The Walking Dead Episode 1: A New DayA game review article by: Danny Djeljosevic
The appeal of The Walking Dead goes beyond its brand of zombie horror, which it quite frankly owes to George Romero. What really separates this particular Dead from Dawn of the or Night of the Living is that Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard's zombie drama inhabits a more expansive space when it comes to storytelling, taking the Romeroan narrative beyond its two-hour confines and stretching it out into ongoing serialized narrative, almost to see how far it goes before it snaps. How many characters can you shockingly kill off or disfigure? How many more new locations can you drag the survivors to? How long until you just run out of ideas?
The comes the inevitable adaptations. The Walking Dead has a unique problem in its adaptation in that the shocking moments are so shocking that, for a reader of the book, the characters are pretty much damaged goods when moving into other mediums. We know their arcs and the grizzly ends they meet (or, horrifyingly, worse), so there's no surprise to seeing them do it all over again -- only boredom that it's happening all over again or annoyance that the writers didn't seem to understand why their deviations just end up being huge thematic blunders (true story).
Sorry for all the lead-up, but as a Walking Dead fan you should be used to a lot of that.
So, what about video games? The comic and the show had it easy; they were moving into territory that was decidedly lacking in zombies. In video games, Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil provide some palpable survival horror with lots of action and a charming lack of pathos and coherent storytelling. The only solution then is to fill a different niche and do the opposite of those games, delivering a gaming experience where action is decentralized in favor of storytelling and drama and dialogue and interpersonal relations. Y'know, like the comics.
Which is exactly what happened thanks to someone in Kirkman's camp making the wise decision to license the Walking Dead property to Telltale Games, a developer composed of LucasArts refugees specializing in the point-and-click graphic adventure games that made the '90s worth living through (that and Seinfeld, which is another property Telltale should tackle), to make a five-part serialized Walking Dead adventure game.
Rather than retell the story of Rick Grimes and his ever-expendable group of survivors of gradually decreasing morality, sanity and humanity, lead designers Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman introduce a new character, Lee Everett, a former college professor who we meet in the back of a police car en route to prison just as the zombie apocalypse begins. He soon meets a little girl named Clementine and his own group of damaged but well-defined survivors, including established characters like Hershel and Glenn, putting the story firmly into prequel territory.
The gameplay is akin to a gorier version of Monkey Island or Sam & Max, with players moving Lee around various locations and controlling an onscreen reticule to decide what the character interacts with -- opening doors, picking up important items, talking with other characters. When it comes to the zombies, aiming is everything -- if you don't point the reticule at the creature's head when you press the confirm button, you might find your intestines quickly pulled out and eaten.
The Walking Dead Episode 1: A New Day offers a couple "puzzles" where players must figure out the best approach to dealing with hordes of zombies. Rather than engaging in an Evil Dead 2-esque splatterfest, players are forced to take the Monkey Island route of figuring out how to use the various items at their disposal to distract and/or quietly dispatch the undead in order to continue through the game. It's hardly what I would describe as a challenge, but there's a certain satisfaction to thinking your way through a scenario rather than simply shooting your way out. But maybe that's just the kind of gamer I am.
Telltale takes an approach to character interaction one might describe as "Biowarian," combining your requisite slew of dialogue options (always present in these point-and-click games) with consequences that promise to be far-reaching. To increase the intensity, players must make important dialogue options within seconds before time runs out, and the game always lets you know the direct consequences of your actions, such as "Hershel knows you lied" or "Kenny will remember your loyalty" -- which sounds like they're throwing you a bone, but there's an added element of tension in knowing whether you immediately fucked up but not knowing how that will affect you down the line. Sometimes players get to make huge decisions regarding who lives and who dies, which should hopefully make for a different story experience in future episodes. It's hard to tell how much depth these decisions will have throughout the game, as there are still four more episodes to go, but judging on a couple of playthroughs so far your decisions only slightly change the way some characters respond.
So far, the story itself is as compelling as the comics at their best, thanks to allowing player input as far as dialogue and decision-making (no matter how shallow) regarding decently fleshed-out characters and Telltale's devotion to creating a polished, visually interesting world that looks like Charlie Adlard drew it, bolstered by fluid (if occasionally glitchy) animation and not-too-shabby voice acting.
The Walking Dead Episode 1: A New Day is an impressive debut for a licensed property that could have been crapped out for a quick buck. Fans will get the most out of it, but thanks to its all-new accessible story, newcomers to the franchise will certainly find something to appreciate, too.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.