It's safe to say Telltale's The Walking Dead was 2012's most unexpected hit. Zombie games are in over-abundant supply, it's a licensed property, and the studio's known for having a loyal niche of oldschool story game fans, not for turning its episodic series into Game of the Year contenders.
Its surprise universal acclaim has to be a closely-watched game changer. For all the increased attention to and desire for storytelling and choice in games, successful, player-empowering narratives frequently feel like one of the industry's biggest unsolved problems. There are still legions of devs who believe that choice and story aren't worth much at all.
Yet to say The Walking Dead has been successful because the story is so strong would be something of a miscategorization. It's not that it's particularly strongly-plotted, nor that the characters are terribly rich. On both those counts, it doesn't quite get past genre tropes: cast of desperate individuals with muddy pasts thrown together for survival made more challenging by the personality conflicts that emerge alongside thin resources and environmental threats.
Most of the games we have about zombies are born from even simpler stuff, where "zombies" is just the trapping of least-possible resistance for an action game: You have all the horror and aggression of a humanoid assailant, but none of the ethical minefield. You don't have to come up with a reason for the conflict; it's universally understood that a zombie is a mindless devouring machine. They come with a built-in fear factor -- the innate, biological human revulsion toward death and entropy.
That imminently understandable, B-movie cult vocabulary accounts for only a sliver of why zombie fiction remains popular. The true appeal of the genre is oft-discussed by aficionados, but important to remember when we talk about The Walking Dead: The main reason people love, say, zombie movies is because we get to think about what we would do in those situations when desperation runs high and there's no time to think -- when the dead are the danger, life seems more precious.
How important is sentimentality? Should you fight to save a child, even though that child will slow your group down, contribute little? Can you deal with a volatile, selfish person if they have the muscle you need? What if it means they eat and you don't? If someone seems sick, will you try to help them, even if you can't be sure their sickness won't render them one of the undead at any minute?
In circumstances where every resource -- whether food, weapons or less tangible survival skills -- matters, everyone loves to wonder how they would handle situations, loves to yell at the screen. A popular "game" of sorts on social networks involves the casual use of display algorithms to determine which of your friends would play which role with you in a zombie apocalypse. Look to your left, the first item you see would be your weapon. How would you do? What would you do? What matters most to you when the world goes to hell?
We've never had a zombie game that really focuses on that essence before. We're used to the physical conflict, gunning down hordes of the shambling undead. The Walking Dead's action and combat sequences are sparing, occasional and timing-dependent scares that serve to enforce the idea that immediate danger could arise at any minute.
The gameplay is primarily about leveraging that fear to invest decisions with immediacy: choosing your allies, your strategy and the allocation of your resources through conversation options.
It asks you to decide how much of your past your companions need to know, who you save when you don't have much time to think, to decide what kind of person your protagonist is: self-sacrificing team player, mysterious outlier, manipulative leader.
Through simple button pushes, the game allows you to select how you respond verbally and otherwise in a variety of situations -- which often include no response at all as an option -- and the story and characters respond visibly to the choices you make.
They feel meaningful and permanent, and allow the player to feel a unique sense of control over the narrative. Responses are time-pressured, too, giving you only so much time to react. What sounds on the surface like something of an unappealing constraint -- why not let the player have time to think things over? -- is actually a strong design choice here, underlying the sense of pressure and desperation that's essential to a strong zombie apocalypse story.
When story and choice are tied to gameplay such that the player's interest is primarily on customizing the hero or making him or her stronger, there's always a little bit of dissonance, but this game, reducing itself to key situational choices, is a way of enforcing that every decision feels meaningful, even exciting.
Its scenes are set in specific areas where exploration is either limited or not immediately necessary, so there's no sense of chafing at the wise use of constraint. There are few sentimentally-heavy scenes designed to tell the player what they should think is important; there's only enough information and feedback provided to force the player to set his or her own priorities and act accordingly.
Telltale's approach aims right at the core of why people like the genre in which it's working, and then distills the player's experience down to only that core of complex choices and reactions. It takes zombie fiction from mere "setting" to core element -- what if other rulebound genres took that approach to storytelling? It's exciting to imagine what designers will learn from The Walking Dead's narrative design.