Saturday, 15 June 2013

21st Century Gaming: The Walking Dead (Episode 1: A New Day)

The Walking Dead is a comic book series about zombies, or perhaps it's about people in an extreme situation. An ongoing series, it's also been adapted into a highly rated TV show and most recently an adventure game by Telltale Games. All three involve some similar characters and situations, but play out in different ways. The game in particular gives you a certain amount of choice in how you survive this zombie apocalypse.

I wouldn't consider getting out of these cuffs a puzzle, and yet it involves several repetitive small tasks to complete. Even more frustrating on my second playthrough.
To preface this, I should probably mention I have never really liked any of the Telltale games I've played in the past. I wanted to like their take on Sam and Max, but while the humour was okay I just didn't enjoy the puzzles or the stories, nor the episodic nature of it. Next I tried Tales of Monkey Island, but couldn't bring myself to complete even the first episode. Again, they produced something that felt close to the originals, but there was something I didn't like about it. The interface, the graphics, it just felt a bit off, and I found myself playing different games instead and have never returned.
Not quite a Quick-Time-Event, but there's a lot of stuff like this.
In many respects, The Walking Dead does nothing to change my mind about Telltale's games. The graphics are considerably better than their earlier efforts, and highly stylised rather than attempting a realistic look. This is probably deliberate, to give a "comic book" feel, which is serviceable but not something I would heap praise upon. The interface is where I initially became frustrated, with the game's control system being a little unusual and limited in terms of it's interactions.

For added tension, Lee loves to drop things at the worst possible moments, like when trying to load a shotgun shell to kill this zombie cop.
 My issues with many 3D adventure games stem from the interface, which can often be clunky and unintuitive. The interface in TWD is very simple, but often it can be a little awkward to figure out exactly how the game wants you to accomplish an action. The movement is clumsy and reminiscent of games like Alone in the Dark and Resident evil - where there is a fixed camera point that shifts as you walk from place to place. I can't help but feel that a more distant camera or a 2D approach would have made this much better, but I'm sure the designers were attempting to recreate a "cinematic" or "tv-show" look to the game, something that I am not a fan of.
Clementine's house.
As you walk around an area, there are several "hot spots" which become highlighted as the mouse cursor moves towards them. When you move the mouse cursor over these spots, you can select an action, represented by a small graphic. The actions allowed are limited, and generally involve looking (an eye), manipulation (a hand), talking (a speech bubble), and perhaps items from your inventory. Sometimes the use of an item is obvious, but other times the item has a very specific situational use which might not seem obvious (using a pillow as a makeshift silencer for example, didn't seem appropriate to me). Generally they get this right, but it's a shame that the puzzles themselves are so limited.
Clem's house, interior.
 I have only died once, on my second playthrough of this episode (took too long taking a screenshot!), but generally it's very forgiving. Most puzzles have obvious solutions, and rely on objects within a short walking distance. The most bizarre in the first episode revolves around a small radio. The person with the radio somehow doesn't realise it needs batteries (which you find lying around nearby) and then manages to put the batteries in the wrong way around. Such hand-holding through a basic task seems like busy-work and distracts from the more interesting parts of the game. It seems like the real focus of the game are the characters and certain decisions you are forced to make. I've nothing in particular against their characters, which are fairly distinct, although they could use more time to interact with them. They can end up feeling a little one-dimensional at times, but it's those big decisions that I find a little awkward.

Slipping in the large pool of blood that you can't (or won't) step around.
They so often feel contrived, a forced drama to make the player's actions mean something more than getting from point A to point B. It is rare for a player's actions in a graphical adventure game to have consequences that branch the narrative, but it can be frustrating when non-player characters actions are inexplicable. In one early scene, you have a choice to save one of two people. The choice is not the issue in this case, but rather the setup. As with many of these occasions, the danger is from zombies sneaking up on people. On this occasion, the two characters should have had a clear view around them, and should have been able to see the zombies approach from a rather long way (or at least hear them, it's strange how often zombies turn up when it suits the plot).

Quick-time-events! Gah. Also, much like his item fumbling, Lee also likes to slip and fall when in a difficult situation. Lee slips twice in the kitchen.
In a later scene, a similar situation occurs and another choice is required. Everyone else is obviously conveniently absent for whatever reason, and again you must make the choice between two lives. Unfortunately when such a choice is presented regularly and you have spent so little time with the two individuals, it leads to the player having to make a choice on little information. Rather than this being a big emotional choice, the game shows itself and you begin to choose based on which character with be most useful to you.

Waited too long getting this screenshot and it was the only time I died in two playthroughs.
What is even more frustrating is that other characters will ask you why you made those particular choices. Often, there was no real overriding reason for my choice, and there's no appropriate response to make. These choices and the conversations about them are intended to make the player feel immersed and part of the action, but only serve to make me feel alienated from the characters. I find it hard to comprehend their motivations and find some of their responses to this apocalyptic scenario just plain odd.
A little post-apocalyptic humour here.
On playing the episode for a second time, it became even more apparent that the choices made very little difference to the outcome. The first big choice at the farm gave me the same end result, and the pharmacy choice doesn't seem to have had any immediate effective difference, even though only the character you save makes it to the next scene (and next episode).

You can't leave this area until you've found and befriended Clementine.
To round off my complaints list, the game features a "next time" segment right at the end. This is yet another "episodic" feature, where they try and shoe-horn TV-show stuff into the games medium. I've never liked this when it's done on TV, and I'm even less impressed by it here. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that you can skip this, nor the credits section after the game. Sitting through it once is annoying enough, but on a second playthrough every time it forces you to watch through cut-scenes or similar, it is another reminder on how limited the interactions are for this game.

No choice but to help the damsel in distress. Such lack of choice normally wouldn't bother me, but they promote the idea of choice so much it gets annoying when you are forced down a path you don't like.
Finally to end on a slightly more positive note, the game gives you a few stats to digest at the end. Based on other players, it tells you how many others picked the same choices as you. It's a nice touch, and I found it interesting that four out of the five choices were almost 50%. The only one that was skewed at all was the final choice, between the gun-toting girl and the geeky guy (70%-30%). I'll let you come up with your own explanations for that one. There is an unfortunate side to these stats though, as it shows the player only has five important decisions to make during this episode. Everything else doesn't seem to matter much.

Slipping again, or tripping. I guess Lee is just naturally clumsy, especially when he's in stressful situations.
Here's hoping that the rest of the episodes are better than this one, because at this point I really can't see what people love about this game. It's quite possible that this suffers by being the start of the story, and it plays out in sometimes rather predictable ways. I imagine that it's the main characters relationship with Clementine which will make or break the rest of the episodes. If the writing is good and the characters stick around for more than ten seconds, then perhaps when I have to make choices in future it'll have more impact.

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