When I was a kid, I had a recurring nightmare. I would awake, startled by some mysterious noise, only to find a hideous monster in my room. No matter what action I took – the plot changed slightly from dream to dream – I invariably found myself unable to open the bedroom door, trapped inside to face an unavoidable fate.
Thinking about "The Walking Dead" – a videogame filling out a transmedia trio with comic books and live-action television – it's hard not to remember the sense of dread from that old nightmare. You'll make tough choices in the first episode of Telltale's brilliantly executed adaptation, decisions which provide a temporary feeling of safety, but you'll do so knowing the monster is always waiting across the room.
No one understands the importance of gut-check choices quite like protagonist Lee Everett. A life-altering decision got him into this mess, handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser, unaware of the horror waiting just down the highway. The snap-judgements you make for Lee have consequences, none of which are wholly pleasant. People are disemboweled, relationships are scarred, and lives are forever altered as an effect of trying to keep the same fate from befalling other characters. You won't have time to ponder over those gut-wrenching decisions, either. "The Walking Dead" ratchets up the tension by demanding responses in what feels like an excruciatingly short window of time.
The pacing of "The Walking Dead," not just in the flow of action, but in every facet of the story, elevates the game as one of the best examples of interactive drama to date. When Lee kneels down, trying to reassure Clementine – a little girl he takes under his wing early in the episode – I can't help but wonder what I would say to my own child, given similar circumstances. Sometimes, it's better just to say nothing at all; an option available throughout the game.
A big factor in the success of Robert Kirkman's comic was the abandonment of certain stereotypical zombie-tale elements. The undead are clearly an ever-present threat, but with time, the ghouls morph into the background; secondary to the human drama unfolding in the wake of an apocalypse. The "Walking Dead" game's approach toward Kirkman's canon is pitch-perfect, finding a balance between intense narrative and the satisfying crunch of splitting a zombie's skull open with an axe.
Telltale's respect for the source material is readily on display in this "prequel to the comics" episode, something I wish the AMC television show would do more often. Even the visuals – oozing with series artist Charlie Adlard's style – lend to the feeling of immersing yourself into an alternate story in the "Walking Dead" universe.
Episodic games present both a challenge and a potential benefit to a developer. While the low cost of admission may draw in more players, there's a real danger in losing the audience's interest after one or two entries. After my time with "The Walking Dead," all I wanted to do was play through the episode again, and I'm wanting for the next entry in the same way it hurts to close the last page of a great comic book.
Sometimes, stepping back from the door and accepting the monster across the room is the right choice. He's not going away, but trying to keep just out of his reach makes for one hell of a ride.
Have you played the "Walking Dead" game yet? What did you think? Let us know in the comments section or hit us up on Twitter!