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What's with the name?

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Essay

An Open Letter To Everyone Who Hasn’t Played The Walking Dead Yet


It’s okay. I used to be one of you. I haven’t read the comics, and I don’t watch the TV series, so when I first heard about Telltale Games releasing an episodic point-and-click tie-in, I didn’t give it much thought. I probably thought, “meh, zombies,” and went on to other things. This was a mistake. Listen, I get it. If you’re not familiar with the comics or the show, or if you’re feeling like zombie games are past their prime, I understand why this one hasn’t piqued your interest yet. So let me start with this:

The Walking Dead is quite possibly the best game of the year.

As badly as I want to tell you all the little things that make this game so good, I can’t. Even knowing the basic premise of some of the tasks you’ll be handed would ruin the impact. There have been games in the past that have handed me difficult decisions, games I have paused for extended lengths of time while I wrestled with my own sense of morality. The Walking Dead is not the first time that a game has left me buried under an avalanche of emotions. But if you want to talk harrowing ethical choices, this game just set a new bar. I imagine that many of you have discussed zombie apocalypse scenarios with your friends. I imagine you know exactly what your gameplan would be, and that you’ve decided ahead of time what hard calls you’d be ready to make.

Don’t be so sure.

This is not my favorite story of all time. There are universes I have enjoyed more, heroes who have resonated with me more deeply. But in terms of delivering a solid story from beginning to end, I struggle to think of any game that has managed such consistent excellence. It starts with a bang, keeps things at a fever pitch all the way through, and wraps it up with an ending that will leave you speechless (I have nothing but admiration for those who waited from April until the end of November to play the final episode — how you kept up such stamina is beyond me).

You play as Lee Everett, a college professor headed to prison for a crime of passion. He does not deny his guilt, but from the opening moments, you can feel his regret. And then the dead start walking, and you start to wonder if prison might have been a better option. Regardless of whether you play Lee as a forgiving peacemaker or a guarded pragmatist, his journey is one of punishment and redemption (or the other way around, depending on your point of view). He is an engaging protagonist, and a memorable one. But the story doesn’t belong solely to Lee. It belongs just as much, if not more so, to Clementine.

Clementine is, without a doubt, one of the best-written children I’ve seen in any medium. Kids are too often made to be unrealistic fonts of wisdom, little sages running around dropping sticky-fingered truth bombs on clueless adults. Not so with Clementine. She is the perfect blend of charisma, intelligence, and naiveté. She’s strong, and smart, but she’s also eight years old. She asks random questions. She does foolish things. She gets pouty with Lee when he tells her to stay behind with the others, even though she’s seen the horrors that are out there. There’s a touching moment early on when Lee is fighting off a zombie and Clementine walks up to him, clutching a hammer. She doesn’t jump into the fight. She just stands there. She knows she should do something. She knows that Lee could die. But she’s a scared little grade schooler who doesn’t know what to do. In that moment, I believed her, and that feeling never broke. The dynamic between her and Lee is beautiful, and by the second episode, I had only one motivation when making decisions. I was doing what was best for Clementine. Her well-being was everything to me.

I really think you should play this game.

To experienced gamers and those who aren’t fond of adventure games — I get it. The popularity of adventure games has faded, and you may have lost your taste for the slower-paced genres of years gone by. Offered alongside high-octane shooters and action games, point-and-clicks seem downright vanilla. Despite the simple gameplay, The Walking Dead never bored me. There are plenty of zombies to bash and smash, and even when tasks were limited to solving easy puzzles or choosing dialogue, the dramatic tension is kept so tight that I was loathe to take my hands off the keyboard. This is a game that will keep you up at night, that will invade your thoughts when you’re not playing. Even if adventure games aren’t your usual cup of tea, this one’s well worth giving a chance.

To casual gamers and anyone who has never before picked up a game, you will be able to play this. Anyone could play this. Move and click, that’s it. You don’t have to worry about character statistics or combat strategy or screwing up in front of other players, or any of the things that scare people off of the bigger stuff. The gameplay is intuitive enough for you to have it down in no time, and it’s centered on story and problem-solving, not combat. You will have to fight from time to time, but it doesn’t take much skill, and you’ll catch on fast. In fact, if you have yet to branch out into more immersive games, this might be a solid place to start. An intense, sobering gut-punch of a place, but a good one nonetheless.

To those for whom gender portrayals are a consideration, here’s the marvelous thing: the women in this game are just people, and a wide variety of people at that. Brave, weak, kind, cruel, and every gray area in between. It’s not uncommon for female characters in games to feel like an afterthought or a token addition, but that’s not the case here. All of the characters were crafted with equal amounts of skill and respect. I could sympathize with everybody in Lee’s group, even the ones I didn’t like. And did I mention Clementine, the little girl who really felt like a little girl? Who made me remember what it was like to be a little girl? Yeah, that.

To those who don’t like horror, I speak to you now as someone who is embarrassingly squeamish and who can’t even watch trailers for scary movies. I won’t lie to you, this game is unsettling. Gore is to be expected, and some of the plotlines will make your skin crawl. But The Walking Dead triumphs in that it uses blood and fear not as cheap thrills, but as set dressing. Though the narrative is tense, it is designed to convey a sense of danger, not terror. You will leave feeling shell-shocked, but you’ll be able to sleep with the lights off. If I can handle this game, you can.

On the other hand, if you represent the zombie enthusiasts among us, you’re going to love this. And though you don’t need any knowledge of the comics or TV series to follow the story, I am told that there are a few characters and locations that will be of note to fans. Bonus.

The Walking Dead is available on Xbox, PlayStation, PC, Mac, and iOS. It’s $24.99. It’ll probably go on sale closer to the holidays. Go play it. But don’t do it for me. We’re not acquainted, so why would you? And don’t do it for yourself, either, because you’re going to need a hug and a box of Kleenex when it’s all said and done.

Do it for Clementine.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles and can always be found on Twitter.

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  • Anonymous

    Sold.

    Sounds like you played it on PC – how were controls? Would it be better with a controller?

  • http://tmirai.deviantart.com/ Talia

    I just finished this game, and this is a great piece on why I loved it too! The story and the characters were written as well as any big budget, “mainstream” game like Mass Effect and while the “choose your own adventure” system was not as deep and rich, it still made the game play all the more engaging and emotional.

  • http://www.diehardgamefan.com Ashe

    I’ve played it on PC and used both keyboard and mouse and controller. I ended up liking the controller better just so I could sit back and enjoy it more.

  • http://www.diehardgamefan.com Ashe

    Yeah, easily on my Game of the Year list.

  • Anonymous

    Dammit, there’s too many games out there! I just finished Dishonored, am currently playing Assassin’s Creed 3 and have Hitman waiting in the wings. I will play this game though. Eventually…

  • http://twitter.com/ChannelDiza Chanel Diaz

    “All of the characters were crafted with equal amounts of skill and respect.”
    I admit I was interested in the story for the sorta almost father-daughter
    dynamic. But I don’t think all the women (and homosexuals) were crafted with equal amounts of respect. At least as far as inside some of the game’s characters’ opinions goes. I mean the story’s seems like a Zombie Flick I’ve seen before (which I sorta
    enjoyed watching until…), but like in ‘Homefront’ I guess it still annoys me
    how there still has to be “patriarchal atmosphere.”

    The “father” character of the woman named Lilly trapped in some kind of store. (9:26-11:25): http://www.youtube.com/watch?annotation_id=annotation_810790&feature=iv&src_vid=dE99upzsloY&v=V_VAFw0rEE4

    Father:
    You’re gonna whoop me? You and what Homo Parade?

    Hey,
    I’m not the bad guy here, I’m just looking out for my daughter!

    We
    almost DIED because of this b*tch and her itchy trigger finger! That was stupid! That was—

    I’m sure it has a pretty decent story besides a few things. But, I guess I’m just the
    type of girl who’s experience gets easily ruined out of my ‘escapist’ fantasy
    when any amounts of sexism pop up.

    Like I couldn’t enjoy ‘Dishonored’ too like this
    author could. But that’s just me.
    “BUT ALAS, SHE IS A WOMAN”: HOW DISHONORED
    USES GENDER ROLES TO TELL A STORY”
    http://www.themarysue.com/but-alas-she-is-a-woman-how-dishonored-uses-gender-roles-to-tell-a-story/

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1208921 Nikki Lincoln

    Someone who designs for the game kept telling me I should play it but I thought “meh – biased” but if Becky says it’s great, I really want to run out and get it!

  • Anonymous

    So up until the last chapter was released I heard it was a decent zombie themed adventure game. After the final chapter was released things turned into ‘this is an incredible game, you must play it. Now.’

    So I guess the ending pays off then? I’ve been avoiding it for a while, because I really didn’t want another Mass Effect 3 situation…

  • http://twitter.com/pcrackenhead Peter Crackenberg

    I only started playing after Episode 5 was released, but the ending really is amazing. Definitely give yourself enough time to be able to play the last part in a single playthrough, I can’t imagine having to stop partway through.

  • Guest

    Agreed, amazing game… my girlfriend and I watch the series but by no means are we zombie fanatics. BUT we actually played this game TOGETHER! She is not a gamer and didn’t want to deal with the controls so I moved Lee around and she answered the dialogue. It was great, she kept asking when the next episode was coming out. We were surprised, excited, saddened, and invested in the characters… over a game. Buy it… you won’t regret it and you too will soon be recommending it to others.

  • Anonymous

    To anyone who’s played it:

    I watched the TV pilot and couldn’t stand Mr. Main Character’s everyman-ness, his hero complex masquerading as integrity, and how all of the women in his world seemed to exist as to get taken away in lieu of his having any personality beyond Average Nice White Guy Loses Everything. It was pandering, and worse, just dull and overdone.

    Now, I don’t need elaborate fancy plots and everything, especially if the characters are solid. I just can’t stand being bored by male hero fantasies in which my only role is that of collateral damage. But, this is a glowing endorsement and I’m curious. Do you think I’d have the same problems with the game?

  • Kadaver

    The walking dead game is indeed best game of the year. Just amazing!

  • Kylene

    As someone who has played the game, and watched the show, no, I don’t think you would have the same problems with the game. Lee’s character journey is very unlike Rick’s, partially because of the nature of the game (the player is choosing whether he has integrity or not, whether he is boring, nice, selfish, hot-tempered, etc.), but also because his basic storyline is more about what he gains and how he deals with this changed world. Truly, though, I would argue that the hero of this game is not Lee, but Clementine.
    My only complaints about this game lie with some parts of the plot, and it’s the characters that I really cared about anyway.

  • http://geekpinata.com/ Crystal Lynn

    Well said!

  • Anonymous

    Be more of a shill, I’d like to see you try.

    Seriously how much is that franchise paying TMS for all the obnoxious Walking Dead advertisements thinly hidden as articles?

  • http://www.thenerdybird.com/ Jill Pantozzi

    Hahahahahahaha

  • http://www.facebook.com/robert.stone.7370 Robert Stone

    i loved mass effect 3 and assassins creed 3 but the walking dead IS the best game of the year for everything that becky said you owe it to yourself to play this wonderful story masquarading as a video game because it feels like a comic come to life

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for that reply. I’m going to give it a try!

  • http://twitter.com/muensonate muenso

    Man, Telltale Games must have a shitload of money to be paying off what seems to be every single gamer/comic/geek website that has said the same exact thing about how absolutely amazing The Walking Dead game is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarcasticsloth Steven Garza

    Since when did video games not have story?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Davis-Gilbert/100001627295004 Davis Gilbert

    Yeah the game does have some characters from the TV show and the Comic in the first chapter. But then I don’t think the characters overlap (unless they will overlap later in the comic series.) That being said, Rick in the comics develops fairly differently then Rick in the TV show.
    If you do end up enjoying the Game i would suggest checking out the comics. The Tv show does have some interesting and good characters, I think the Comic portrays the characters better overall.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Davis-Gilbert/100001627295004 Davis Gilbert

    The thing on a apocalyptic setting, you will be seeing both the best of some people and the worst of everyone.
    So it actually makes this game more believable when they bring things like that into it. Is it appropriate for all games, no, but when you are playing a game that deals with moral decisions and looking at each characters growth and faults it seems appropriate to look at the bias that some people would have.
    A good example of a non sexist part that was still exploring it was in the barn on the second chapter. Lee is talking with Kenny and Kenny makes a blatantly racist comment, This was there to show how people categorize by grouping. and it gives you a snip it of how Kenny’s mind might work.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t agree more with Davis. With a game like the Walking Dead, and several others like it, in order to tell a mature and satisfying story, it has to be grounded and true to life. You can’t forgo topics such as race and gender when dealing in a world that has descended into chaos, the same way you wouldn’t expect to abandon ethics and moral dilemmas. In a role playing game where your actions and decisions shape the experience, you need to see the game and it’s characters for who they are, and not what they portray themselves to be. And that’s something the Walking Dead game excels at.

    Also I appreciate when games tackle hard subjects such as these, I don’t think it does society any good to ignore them, and pretend like they no longer exist in our world. I’m all for escapism but it is nice to broach these topics in any medium, it generates a good discussion.

  • http://twitter.com/nachtritter Duke Fleed

    I was really interested in playing the game, but wanted to wait until the end of the season, given Telltale’s less than stellar previous two big games (BTTF and JP). I was hyped, in particular, about their big announcement that CHOICES would matter and affect the storyline deeply.

    Then I found out that choices don’t matter all that much, and there’s basically only one ending anyway. Some characters will die no matter what (you try to save ‘this character’ as opposed to killing him? too bad, something falls on his head and he’s dead anyway), and choices you make towards the series change basically nothing to the end.

    So that kinda killed it for me. I just wish TTG would go back to making linear-and-proud-of-it, simple point-and-click games with good stories and fun characters.

    Don’t give me choices if they don’t do anything in the end, you know?

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

    I don’t normally go for Zombie games or films but I think you just convinced me to play this one! People keep telling me to watch the TV series anyway so it must have something good!

  • mrkareemruiz

    Clementine is not the hero. Lee is dead now from giving his life for her. Also clem is black.