Reaction and Analysis of Telltale's Walking Dead Game, Episode 1: "A New Day"
Do you watch The Walking Dead TV series on AMC?
Didn't This Game Come Out A While Ago?
The first episode to the Walking Dead game starts off as a whirlwind rush trying to jam pack as much content and character cameos in as possible. While there were some problems with elements of characterization being too flat, overall the story appears to be off to a good start.
Since this game has a very "art-house" appeal to it and can almost be judged along the same criteria as you would a movie, I've decided to start my analysis of the series from the very beginning from first play-through so that my impressions can be formed as I go along through the narrative.
Obviously I am going to talk about the plot in detail, so you shouldn't read any further if you want to go out and buy the game to experience it yourself (though it's been out for a year anyways).
Missing "The Fall"
Lee is in the back of a police car, and all I can think about is how bad things are about to get. When you’ve been immersed in zombie-flavored pop culture long enough, you recognize the period that I am handily going to call “the fall.” The fall lasts from when the fictional contagious first starts spreading, to when things finally start becoming quiet. That is, the fall is when the vast majority of people are killed and once bustling population centers get that feel of an old-west ghost town. Abandoned, except of course for the flesh-starved shells of human beings.
I was hoping that the Walking Dead game by Telltale would give me a look into “the fall” with all of its myriad chaos and drama as the world turns upside down very slowly at first, and then like a roller coaster. The Walking Dead television series utterly failed to present the fall since Rick Grimes wakes up from his coma to an eerily silent and empty hospital in the ‘afterwards.’ Our plucky African American hero Lee Everett, appears to have a similar condition. One of the largest fiction tropes of all time is the good ol’ “passed out for X hours and woke up to…” Even though anyone experienced in medicine will tell you that the vast majority of people who get knocked out for more than a few minutes are largely facing traumatic brain injuries. But vegetative Lee wouldn’t be nearly as fun, so awaken he must to what one can easily sense is going to be a very dark and different world.
But how different could it be? Lee has only passed out for a few hours at maximum to wake up in a late afternoon twilight, so unless he was out for more than a full day (and I don’t think that any fiction writer would dare stretch the trope that far) things should still be pretty chaotic.
But everywhere we come to, everything seems very after-the-fact. The zombies don’t look like the freshly turned victims that they should be, but are instead heavily mutilated and already decayed, betraying that very stereotypical “zombie” look without much regard to the when and the what that the context of the story requires.
While I am a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see a little bit more of what I think is one of the most dramatic phases in any zombie apocalypse story (the movie World War Z focused exclusively on “the fall”) I can understand in a way. To realistically portray the fall would have required a budget out of the reach of a small developer studio, and they want to quickly shuffle us into what the game is going to be (so that we can decide whether or not we want to spend our money on the rest of it) so I can be a little more forgiving.
Perspective and Camera Angles
On a more positive note, while the story itself might contain some issues, the perspective work does not. In film we would call it “camera work” but since this is all computer generated a substitute term will do. Unoriginal perspective work is really what separates the good and the bad. Poor perspective work is immediately noticeable, albeit not explicitly noticeable, because it fails to suture you into the character. Good camera work is like a delicate seasoning, you barely notice it if it does its job well, but when it is gone altogether or done poorly- you can immediately tell even if you can’t put your finger on it.
One of my favorite moments is right after Lee kills zombie Carly (the babysitter) by smashing a hammer repeatedly into her face. Just as we are coming down from the high of combat via quicktime event (which doesn’t have to be as bad as it sounds) we have this wonderful moment of the camera panning upwards to capture Clementine standing highlighted in the doorway of her house, looking at you right after you’ve brutally slaughtered her former baby-sitter with an expression that I can only describe as “broken.”
From the moment I saw Clementine right there, I knew that this game was going to be a little more than just your standard zombie survival bash-em-in-the-head game. The immediacy of Lee’s relationship with Clementine is going to be the enduring link and central story that the rest of this plot will build on. I can sense it. Why else would the game have prepared me with several (perhaps a bit too blunt) heartfelt references to her childlike innocence?
Another wonderful suture moment occurs when Lee is trying to save Clementine from the zombie that springs out of the bathroom in the drugstore. He slips and falls as he is trying to get to her and we get this wonderful moment where we’re looking at the world sideways through Lee’s eyes, and everything seems to be going in slow motion as all we want to do is get up and get forward to her.
(Lack of) Characterization and Character Roulette
Instead of having Lee run into a handful of people that the episode develops gradually and deeply, we go for a shotgun approach with Lee meeting as many people as the developers seemed to think they could cram in. Two cameos from major characters in the main television series when even one would have been sufficient, the introduction of Clementine, the introduction to what appears to be the group that Lee is going to be traveling with. Maybe it’s because of the speed with which we’re trying to meet people that we get the next problem.
This game has a trope problem, and while I can hope that as characters get a little more meat to them they will eventually round out, there is a noticeable problem in this first episode. After meeting characters I can get an immediate sense of what their personality is and what I can expect of them. Kenny is the typical blue-collar everyman, but where is his complex mental and emotional response to what is going on around him? “Duck” the imbecile child is little more than simply that. Irene’s father is the asinine old man who we can tell the developers just want us to love to hate, but shouldn’t there be some more depth than just first appearances and what meets the eye?
Characters are willing to divulge relatively simple emotional responses upon being questioned, which is itself a pretty simple matter. Conversations aren’t you navigating through a complex web of back and forth replies so much as you picking each of the four options in any order you like so that they can delver their response, and then you move on to the next one instead of digging deeper into that response.
In terms of Lee’s family, I couldn’t help but feel that the storyline would have had a much greater impact (especially the moment with his brother) if the developers had opted to push that back a bit. Introducing Lee as having a complicated and very dark past and then resolving it quickly does very little to build lasting suspense throughout the season.
Technical Bugs and Overall Appearance
In terms of the look and feel of the game, I like the art style but was somewhat unimpressed by the graphics. That might have to do with the fact that I was playing it on an iPad instead of a computer or Xbox. There was at least one bug which I wouldn’t have expected on a game well into its shelf life where anything like that should have already been patched.
There are other times when the camera perspective zooms in on things which are clearly supposed to be easily visible, but are so pixelated that they are hard to even read. I think that on this front there was room for improvement but the needs of the platform or the crunch for time forced a compromise. That isn’t to say that there aren’t elements that do have extraordinary amounts of detail shoved in. For example, the cork board inside the drugstore has a series of posters and fliers which you can actually read if you look at them. That itself is a nice touch.