There’s something a bit special about crying over fiction.
Although making too big a deal of it is often a great way to trivialising an entire medium – especially in games writing, where for too long we’ve thrown the word ‘emotion’ about as though it were a great uncovered truth capable of changing how games are perceived by broader society – it’s worth acknowledging when a game really affects you. It’s something rare and powerful and human, and it usually comes from a connection that most games just simply aren’t that interested in forming.
When I say that Episode 5 of The Walking Dead represents the first gaming experience to ever make me shed a tear (and yes, I did play through To The Moon), there’s an underlying thread that could be tugged away at and unravelled if one were so inclined. Truthfully, The Walking Dead Season 1 has been such a wonderful success because it never really bothered itself with being a typical ‘game’ experience. It told a great story by making the telling of that story the primary component of the gameplay, by focusing the player on soaking in characters above all else, and reacting to them as they saw fit.
It’s not that The Walking Dead is an inherently better, classier, or more sophisticated game for actually having emotion resonance – this is, after all, still a game that involves killing a great many zombies. It’s the ways that The Walking Dead earned that tear over 13 hours of walking around, clicking on objects and making dialog choices, which makes it so special.
To describe the events of the episode at this point would be silly, suffice to say that, in my game, everything played out in a manner surprisingly consistent with how I’d played the game. Not every question is answered, but then, they shouldn’t have to be. One moment was a little silly – a certain chain of events felt shoehorned in to get Lee to a place the game wanted him to be in, circumventing the myriad of possible paths the character could have taken up to that point – but the fiction remained largely believable. It’s perhaps not quite as thought provoking or involving as much as Episode 4 was, simply because it needs to get you to an end point, but nobody’s likely to be disappointed with how events wrap up.
There are no real puzzles in this final chapter. It focuses explicitly on conversations (at least it did in my playthrough – it’s hard to imagine how the episode plays out if you made certain unpopular choices at the end of Episode 4, which are, without exception, compelling and satisfying, often reflecting on things you did or said in the previous four episodes. The events of the last half hour or so of the game, in particular, are spellbinding, even using QTEs in ways more inventive and purposeful than I’m used to.
The Walking Dead: Season 1 has been an unusual phenomenon. Adventure gaming never exactly went away, but in recent years the best games in the genre have mostly been the ones that cast a glance backwards to the classics and tried to replicate their best features. The Walking Dead distils the formula immensely by removing most of the puzzles – which would have sounded like a disastrous plan had Telltale announced their intentions in advance – replacing them with a compellingly tragic, unusually human glimpse into the heart of the on-going pop cultural zombie obsession. In most zombie fiction, The Walking Dead comics included, humanity is meant to be the ‘real’ monster – but The Walking Dead game has, over the slow build-up of its episodic structure, given us characters that still have the capacity and courage to fight back against their demons too.
In many ways The Walking Dead has been a game about love; between a man and his surrogate daughter, between families and lovers, between player and avatar, and across humanity broadly. It was love that made The Walking Dead special, and made me shed a tear as the credits rolled. It’s love that makes The Walking Dead not only Telltale’s best game by a mile, but also one of the best adventure games ever.