Monday, July 15, 2013

Review: 'The Walking Dead' and '400 Days' Video Game (By Telltale)


I wanted to wait until I played the extra 400 Days chapter before reviewing The Walking Dead by Telltale. I know this prolly seems outdated because The Last of Us came out really recently, but I'll get that one eventually, too. So yeah, I'm slow. Sue  me.

As you can see on the cover, there's a dude holding a little girl's hand. That's Lee and Clementine.  Lee is the character you play as, and Clementine is the little girl you find in the very beginning of your struggle within the outbreak of zombies. Clementine becomes your reason for survival  and it's the immersion in the world in which you're trying to protect her that makes this game so moving. The game mechanic forces you to not just think for, but think as and feel as Lee. So I can't even use third-person- it's second, at best. It's you doing everything, not Lee, and that's why this game is so good. It transports you, and every decision has weight on you as Lee and you as you sitting on your couch with your dog chewing her deer antler beside you. Ahem.

In order to convey this, whenever I'm referencing my own reactions, I may sometimes say "Leeme." Get it? ;p

What mechanic am I talking about that could possibly lead to this sort of transcendence of self?

Importantly, the focus isn't the combat. It's not the killing of the zombies. It's the navigation of the environment itself- often what direction you walk in avoiding being seen, the method with which you decide to open or break something, which room you choose to go in first. But most importantly, the other people involved. Every couple minutes (and then sometimes a few times within one minute itself), you as Lee have to decide what to say or do with respect to what someone else has said or done- you're given options to negotiate, get hostile, say nothing, and sometimes even get physical with someone else, in every situation involving other characters. You can be snarky, you can be funny, you can lie, and the characters always remember what you did. And it comes back to you- they'll reference your past decisions in the future, and how you've treated them previously (and at that moment) often determines who comes with you whenever you have to break off from the whole group. And if they ever realize you're lying at that moment, they let  you know- or if they realize later you lied before, they definitely let you know.

There are more intense  moments that have deep ramifications on the future, too. More than once, you have to choose between two people that are being simultaneously attacked, and your decision determines who lives and who doesn't. The first time Leeme had to do this, I didn't realize that was the case- I thought I'd be able to help both. And when I couldn't, I was utterly shocked and had to pause the game because the weight of the outcome  was so heavy on me. Leeme felt damn awful and wished there had been a way to save both. And  the storytellers weaved reminders of that decision back into future moments constantly, reminding Leeme of that decision and that I had to let one person die.

The fact that I couldn't save both people made me realize this game wasn't going to end happily- someone important  to Leeme was going to die. Not because of storytelling tropes, but rather because they obviously weren't giving people plot armor, and if we're being "real" about getting caught in a situation like that, it'd be a miracle if Leeme didn't die in the end. 

Also, there are times when your decision effects people you may not expect. Moments where you think you're alone and then poof! Clementine witnesses you stabbing someone in the face. Ironically, whenever I did something more violent and against my own nature as ME, made a choice I know I probably wouldn't make (at least as I am now, not really in a zombiepocalypse), those decisions ended up being the ones that had the worst effects on Leeme. Like the aforementioned moment when Clementine walked in- I pulled myself out of Lee for a moment when I thought she was gone, and I wanted to get the guy out of the way because I thought this chapter needed to end sooner, so I stabbed him with a pitchfork, and as soon as I did it, she gasped. Oops. Likewise, in the last chapter, I hesitated too long, and that hesitation led to Clementine killing someone instead of me doing it. I had to pause there, too, Leeme felt so horrible. 

So since your decisions mold what happens next, these decisions can either limit or expand your future options.  And it's clear they tried to make as many scenarios as they could so that no matter how you chose, it would feel organic and as if it naturally progressed that way. Not only from the sheer fact that it does feel that natural, but also because  at the end of each chapter (except the 5th), there's a "preview" of the next one- and every time I saw a preview, I also saw scenes/clips that didn't end up happening when I actually played the chapter whose preview I was seeing. And while sometimes it seemed good, like when there were snippets of an argument with another character I ended up never having, I also saw some scenes that could have been better, like a character helping Lee kill a zombie in a preview, whereas when Leeme was in that scene as I was playing, that character totally wasn't with Leeme. And since the future depends so much on the past decisions you made, you can't go back or ret-con- the game saves itself so often in the middle that you really just have to move forward. So while I haven't replayed it yet, I know that every time I do, it'll be different. 

I'll admit, there were a few rather tired tropes- particularly the cannibalistic country bumpkins. I knew that was going to happen  the moment I met the two guys that ended up being the ones running the farm. That's the same chapter I just referenced that needed to end- it was still pretty good, and actually, I think the fact that I killed a man in front of Clementine really helped with the story later. When she walked in, I immediately became Leeme again, so there's that, too.

But chapters. The main game is divided into chapters, five in total, and they  range from about 1.5 hours for the shortest (the last one) to about 2.5 for the longest (not including times where you die and need to retry something). The length of each chapter gives you the time to get to know and care for the people around you (or think they're annoying assholes).

So then what about 400 Days? Well, it's five vignettes, each about 15-20 minutes, and you play as someone else in each one. The nature of them being so short means you aren't really given much  of a chance to get to know the characters all that well, but the designers  were still able to weave in the decision-making and how that effects what goes on in the future. And at the end, they've all met up and someone (that you also get to play as) shows up and tries to convince all five of the people you played as to join  her in her safe colony- this makes up I guess a sixth and final vignette, and a really clever way to finish it up and make those past decisions matter.

That moment was the best in the min-game. Because how you played as the other people entirely influenced how they reacted to you THEN, as you played as this new person trying to negotiate with them. So inadvertently, because I had played a few characters in certain ways, because of the choices I had made while in charge of them, I set them up for being distrusting of the person you play as in this vignette, so those characters didn't go. Because even though everybody is there, you only control that one woman- the computer/game controls the other people. And in the end, the number of people  that join her/you is entirely dependent on how you played each vignette earlier.

And this leads me to a nifty feature, at the end of every chapter, including 400 Days, a screen shows up telling you how your answers compare to those of other players on whatever network you're playing from with respect to a few pivotal moments/decisions. None of them are ever combat decisions, they're always stuff like, "You and 60% of other players chose to lie  to Kenny." Or, "You and 15% of other players let Clementine kill Soandso." So at the end of 400 Days, they have every potential breakdown of who would go with you and the percentage of players that achieved each one. I didn't get everybody to come, but I felt kind of good about myself because I did get more than a lot of other players. And that's a unique way of presenting your progress. It really puts perspective on how you're playing the game, and while sometimes  it makes a body feel good ("Fuck yeah, I was moral!"), it can also make you feel like shit ("G'damnit, I really messed that one up.") Not just because it reminds you of what you did, but it compares those choices (or lack thereof) to how the hundreds or thousands or whatever of other players reacted in those same situations.

My friend included Lee's death in her list of Top 5 Most Heartbreaking  Deaths on her own blog, and her description hits it dead (hah!) on. As she says, during  the end of the last chapter, you find Clementine's parents, only to discover that they're zombies. And  it's all the more devastating because you already know you're becoming a zombie.

I was an  utter mess during that last chapter because of when Leeme was bit. You're desperate to get Clementine to safety because you know sooner  or later, you'll turn, and the last thing Leeme wants is for her to even see Leeme as a zombie, let alone get bitten by Leeme. It just feels so devastatingly unfair that after everything you did make it through and protect her from not just bodily harm, you know once you've reached a certain point in your progression of becoming a zombie, Leeme's going to have to find a way to get Clementine to separate from Leeme and go out on her own, whether it's by having  her kill Leeme or leaving Leeme behind.

So it's painfully ironic- that first "who gets to live moment" and my realization that someone would die... I guess that even in my "realistic" perspective of the game, I never figured it would be Leeme to die. Not that other people don't, too, but Leeme. So emotionally riveting. 

The immersion I felt during this game is like none I've ever experienced- not in reading, not in watching a movie, and not in playing any other game. There isn't even a release date yet for the second season (although supposedly Telltale is shooting for a 2013 release), but I'll be preordering it as soon as I can. I'm just hoping it comes out on PS3 and  not PS4, because I'm not about to spend $500 when I just spent $400 on a machine that won't even be a year old by the time the PS4 comes out.

Here's hopin'.

I give The Walking Dead  and 400 Days a 10/10, hands down, no questions asked. 

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