Friday, 5 July 2013

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

I think I've figured out what's wrong with "The Walking Dead" game by Telltale Games. I realized this as I was playing through the DLC, "400 Days", which acts as a bridge between the first five episodes released so far, and the upcoming second season.

Yes, there will be spoilers.

What did Telltale Games do before The Walking Dead? Monkey Island. Back to the Future. Strong Bad. Sam and Max. Jurassic Park. Traditional point-and-click adventure games. Puzzles, actually. One solution the game demands the player to figure out with the resources on hand.

The Walking Dead was supposed to be different. It was supposed to factor in an emphasis on meaningful player agency. Going down forked roads and facing the consequences of your choices. I don't think it would be unfair to say we expected different outcomes, paths, or even minor cosmetic differences depending on our actions in-game. This holds up a bit in the first two episodes, in the decision to save either Carley or Doug.

But as the game progressed, it became more and more rail-roaded to the point where nothing you did mattered, and the game just stopped giving you options entirely. It became no better than a corridor FPS, or Final Fantasy XIII. A movie that you have to keep unpausing. If there is any setting begging to be open-ended, it is a zombie apocalypse. But the workload for all of those variables is too much for a developer that is too used to making games in a straight line.

Which is why I'm not expecting much from season 2 of The Walking Dead. Oh, "400 Days" gives you variables alright. In fact, the end has you determining where each member of the new group starts the next season. But considering how fast the first season bottle-necked itself, I'm fully expecting all of the members of the team to show up at the same place within the first or second episode. Killing off anyone who doesn't come along would require more work writing future episodes, in case you played through the instance where Russel isn't around, or whatever.

(Remember the big choices at the end of Episode 4? And how, ten minutes later, you were right back to where you started? I'm not stupid enough to believe Telltale will change, with millions of low-standards-having fans telling them they're perfect. But I've been wrong before.)

"400 Days" is commendable, and manages to squeeze quite a bit out of such a small time frame between introducing five new characters. Although this early on, it's a little sad that my favourite character so far is a throwaway background presence who is quickly killed off(and even then, only because she's a looker). But it's a nice head-start.

That said, this developer has to earn my trust back. There has to be a difference between my playthrough and yours. There has to be some personal gratification from playing this, even if there's no way to avoid a sad ending. At the end, if I feel less like I tried and more like I was an idiot for trying, then Telltale Games will have failed us again.

This is their chance. If they can't get their shit together for Season 2, then I won't buy Season 3. I hope that doesn't happen. I really don't want this to be another bloated, overrated video game franchise that sold itself short.



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