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The Final Bite of The Walking Dead Season One
by Josh Bycer on 01/31/13 02:43:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


[Today's spoiler filled post examines the highs and lows of The Walking Dead: season one. Reprinted from my site: Game-Wisdom.]

For the week of Thanksgiving, Telltale Games released the final episode of their five part season of The Walking Dead. With that, Telltale's experiment with choose-your-own-adventure storytelling came to an end.

The episodes evolved over the course of the series  and after seeing the final credit roll, I can say that The Walking Dead is both Telltale's best game yet... and their worst.

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This post will be spoiling aspects of all five parts of The Walking Dead and is meant for people who have already finished it.

A Story of Love and Loss:

Let's start with what worked in The Walking Dead: the story. The plight of Lee and Clementine was one of the most well written game stories I've seen in a long time. And I wasn't surprised when voice actors Dave Fennoy and Melissa Hutchinson received end of the year award nominations for their stellar performance as Lee and Clementine respectively.

The writing did a great job of fleshing out the characters and keeping it consistent. Kenny who served as both Lee's friend and in some cases antagonist always put survival and family above anything else. It was hard to find a place where a character would react completely different to their personality due to the designer's whim.

Episode 4 is the most interesting in terms of choices for the player as they not only have the usual screen showing what they did, but also who would join Lee for the final chapter. The effect between episode 4 and 5 is the biggest in the whole series and the one most players will likely remember the most.

I know some people would argue the death of a character in Episode 3 based on who you saved in Episode 1 was also memorable. But my problem with this was that it felt completely forced and seemed more like a way to narrow the ancillary characters down for the rest of the series. While introducing a few more that would stay with you and replace those that were gone.

The writing as a whole definitely improved as the series went on. Once again the focus on Lee and Clementine helped pull the player in, and took a story about surviving the zombie outbreak and turning it into a story about redemption and parenthood.

the walking dead
The player's relationship between Lee and Clem grew just as much as theirs did. Making the final episode that much sadder

The final scene and choice of Episode 5 is arguably one of the most emotional scenes we had in a video game in a long time.

And while you could argue that we were going to end up there eventually, the path the player took with these characters made this scene all the more emotional.

Now while the story of The Walking Dead got progressively better, things can't be said about the gameplay.

Shambling Along:

The other half of an adventure game is the gameplay and this is where The Walking Dead quite frankly fell on its face. As we moved through each episode, the quality and frequency of the puzzles degraded. The problem with talking about puzzle design in adventure titles is that there is a fine line between making a puzzle that challenges the player, and one that requires MacGyver logic to solve.

For the first half of the season, the designers did a good job of keeping the puzzles interesting, while making them logical. You had to scavenge for items to make patch work fixes for instance. Two of my favorite puzzle segments were in Episode 1 and Episode 3.

The first one was when you had to use stealth and a variety of items to take out walkers in a motel without alerting them to your presence. The other was when you had to figure out how to start the train.

However, these moments of puzzle solving degraded as we moved into the second half of the season. Episodes 4 and 5 had very few puzzles and were more focused on quick time event sequences and exposition. The whole bad-ass ninja lady segment felt out of place to me as she seemed more at home in Assassin's Creed then The Walking Dead. Making Episode 4 seen more action packed then it really was.

For having such an emotional payoff, Episode 5 was a huge let down gameplay wise. As there was just one puzzle for you to solve (the final scene) and the rest was just exposition and QTEs.

After the game made such a big deal about your choices and who would come with you, I was expecting them to have a bigger impact on how the episode played out.

the walking dead
Zombie killing, which was a part of puzzle solving in the earlier chapters, just became resigned to QTE segments at the end.

But once again there was no payoff other then exposition about the other players. Granted people who enjoyed the story felt rewarded, but for people invested in their choices, it was a different story.

The thing about The Walking Dead was that many of us going into it thought that the game was a "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style title with how your choices had an effect. However, your choices while personal, did not affect the world around you.

People who were destined to die were going to die regardless of how you played. Granted the game at the end did hint at different fates for several characters, but I played the game picking all the choices around saving people and they still ended up dying, so I don't know if you could monumentally change things.

With the notion of having the game grow by your choices, I was expecting the game to take different turns. But the main events of the game would happen the same way every time regardless of your interactions. In Episode 2 there is a part where you have to decide how to split the remaining rations of food up, a great moment of the game, sullied by the fact that it doesn't change anything.

This is where the debate over The Walking Dead divides gamers: What's more important, having a story personalized by the player, or the gameplay?

In the end, regardless of where your opinion lies, Telltale definitely knocked it out of the park with The Walking Dead. Not only succeeding with a licensed IP, but also continuing to prove the merits of episodic games. At this point, it will be interesting to see where Telltale will take the series next: Either working on the gameplay or further enhancing the player's choices on the story. Regardless, I and many other gamers can't wait.

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Jonathan Jennings
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it's actually a really good point, I didn't read anything on other peoples play throughs until i beat the game but I did come to the conclusion that while the game experience may change slightly based on your decisions. really the story itself was relatively the same. it also brings up an interesting point if not having so much freedom in Lee's fate matters when a game commands so much of your attention . very interesting game and i loved every last minute of it . I definitely would put the walking dead right next to heavy rain in terms of games that totally gripped in a way comparable to a good book.

definitely great questions to ask here Josh

Andrew Thatcher
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>What's more important, having a story personalized by the player, or the gameplay?
Is this really the right question, though? These two things don't seem mutually exclusive to me; pretty sure you could have both at the same time, haha.

In any case, I'm honestly kind of puzzled by the camp that criticizes TWD for its lack of engaging gameplay mechanics, because I don't feel that that was the point of the game. The point of the game was its story, and the game simply the medium used to tell it. I actually wasn't a huge fan of the motel-sneaking or train-starting sequences; I thought they were needlessly long and not really useful to the core of TWD (the story). I was really enjoying the story and watching everything unfold, and these sequences felt like little more than something to halt the flow of the story temporarily, which felt kind of frustrating. I ended up just wanting these portions to be done with already so that I could get back to the story!

That being said, though, I don't think that there should NEVER be great story + actual gameplay portions, but it would need to be done really, really carefully in order to not frustrate those who are playing for the story.

Matt Robb
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I keep seeing references to "Choose Your Own Adventure" in the article and yet there are complaints about how the ending and major plot points were inevitable and largely unaffected by your choices. From what I remember about the CYOA-style books, that's exactly how they worked (I still have my Lone Wolf books from back in the day). You had some control over how you got to the end, but the end was the same. You either reached the last page for the win scenario or you hit one of the loss/death pages scattered around the book.

Luis Guimaraes
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I read some short CyoA tales where you change everything with your choices alon the way, especially the ending, and most important, the plot twists. Stuff like whether aliens are real, or eveything is a conspiracy to hide something worse, or the protagonist is crazy and locked in an asylum, or the whole thing was an acid trip, all from the same story. Some you found what you were looking for, others intentionally did the exactly opposite what you were expecting.

IMO the best way to use CyoA elements in a game is by reading the player's style and layering doors to be open depending on thine will to look under the carpet or deviate from the linear path.

Thom Q
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I'd like to add that at the beginning of each episode, the player reads "The story is tailored by how you play". I for one never expected anything more, which Choose your own Adventure implies. Instead I saw it for what I think it is: A story-heavy adventure game, which means the balance relies more on story, then on the adventure game elements. I personally did not see any advertisement for the game, but I doubt that Tell Tale would have marketed the Walking Dead as a CYoA. If they did though, I stand corrected in advance :)

I do agree that there was a distinct difference between the puzzles at the beginning of the season, and at the end of the season. I mainly think this was due to Tell Tale polishing the gameplay, a sort of mini-evolution. I personally loved the game btw.

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Diana Hsu
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I thought the same thing you did after finishing the last episode. But after thinking about it for a bit longer, the more I appreciated the Walking Dead game experience despite the fact that you ultimately had no influence on the fate of the characters.

Even though I'm sure that development constraints played a role in the player's limited influence, I think what ultimately matters is how you choose to spend your time with those you encounter and how you choose to react to situations. The story isn't about changing Lee's fate; it's about crafting who Lee is as a character, and in the process learning things about yourself.

Josh Bycer
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I think this is a good point and goes back to the old question: journey vs. destination. Or relating to video games: Is the experience of the game more important then just finishing it?

As you said, Lee's story begins and ends the same way no matter who plays the game, but we all have a different interpretations of Lee based on our choices. For me, there was only one time in the game that I had Lee act out of anger and that was when he finished off the farm hand with the pitchfork.

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Roberto Cases
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I'm not sure you can so easily discount the exposition and QTEs from the rest of the gameplay. You can't tell me that encounter of with the stranger at the end of Episode 5, which consisted mostly of dialog/conversation wasn't The Walking Dead's equivalent of a final boss battle. It made you reflect on a lot of choices you made up to that point.

The choices are the game to me. Yeah, you don't get much choice in the ultimate fate of the characters, but I'd argue that only served to strengthen the story. The game gave you just enough control to feel helpless when other characters would make rash decisions. The group dynamic felt real because Lee's fate was at the mercy of those other people as much as it was at the mercy of the zombies.

The real divide among players, in my opinion, is whether they were immersed enough to enjoy the experience or they simply saw a collection of QTEs, puzzle solving, shooting mini-games, etc.

I think the mistake here is focusing on the gameplay rather than asking how it added to the story. For instance, when I look back on the game I wouldn't normally refer to the train sequence as the puzzle segment. I think of it as more of breather in the story for players and characters alike considering the events before and after you get the train running. To further prove my point, ask yourself why the train puzzle was so easy. If this game is about the traditional gameplay of adventure games, then why isn't it at least slightly harder than the stealth puzzle back at the motel in Episode 1? And why isn't the final puzzle at the end of Episode 5 the hardest yet? That wouldn't make sense if the developers weren't putting the story first.