Telltale’s The Walking Dead is one of the best game stories ever told
I’m a sappy guy. You put me in front of a Christmas advert with a happy ending, or an episode of Undercover Boss and I cry like a child with a grazed knee. In short, I get emotional at the drop of a hat and it’s something I’ve always done, regardless of my mood. Video games have certainly become more orientated with the human spirit, and the choices we make or the pain we face, proving that it’s not just a good book or a power ballad capable of getting the old eye juice flowing. The Walking Dead is regarded as Telltale Games’ magnum opus, and it is the series of games that everything they’ve done since, and will ever do from now on is compared to. But why?
I must admit, when I first played it way back when, I couldn’t get on with it. Maybe it was the controls or the restrictions to movement, or maybe it was the way your introduced to the characters, or maybe it just wasn’t my time. Anyway, when I finally decided to get into it, I was hooked – drawn in like a kipper on a fish hook. I fell in love with Clementine, and how innocent she was. Watching her grow throughout the series – and subsequently looking back on her journey in Season Three – is one of the greatest things I’ve had the privilege of witnessing in video games. Maybe it was because I could sympathise with Lee and Kenny who were trying to raise her, running into problems no child should have to face, raising questions I tried to answer hypothetically as if it was my own daughter in the fray.
Clementine witnesses death every day. Sometimes it was a close friend – someone she’d bonded with over time, or maybe a fleeting visitor to the circle of friends she kept. Nonetheless, seeing a person go from alive to dead, then to the undead is enough to fuck up any kid. But she stays strong. She grows as a person, forced to become an adult much quicker than she should have to, and throughout both Season One and Season Two, Clementine becomes a young woman, in possession of a warm heart slightly frozen from the sheer number of lives shes seen disappear in front of her.
When I saw her in Season Three, I was genuinely uncomfortable talking to her. Was this the Clementine I knew? The young and innocent child I’d been keeping safe for two whole Seasons, now taking care of me, killing walkers to protect my welfare in such a cold, heartless way? It’d been some time since I’d left her at the end of Season Two, and she’d seemed to have grown up – not just mentally, but physically. She was taller, sullen, and mature. Season Three did a great job of reminding you that she’s still a kid, and one particular conversation she has with Xavi about periods touched upon her fragility. Every season is so well written, and Clementine is one of the greatest characters in all of video game history.
But so is Kenny. Maybe I’m the only on who feels like this, especially if you go down some dark roads with him in Season Two, but my word, what a guy. He goes through some serious shit, and loses everyone around him – his wife, his kid, his girlfriend. Watching Kenny go from this lovable husband to highly volatile man is a struggle at times, but understandable given the circumstances. His self destruction is one of the most compelling unfoldings in games, and Telltale manage to do this with many of the characters in The Walking Dead.
Xavi and David’s relationship in Season Three hits home the importance of family and loyalty, Lee’s strength and willingness to protect Clementine in Season One is inspirational, and Michonne’s pain throughout her story arc was engaging to watch. So many games tell us that the choices we make will impact the story in some way, but apart from what Supermassive do with their games, Telltale really make you believe it. There are times when you’re having to choose between keeping someone alive or ending their lives, and picking between two characters when only one can survive. It’s a brutal apocalypse, and you’re constantly forced to make the tough decisions, even if it means they’re the wrong ones.
I don’t think there’s a better series of games to change the way writers and developers implement such a strong narrative. Telltale has managed to make character development, and the player’s emotion centre stage in their construction of their episodic structure. Much like the television show of the same name, the story isn’t at the forefront – it’s the characters, and our love for them grows stronger with every episode. Now, here’s the sappy bit (I did warn you right at the start, didn’t I?). In a world surrounded by death and decay, heartbreak and loss, we can still find strength in each other, and no matter what these characters have to deal with, they deal with it together. Telltale make you care for these people, and so few games manage to get this right.