I want to recap the notable games I played in 2012, and The Walking Dead is still freshest on my mind. No doubt it was a huge success and accomplishment for Telltale, with people shouting GOTY in between sobs. It manages to be a touching game in a genre that’s become a literal parody of itself—undead. TWD’s story is still typical—people go from Point A to Point B while shouting and losing various pieces of their bodies—but what it does right it does very well. It’s definitely Telltale’s most playable game yet.
There are a couple things that appealed to me most and made the game work for me. First is Clementine, obviously, as she’s the whole point of the game. Specifically what worked for me was how she was the moral compass for Lee and the player. I like looking at how games present (or present the illusion of presenting…) moral and ethical choices. One element of those is who the player answers to for their choices—whether it’s something useless like Fallout’s karma or something integral like Dragon Age’s companions.
In TWD, the player weighs their decisions against their odds of survival and whatever moral code they’ve got going, but also against the knowledge that Clem is looking up to Lee and learning from him. Answering to Clem for your choices makes them feel less conceptual and adds a sense of practice to your ethics. You could argue all day about the best choice (and dear god that’s all the characters do), but once the decision is made and acted on, that’s not the end of the story. Lee still has to look into Clementine’s eyes and tell her why he did what he did, or why she shouldn’t do what he did, or just lie to her.
While that was the strongest part of the game for me, it still felt rife with patriarchal tropes. That’s not necessarily bad—you can take a trope or cliche and shine it up and showcase it, and that’s what TWD did—it still is what it is. As young as she is, Clem is still the young woman setting the antihero straight; she still has her manic pixie moments; she’s still there #ForLee. (On a side note, a game that appears to be doing this just the same is The Last of Us, from what little I’ve seen.)
The other thing that really made the game for me was the timed responses. They weren’t everyone’s favorite, but I thought they made the choices so much more real. I didn’t have time to ponder the implications of every choice, let alone even read them all sometimes (I’m slow). But in trying to bring the player into the intense situations these characters are in, they were very effective. They helped reduce the responses into feelings and keywords. Something happens and you’re thinking RUN or KILL or WHERE’S CLEM and all you see is a rapidly depleting timer and a few lines of possible dialogue—one of them’s going to pop out at you. And it might not even be the right choice. You may immediately realize that it was a bad idea. But that’s what happens: people react.
This was originally published on my tumblr, but I think I’ll continue these here.