance the plot or the character, but it is still important because it gives the game time to establish a sense of normality. In fact, it is even more effective at doing so when you don’t learn anything about Lee: The more inconsequential this conversation seems, the more normal that it seems.
All this is done in the first ten minutes. It’s not a long time, but it is important that the game actually takes some amount of time to establish a sense of normality in this world before sending it all to hell. Even a mere ten minutes is more than we get from most horror (-esque) games like Dead Space, Dead Island, Left 4 Dead, and even from classics like Resident Evil and the celebrated Silent Hill 2. In all of these games, we never get a good sense of what the world was like before the horror was unleashed.
And then The Walking Dead goes even further, taking the extra time to do this all again.
After the initial zombie attack in an abandoned house, you go to Hershel’s farm where you spend a good chunk of time just walking around and talking to people. Everyone is off doing their own thing and all of those things are mundane: fixing a truck, having a chat, building a fence, cutting wood, and shoveling hay. It is a means of further grounding the game in a normal world and acts as a reassurance to the player that even though zombies now exist this world is still the same one that you know. It’s an excellent way of giving the player a glimmer of hope, and so when this normality is shattered for a second time, it is even more horrifying because it is clear that things will never return to normal. That old world is gone for good.
The end of the game mirrors our time on Hershel’s farm. After escaping from a convenience store, the group decides to hole up in a motel, and once again, everyone goes off to do their own thing, leaving Lee to wander from group to group. However, this time those things are anything but mundane. Glenn decides to leave because he’s worried about his friends in Atlanta. Kenny and Katjaa are just happy to be alive. Carly/Doug (depending on who you save) is contemplating why she/he got to live while the other died. Larry is blackmailing you with your ugly past. The Walking Dead establishes a new normality full of tension and grief, and then ends on that downer of a note. That kind of nihilism leaves a lasting impression and makes this first episode a great piece of standalone horror.