Tell Tale’s The Walking Dead has earned a bevy of critical praise — and for good reason. Sharp writing, gorgeous artwork, and Robert Kirkman’s compelling source material create a thoroughly entertaining piece of admittedly minimally interactive fiction. Although the episodic game’s completion is far from over, the current releases prove that a well told story told in an episodic format can set itself apart from both epic triple-A titles and one-off indie adventures. Yes, The Walking Dead is a well told piece of storytelling, regardless of its length, but the short episodic form make the game’s features that much more interesting and engaging.
Currently only five games make up the entire collection of Walking Dead episodes. The game follows the story of Lee Everett, a man headed to prison for murder before the zombie infestation changes everything. Early in the first episode, Lee befriends a young girl named Clementine and becomes her guardian. He also meets up with another rag tag group of survivors. As expected in post-apocalyptic fiction, the conflict within the group poses as much of a threat as the undead masses outside their hurriedly assembled shelter.
While Lee’s story will certainly have its own complete arc, The Walking Dead is far more than a single linear experience chopped into five even pieces. Playing all five episodes of The Walking Dead is not the same as playing one long game, in much the same way that watching the entirety of Twin Peaks in one sitting is not tantamount to watching a ridiculously long Lynch film. The first two episodes, “A New Day” and “Starved for Help”, both feel like complete stories in themselves. Kirkman’s take on the zombie uprising has already proved compelling enough to flesh out a full-length — and quite popular — television show. Like the concurrent television show, the first episodes of The Walking Dead are stand alone experience that contribute to a whole. Lee’s first appearance and meeting with other survivors is thematically about confronting change in one’s life. Lee’s past is a constant presence throughout “A New Day”, from his meeting with Clementine to his confrontation with Larry, an old and ornery survivor. Even with the world nearly lost, the present is still built on the remnants of past decisions already made — a fitting theme considering the important decisions that players make throughout the series.
“Starved for Help”, on the other hand, feels more like a traditional episode of television, almost a “monster of the week” experience. The theme, of course, is hunger — from the team’s own starvation to the zealous satiation of cannibalistic desires to the general hunger for a sense of permanence and safety in the fragile remnants of civilization. Yes, Lee’s past still plays a part in episode two, but compared to the first, “Starved for Help” plays like its own piece of fiction. The episodic form frees Telltale to construct each episode somewhat independently from the others, giving each its own appeal in much the way that television producers have done for years. When the game comes to end, fans will undoubtedly argue for some time about which of the episodes stand out as their personal favorites.
One of the best aspects of the television medium is its relatively slow pace. Writers may stretch out a character’s arc across an entire season or many seasons. Viewers can chew on concepts, characters, and events for an extended period of time. This extended time span allows clever story seeding or persistent stories to appear throughout a single season or many seasons. Some of the best moments in Buffy the Vampire Slayer come in the seventh season when Whedon and his team call back to events that happened in the first season. The episodic nature of The Walking Dead allows the game to move through themes, settings, and time (months separate the events of the first two episodes, for instance) while gradually developing longer story arcs. Clementine’s view of Lee, his own criminal record, and Lee’s relationship with Kenny are persistent stories, developed throughout the first two episodes and have no distinct conclusion, not yet. These persistent stories are tied intimately with player choices. Clementine is constantly watching Lee’s behavior. For players with an emotional investment in their relationship, the fear that Lee will fail his guardianship through action or inaction is palpable. Other stories’ references may simply seed future events, such as Kenny’s insistent desire to head to the coast or the appearance and reference to an as yet unseen group of bandits. By the time these stories come to their natural end, months will have passed both in the real world while I wait for the next release and in The Walking Dead time-line.
A secondary benefit of the extended time-line is the ability to watch the effects of past decisions unfold. Of course a traditional fourty-hour game could leap through time to similar effect, but montages and the extended passage of time can be difficult to execute believably and can only be done so many times before becoming irksome to the player. Setting the episodes apart strengthens the effect of uncertainty. I do not know how my decisions will effect Lee and Clementine moving forward, and for all I know, neither does Tell Tale. Until episode three is downloaded and playable, the possibilities are endless and terrifying. When the world is rich enough, when you feel as though decisions have rippling effects across on the world, the story becomes that much more compelling. Decisions matter in both the short term and the long term.
Of course, for “anticipation of the unknown” to work, players have to know their decisions matter. To that end, Telltale notifies players when the game first starts that, indeed, their choices shape the story. Similarly, in-game alerts about the views of others remind players that in the series in which the future is unwritten, others are watching Lee’s behavior and remembering his decisions. “Clementine will remember” is an oft repeated and always unsettling notification. These alerts never say how exactly she will remember events or how she might feel about them — just that they are impactful. It is impossible to know if decisions are innocuous or not. At one point in episode two, while I was trying to revive a dying survivor, Kenny appeared and crushed his head in with a salt block. In another moment, the most dramatic yet, Clementine suddenly appears right as I am killing a man in cold blood with a look of shock and horror in her eyes. The sensations of absolute failure and regret were immense. I almost stopped the game to reload from the previous checkpoint. This moment of shame was the culmination of other choices, of an environment that I had helped to construct through my decisions. The startling lack of information, particularly when non-player characters are well written and have their own motivations, strengthens the emotional effect of decision making. This episodic nature of The Walking Dead creates a sense of permanence to player decisions and increases the series’s unknown potential.
While the series is written and designed by Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, my hope is that a successful episodic series like The Walking Dead can capitalize on the isolated stories and themes in each episode to bring in guest writers and even game designers. A guest designer willing to take a portion of the larger whole and make it their own could really set the series apart from any other game of its kind. Television and comics have been doing the same for many years to remarkable success. Bringing in new talent can freshen a series and take it to unexplored places without undermining the longer story arcs developed by the series’s leads.
It may be a sin to say this amongst certain critical circles, but I would love to see episodic gaming become more like television in some regards. The Walking Dead proves there is wholly unique experience to be had in this format, even while it borrows heavily from another medium. Like a television fanatic waiting with bated breath for the next week’s episode, I eagerly await the continuation of Telltale’s stellar adaptation of the zombie apocalypse.