Column: Cthulhu Eats the World: The Walking Dead Video Game (2013)

The Walking Dead Video Game. Telltale Games, 2013. Rated M, for Mac, PC, PS3, Xbox 360, and iPhone.

Based on the hugely popular comic book and TV show, from the start this game seemed to be a hit. I mean, who doesn’t love zombies these days? Yes, I know that there are some people out there who are tired of the shuffling dead, but you know what I mean. Add to that the respected pedigree of Telltale Games, the fact that this game is on every platform imaginable, and that TTG delivered it in episodes (just like the comic and TV show), so that the time requirement was minimal and the price negligible (just five bucks a fix), and I can’t think of too many zombie-loving gamers out there who wouldn’t get this one. But was this game actually any good, or was it just riding the Walking Dead hype train to make a quick buck? Well, it is my 2012 Game of the Year, even if it’s not actually all that great of a game. Confused? Here, let me explain.

In this game, you play as a man called “Lee.” Lee was a college professor who was on his way to prison for murdering a state senator who was boning his wife when the zombie apocalypse hit. Through a series of events, Lee escapes custody, and is on his own in a world where the dead walk and want to eat you. This takes place during the early days of the zombie uprising, when comic and TV show lead character, Rick the cop, is still in a coma at the hospital. Even though this is Lee’s story, you’ll still run into some familiar characters from both the TV show and the comic book in this game. You’ll also encounter a bunch of new characters unique to this story, not to mention you’ll have to battle the undead and make some pretty tough choices as you go. As an example of the latter, let’s say that maybe two of your newfound friends get attacked by hungry flesh eaters at the same time; who would you attempt to save first? Rest assured, not everyone you meet in this game is going to make it to the end.

Okay, that’s the general overview and is typical of what you could expect from any game set during the zombie apocalypse; now let’s get to the specifics of this game.

The Walking Dead is far more of an interactive story than what many, myself included, would usually consider a game. The vast majority of the game is dialog between the human survivors, but, hey, the same can be said about both the comic book and TV show. This is NOT a typical run-and-gun zombie frag fest. When your character must perform an action, it usually is of the look-around-your-environment, find-the-interactive-hot-spot, and click-a-button kind. Yes, in the grand tradition of some of the earliest video games, this is a good old-fashioned point-and-click adventure. Even combat has been reduced to “Move cursor over zombie’s head and click button to kill it.” A little bit of variety is added to the mix with the introduction of quick-time events, but that’s the only slight deviation to the core point-and-click mechanic. No big surprise there, as point-and-click adventures are the types of games Telltale does. Still, I wanted to point that out, since some younger gamers may not be down with that old school aesthetic.

As I said before, mostly what you do in this game is talk to other people and the good news is that TWD does that very well. Not only is it well-written and the voice actors do a good job, but the choices you have to make in this game seem to really make a difference in how things play out. For example, let’s say you are talking to a guy named ‘Ted’ and you chose to lie to him. A message might pop up in the corner of the screen that says, “Ted knows that you’re lying.” That means Ted may be icy towards you later on. Get caught in too many lies with Ted and who knows what will happen?

Later in the game, perhaps Ted and another survivor named ‘Bob’ get in a fight. If you back Ted up, you’ll get a message that says, “Ted will remember your loyalty.” Furthermore, it’s not only what you say but what you do that will change things. Again, let’s say that you have to choose between saving two people. Well, if someone dies, then don’t expect to see them in later episodes. This could lead to some nice moral quandaries. Do you save the guy who was very friendly and nice to you, or do you save the other guy who is a jerk, but seems to be better at killing zombies? Hmm, decisions, decisions.

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However, the crowning achievement of this game is just how well the characters are written. Each and every one seems like a real person, NOT your standard video game pawn to be moved around the screen. You will grow to like these people as you play the game. So, when the tough choices are called for, you’ll agonize over which one to make. Even the villains here are not your typical Mwah-hah-hah-ing mustache twirlers. They can be slimy, they can be reprehensible, but they always seem way too human and that makes them all the more frightening.

With all that said, special praise must be given to the character of Clementine, a little girl whom Lee teams up with early on and someone he comes to think of as his surrogate daughter. Little Clem is now the high-water mark for child characters in any media. That includes film, books and, yes, video games. She’s funny, sweet, vulnerable, brave, competent, complex, and most importantly, real.

The vast majority of children in horror stories of any type exist only to be put in danger. That’s because the cheapest and easiest way to make the audience feel the implied danger of a story is to have something bad happen to a kid. Unfortunately, some writers get lazy and fall back on that trope again and again and again, even during a single story. Not only does that cause such threats to become tedious, but they lose their effectiveness completely. After all, you’ve already seen the brave grownup protagonist save the little kid 30 times during a movie or book. Chances are good that they’ll save the kid from the 31st danger they stupidly wandered into to. Honestly, during the second or third time this happens in a story, I start to chalk it up to Darwinism and hope the little brat gets eaten.

But here I never felt that way towards Clementine. Yes, she sometimes gets into danger, but she’s more than just a dramatic plot device and she can often get herself out of a jam. That means when she was in over her head, I really wanted to help her. The threat seemed real then and not just another plot contrivance. All during this game, I wanted to protect Clem from the hellhole the world had become and I cannot remember ever feeling so close or protective of any other game character ever. This bit of brilliant character design, writing and acting can’t be praised enough. I hope other games take some notes from it.

Now for some things that are not too great about this game. First, let’s go back to the dialog and choices, because not everything is golden with them. To keep things simple, the game only ever has a few choices to pick from. Sometimes, it is missing options that I would say and do. For example, let’s just say that, “hypothetically,” one of the other characters screws you over in a major way and leaves Lee to be eaten by zombies. After he survives it, there is no option to later call the guy out on it, kick his ass, boot him out of the group, or – what I would do – shoot him in the face. Yes, if you leave me to die by zombie and if I make it out alive, I’m gonna kill you. Take that as a warning for all that read this. Anyway, here our main character is just forced to go, “Oh, well” and take it like a chump, all for the sake of shoehorning a rival into the group – for drama, I suppose. Now I know games can’t possibly have all the infinite options a player may want to explore. It just seems that this game has fewer options than most.

Then there is a slight technical issue that causes the game to freeze up for a second or so between scenes loading in. I’ve played this on both the PC and the Xbox 360, and the same screen-freeze problem was in each version. Now that is a minor gripe at best, but then this game isn’t a graphical, action-heavy powerhouse, either. To me, it just seemed like lazy coding or corner-cutting. That said, this game doesn’t look bad. It has a nice comic-book-like art style, the colors are bright and vibrant, and there are some nice gory zombie smackdowns in here for the lovers of such things. An early favorite of mine involved a claw hammer, a zombie woman’s head, and the resulting mess the two make. Mmm, tasty.

Lastly, each of the five episodes that make up this game is relatively short, between two to three hours each. Fans of epic-sized games may be a bit disappointed in that, but fans of pick-up-and-go, bite-sized games will love it. And with its point-and-click interface, this game seems perfect for all the mobile devices out there. The really good news is that the price per episode is but a pittance at just five bucks. So, pass on your next Starbucks venti mocha chocha latte whatever. You can try the first episode of this game, instead, and see if it’s your cup of tea. You can now get all the episodes together in one big bundle on disc for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, but I’ve heard that it has some technical glitches, so it still might be a good idea to download the individual episodes, instead.

Final Verdict: The Walking Dead video game is excellent. It’s got tons of gory zombie goodness, extremely well-written characters, a good central story, and some very tough choices that have to be made. Yes, the actual game play of this game is very light, but, if anything, that hopefully encourages some non-gamers to pick this one up and give it a try. Consider it highly recommended for fans of the comic book, TV show, zombies, horror, or just good stories in general.

Brian M. Sammons

About Brian M. Sammons

Brian M. Sammons has been critiquing all things horror, science fiction, dark, or just plain icky for over a decade. His reviews and columns can currently be found in the pages of these magazines: Cemetery Dance, Shock Totem and Dark Discoveries, and on these websites: Horror World, The Black Glove and now here. Not being satisfied at being a humble and handsome critic, Brian has penned a few tales himself. They have appeared in the magazines Bare Bone, Cthulhu Sex, Dark Animus, and Horror Carousel, and in the anthologies Arkham Tales, Cthulhu Unbound Vol. 2, Horrors Beyond, and Twisted Legends, among others. He has also written extensively for the Call of Cthulhu role playing game, in an attempt to corrupt as many new, young minds as possible. Despite all this, Brian is often described by his neighbours as "such a nice, quiet man", and he loves animals.

Brian M. SammonsColumn: Cthulhu Eats the World: The Walking Dead Video Game (2013)