The Walking Dead is a two-hour long interactive cutscene rammed full of bungling dialogue, occasionally dismal voice acting, breakneck decision-making scenarios, QTEs and a scene where a man hacks into a TV remote. It stars a chap named Lee and a seven-year-old girl who shares her name with a fruit. But wait, don’t go! It’s also really good.
This latest attempt by Telltale to saddle its point and click adventure mould to a popular license achieves what so few games do: it makes choices feel as though they matter. That’s largely because decisions almost exclusively revolve around who lives and who dies. Everything is timed, too, which gifts conversations and decision-making situations either an organic flow or a deranged aura of impending doom, particularly when you’re being accused of lying or have to decide whether to save the mildly annoying man or the slightly irritating woman. You’ll probably fuck it up too. ‘Hit A’ your brain will wail panic-strikken as you fumble at the controller, bashing Y in a boorish display.
Yet still that adds to the naturalness of it all. In hindsight, the half a dozen or so decisions aren’t that meaningful. Play through again and you’ll learn that some even arrive at the exact same outcome. There’s scarcely enough time to grow attached to anyone either, bar perhaps Clementine, your seven-year-old counterpart. But that doesn’t matter because in the moment, bombarded with the sounds of howling lemmings looking to you for answers, dramatic music, a cascading time bar and a consummate sense that the fate of the entire universe suddenly rests on your quivering shoulders, these decisions feel momentous. It’s Telltale’s greatest achievement here.
For a game that busies players mostly with dialogue options and running around pressing A until things work, The Walking Dead also handles its violence surprisingly well. It’s a peculiarity inherent to videogames (a medium home to characters that trade in .50 calibre affronts no less) that violence is often so powerless.
The Walking Dead succeeds where others tend to fail because its violence acts as a coda to something more material than yet another dead terrorist. Here, it’s a crushing hammer blow that marks the sealing of an irrevocable deal; a decision made by the player that, at the time at least, feels epoch-making. (Also, pressing A at just the right time to introduce a zombie to the howling jurisdiction of a claw hammer is gloriously tangible. Ahem.)
While there’s not enough time to really get to know the cast, there’s plenty of downtime during which Lee can engage in clunky chitchat with them. Like a good book – and unlike most games – you’re dropped into Episode One without any prior knowledge of Lee or the situation. Of course, the zombies are knocking loutishly at the door within five minutes, but the introductory scene seems to have been designed to force you to look at the world not quite through Lee’s eyes, as you’d expect, but through a different lens altogether.
You control the guy, but you don’t know a thing about him, then. During the opening scene he’s riding handcuffed in the back of a police car. “Well, I don’t reckon you did it.” muses the officer at the wheel of the car. “Did what?” is the natural riposte, but you’re funnelled away from asking that, instead forced to come back with something frustratingly equivocal like “fucking right I didn’t”. The ambiguity that blankets Lee helps foster a perennial sense of unease; precisely what you want in something that verges on horror. Add to that the fact that within half an hour he’s guiding Clementine around and it’s a smart way of contributing to the disquieting undercurrents maintained throughout. We can’t quite trust the man we’re supposedly in control of, how in hell’s name are we supposed to have faith in anything else in this strange world?
Also like good horror movies and literature, The Walking Dead is anchored thematically in trust. Yeah so maybe the zombies are just a silly metaphor for 21st century mankind (some cringeworthy iconography certainly suggests the designers are somewhat on board with that train of thought), but it’s predominantly about forging relationships with humans, choosing who to abet and who to forsake in the hope that, somewhere down the line in episode 2 or episode 5, these decisions will pay off. It’s not straightaway clear whether siding with Mr. Family Chap or Mr. Angry Chap is the right move, but the mistrust between people – the ever puckering tension – is what makes the two hours tick.
Problems arise when characters start making ham-fisted decisions in a bid to advance the plot. Sure, it’s more fun to drive merrily into the heart of a dilapidated, zombie-ravaged city, unarmed and with kiddlywinks in tow, but wouldn’t steering clear and hanging about in the countryside for a week or two make more sense?
Elsewhere it lacks the conviction to really get under your skin, shirking around the few occasions to ask you some hard questions. One character quizzes Lee after he rescues her, “why me? Why not the other guy”. There’s no real response though, just a damp: “I was gonna try and save everyone…” or a “I don’t really know.”
There are also more audiovisual glitches than there ought to be for a game two hours in length. Characters routinely speak over one another and lip-synching isn’t particularly strong while some of the animations are completely out of time. If this were Telltale’s first stab at point and click you’d be more inclined to forgive some of the less pronounced problems, but they’ve been making the same mistakes for a while now.
Still, A New Day is a promising start and, more than that, it’s exciting to see an apocalyptic game in which people are the lynchpin, not the event. Like The Road or I Am Alive, it’s not the circumstances that are interesting, it’s how real humans trudge through the morass left in the wake of calamity, and Telltale’s hallmark adventure mould provides a befitting canvas to meet that end. Roll on episode 2.