Digital Digressions: Telltale’s The Walking Dead

If you haven’t played Telltale’s excellent games based in the world of The Walking Dead and plan to, please be advised that in the following discourse we spoil a lot of important plot points starting immediately.  Go ahead, close this window, log onto your platform of choice and spend the $10 and 3 hours to get the story yourself first.  Otherwise, you have been warned.

Nathan: Salt Licks.

Paul: They’re apparently extremely heavy. Maybe heavy enough to…kill?

Nathan: Apparently. I’ve seen salt licks before, never really thought to lift one so I have no idea if that’s legit or not. But yeah, 33% of people who played The Walking Dead: Starved For Help know what we’re on about, the others are sentimental pansies…just jokes but COME ON, how do you not murder Larry at the first available opportunity? I replayed the first episode just to see if you could sabotage his heart medication (you can’t by the way). Judgmental jackasses have no place in the post-apocalypse, I tell you what!

4e5edeee41471209439e45eec16579d9-300x187.jpg

Paul: I just gotta say, knowing you like I do if you called me a pansy I’d be pretty offended. Anyways, I completely agree. I also really enjoy the fact that after killing him, you get to steal the change from his pocket to get that air conditioner off and Lilly is just so pissed off the whole time. I loved seeing her in pain.

Nathan: The writers clearly wanted you to weigh the gravity of what you just did, but yeah, no regrets over here. “He’s my Dad, he just is that way. Ain’t no sense in…” yeah yeah yeah, salt lick. Crunch. Change please.

Paul: I remember playing through the first episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead hoping there was some point I could murder that son of a bitch. Cold-blooded fucking murder.  Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long but maybe we should back up a little bit.  Now, I know you’re also a big fan of the television series, but how do you feel about the video game so far?

Nathan: Aside from some weird technical hiccups here and there, I dig it. The writing is the star of the show here and with a few exceptions (“that there generator threw a belt…best stare at it some more”), it’s pretty sharp. I like that The Walking Dead as a whole franchise, including the comics and show thus far, seem more preoccupied with the social dynamics of people in a crumbling society than with the specifics of zombies walking around eating people. They do some nice twists on that stuff too (specifically the notion that sound draws their attention), but the primary interest is in people unravelling, which isn’t exactly new to be fair, but seeing it done well on a monthly (ish) basis is pretty satisfying. So I heartily approve of what I’ve experienced thus far.

Paul: Definitely with you on that.  One of the things I always loved about the classic Romero zombie flicks was that he used zombies as more of a means to showcase character drama and what Walking Dead has accomplished is taking that to a much higher level which they are able to accomplish due to the luxury of working out a long story in a series rather than have the limitations of a 90-120 minute film.  That being said, at first I have to admit I was hesitant to the idea of a video game, mainly due to not being too impressed with what I had seen from Telltale for awhile in terms of writing and gameplay quality (let’s just admit it, the majority of people have NOT finished a whole Telltale series of games).  I am pleasantly surprised with what they’ve put out so far though. They’ve definitely tapped into that specific quality that Robert Kirkman did when he wrote the comics and worked on the AMC series.

Nathan: In regards to Telltale, yeah, I gave Sam and Max, Strong Bad and Back to the Future a try, but always flaked out an episode or so into it. Definitely feel the momentum is stronger with this one, though I hope they manage their release schedule a little better going forward. Over a two month gap between episodes one and two was a bit worrisome, hope they didn’t lose a bunch of people in the meantime. I’ve heard some sentiment that the game is superior to the show, and while I feel it is WAY too early to make that call (and also, the farm stuff wasn’t THAT bad, y’all just impatient), I can certainly see where they are coming from in some respects. The character dynamics are pretty strong, I mean, I totally killed Larry but I intensely wanted to, and the list of games that have inspired that kind of irritation with a character isn’t very long, so good on you for making a uniquely detestable asshole for me to deal with (shout out to Terence McGovern, the voice behind Larry). Sorry to harken back to that but I’m pretty sure that was the gnarliest part of the episode, despite some straight up Texas Chainsaw Massacre business that surrounds it.

leewalkingdead-300x159.jpg

Paul: It really does showcase the strengths of the medium of video games when approached properly.  There really is nothing quite like the power one feels when they are able to control a character’s actions to reflect what they’re feeling.  Lee is one of the best written characters I think I’ve seen in awhile; it couldn’t have been easy to take on the task of creating an avatar for the player to project themselves onto while simultaneously directing who the character is in the story.  For example, it’s easy with a character like Link in The Legend of Zelda series to project yourself onto him due to his rather sexually ambiguous look and lack of voice or thought to steer the person away. At the same time, a character like Marcus from Gears of War would be a bit more difficult as he has predetermined dialogue, story progression, voice and look. Telltale has been able to reach a nice middle ground which is a very respectable task.

Nathan: Yeah, there is enough ambiguity surrounding the character that it still feels like you are watching a story play out while tweaking things that happen within it. For example, maybe I just haven’t been playing close enough attention, but I’m still pretty fuzzy on the details of Lee’s crime before this whole Zombie business happened, to the point where I feel like I’m as much in the dark as the characters I’m telling half-truths to within the story. It’s a neat balance, one I feel Heavy Rain failed to achieve with some of its characters. That the game has to straight-up lie to you at one point regarding the actions of one of the playable protagonists felt cheap to me. This series has yet to commit that sin, so I’m pretty pleased with it. Hope they stay committed to that philosophy of not jerking the player around going forward.

Paul: I don’t think we need to drag Heavy Rain in this as I believe the two are on completely different platforms in terms of writing quality (with Heavy Rain failing hard in comparison).  

Nathan: I think that’s why it belongs in the conversation, as gameplay-wise they are kind of similar and Heavy Rain was still a critical and commercial hit, whether or not it deserved to be. I’m just glad the framework David Cage employed in his interesting but kind of trashy experiments is being put to use by more competent writers. I still feel a bit burned by that game I guess, sorry to lick old wounds but wow, that game drove off a cliff in its closing hour or so.

Paul: That game drove off a cliff when David Cage decided he could write… Anyways, I also hope they keep the course but there is a gnawing feeling in the back of my head that something’s going to happen that’s really going to bother me in the closing episodes to conveniently wrap things up, kind of like how Mass Effect was supposed to take all your decisions into account throughout the series and then at the end it’s just all about what color you like. I sincerely hope this isn’t the case though.

Nathan: Uhhh, that’s a whole different conversation. I maintain that Mass Effect ended quite well, given how broad that story got at some points. It certainly fit my inclinations as a player, so I guess I was just on a similar wavelength as the creators while many more were not.

Paul: The problem with Mass Effect was that they got way too ambitious and I’m sure many heads were scratched trying to figure out how they could end the damn thing.

walkingdead_episode2_group-600x400-300x200.jpg

Nathan: I’m still not convinced that was the case but we may never know the full story behind that. Still, I see what you’re saying, the story in The Walking Dead is already poised to branch in some ways that could make tying up all the loose ends for every possible scenario a bit tricky to pull off in a satisfactory way. Looking at the decisions stats at the end of episode 2, there are at least two decisions very few people went one way on, which must be frustrating to write for given how small a percentage of the audience will even experience it. I guess it’s replayable, but still, seems odd that after the “Doug vs Carley” slant last time around, so many key decision points would have that kind of spread. The main one I recall is 85% of people chopping the teacher’s leg off. I honestly had no idea there was an alternative option in that scenario, so they may need to telegraph those points a bit more directly going forward.

Paul: I seem to recall someone working on the game mention something about how they hate it when the statistics at the end are slanted because they feel like they failed as writers if one option is a more obvious one than the other.  That being said, seeing the stats at the end of my playthrough was laughable and by their standards they might be on a Duke Nukem Forever level of failure in that regard.  There are at least 3 options that were easily an 80/20% split.

Nathan: That may even out some over the next few weeks before we get to episode three, but I agree they seem to have fumbled that a bit. That sentiment regarding the writing goals was also stated by Job Stauffer, the gentleman who hosted the Telltale event at E3 I attended. While I enjoyed my time there, that was arguably the most useless appointment I took as literally no one wanted to hear any spoilers on episode two, so I couldn’t talk about anything I saw until it was out for the world to see. Oh well, got a turkey leg out of the deal. That has to count for something. And hey, showcases how invested everyone is getting in the storyline, they must feel good about that, even if things aren’t playing out exactly as they planned.

Paul: I believe the choices in question, besides your mention of cutting the music teacher’s leg off, were killing the brothers and whether or not you wanted to save Larry.  

Nathan: Let us not forget Jolene, the crazy lady in the woods.

walkingdead2-300x168.jpg

Paul: Saving Larry was probably the most morally ambiguous so I guess I can understand the split on that (although not the way it turned out… who the fuck saves that asshole?) but whether or not you killed the brothers almost doesn’t even seem like a choice.  You just stand there with them at your mercy with the cursor lit up and it just seems like something that is meant to happen.  Either way, those dudes were going to die by my hand but that isn’t the point. Also, yeah… I shot Jolene before she could talk, what about it?

Nathan: Nothin’, ain’t judgin’ ya over here, just saying that she was spared by the vast majority of people who played it. Don’t mean nothin’. Anyway, I agree with the brothers. That story more or less goads you into killing them, seems like a naturally dark place for the series to go. I mean, the TV show (and presumably the comics), seem very interested in putting good people in positions where doing “bad” things seems like the only sensible solution. Rick experiences a similar dark turn in late season two, and I found that added a great new dynamic to the show. That they captured that descent over the course of maybe four hours of gameplay is pretty impressive. I will say though, those technical hiccups I alluded to earlier definitely hurt my immersion in the proceedings though. Awkward cuts during dialogue, weird glitches in animation here and there. Maybe it’s just the Xbox version or a symptom of the really fast-paced dev-cycle, but I’m hoping they can patch them some time down the line so the complete experience is preserved in a more polished form. I’m also curious, have they said whether they intend to wrap up this storyline involving Lee and whatnot in this season, or what with the success they’ve experienced so far, are these characters coming back in a season 2? I know its crazy early to call that kind of thing but I’m just not sure whether to expect this story to wrap up or continue to grow and evolve.

Paul: I haven’t really followed much on the future of the series but, like you said earlier, the fact that they took 2 months between episodes likely only hurt any momentum and good-will they received from the first episode.  It really is too early to tell but I sincerely hope we see more of Lee.  There are a few characters I could probably do without but he’s by far the glue holding me into the world so to lose him would force me to put effort into another character which, at this point, doesn’t seem like something I’d likely be willing to do.  I am excited to see where they go with this stuff though but I have to say I’m not overly excited by the trailer at the end of episode 2 for the next. I want them to leave the fucking motel and Macon already… also, don’t really care about bandits.

Nathan: I’m actually curious about the bandit thing, again, dealing with the breakdown in law and order and being forced to kill regular, but unhinged, people is more interesting stuff than offing walkers (very little of that this episode, which was nice).

Paul: I guess I just don’t see any quality in bandits because dude, they’re bandits. One dimensional AS FUCK.

Nathan: They could flesh that out. I mean, we are kind of bandits, what with our decision to loot the car at the end. I had no qualms doing that, similarly, they have no problem offing some people to survive. As long as they invest some time in making those characters more than just cardboard villains firing at you from the woods with an infinite supply of crossbow bolts (again…some quibbles in the logic here and there), it could make for compelling stuff. Got to set Kenny straight though, that guy is starting to think he runs the place or something.

Paul: Definitely.  When I played through he seemed a bit nicer to me than you on the default options but either way I wasn’t fond of him ordering Lee to open the trunk of the car.  Things are going to change soon.

Nathan: Indeed, may need another salt lick in the near future. Well…three of ‘em. Watch your back Duck.