Video games have zombies all wrong. In Left 4 Dead and the Resident Evil series they’re always one headshot away from being quiet. But in films, books and television, zombies are less of an immediate threat. They are an omnipresent representation of death, pushing characters to extremes. Go back to the one that started it all, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, and notice that the zombies have nothing on us.
In Telltale's The Walking Dead, the most important decisions don't involve who to shoot at, but who gets to be fed, what to tell a little girl whose parents have just died, and who should lead. Based on the television show, itself based on a comic book, the game focuses on how people interact with each other rather than merely how they fight the undead. You play as Lee Everett, an original character, who's on his way to prison in Atlanta when the dead rise up to eat the living. He manages to escape and meet up with a group of survivors trying to figure out the next step while he tries to find out what happened to his parents.
While there are a few action sequences that call for basic aiming and button presses, and a few rudimentary puzzles, the game is mostly driven by dialogue. Scenes unfold and you control what Lee says, usually with a time limit. One early scene, for example, has Kenny, an affable family man, getting into a screaming match with another survivor over whether or not Kenny's son has been bitten. Pick a side and the characters remember it, and the game is careful to frame each choice ambiguously enough that there are no obvious answers, just people with different opinions. Rarely has conversation in a videogame been so tense.
The comics drown in verbiage that would make Aaron Sorkin cringe, giving too many minor characters something to say before abruptly killing them off. The game avoids this sin by focusing on a small group and a tight script. It also overcomes the lurking pace of the show. While it game pauses occasionally for puzzles, there is almost always something happening.
The biggest selling point is how your choices affect the outcome of the game. Crucial decisions carry forward: I have people alive in my game who may not be alive in yours. The game asks us over and over again: Who is Lee Everett? Is he a shrewd pragmatist? A leader? A man filled with hope or with despair? And while it would be naive to suggest that the game acts as a psychological mirror for the player, I have found myself surprised at some of my choices. Surprise is something that a zombie game hasn't provided in a long while.
Developer / Publisher: Telltale
Designers: Jake Rodkin, Sean Vanamen
Platform: PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3