Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers about Season One of Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead: Season One was a revelation. The developing relationship between the player-character Lee, a man badly in need of redemption, and his young charge Clementine amidst the zombie apocalypse provides a rock-solid emotional dramatic core to the narrative. Even the smallest choices about how Lee speaks and acts seem important, knowing that Clem is watching—and learning—from what you choose to do. The vast majority of player agency is dedicated to these forking paths of
dialogue and action. Shorn of most traditional gameplay, Season One is as close to the ideal of interactive cinema as gaming has come. The experience of guiding Lee (and Clementine) through their awful world is consistently appealing…if not always fun.
Even from the beginning, Season One makes your choices painful and meaningful. A look at the statistics on major choices in S1: E1 (and all other episodes) reveal that it’s one of the two most divided episodes in the whole eleven-episode series (counting the DLC 400 Days as one episode), along with S1: E3. Three of the five major choices have the majority decision at less than 55% (ten-point spread or less) and a fourth is 64-36. The least divisive choice (77-23), at the end of Episode One, forces you to choose who to save and who to abandon as your group is overrun by walkers. It’s not the best choice Telltale offers, as one of the characters is pretty clearly more interesting and valuable than the other, but it sends the player a strong message that even fairly “easy” choices have terrible consequences…and makes the player think about how unsettling it can be to find it easy to decide who to save and who to let die.
The interior episodes of Season One provide some variation on the initial array of choices, which is good, but what keeps the Season strong is the driving need to find some way to make Clementine safe—by protecting her, seeking her parents, searching for a safe place or community, and by teaching her how to take care of herself both physically and psychologically. This need, and the relationship that develops between Lee and Clementine as their journey progresses, keep the story suspenseful, unpredictable, and sometimes deeply moving. The strong cliffhanger at the end of Episode Four—Clem runs off to find her parents at the urging of a mysterious voice on her walkie-talkie and, while rushing out to look for her, Lee gets bitten—set the stakes for an emotionally devastating finale in Episode Five.
In the hopes of prolonging the time before you turn, do you cut off your arm or don’t you? This followed through on the surprisingly effective gruesomeness of the game’s comic-book-like animation style (and echoed the long, terrible process of cutting off another character’s leg that you can choose to undertake earlier in the season). And finally, with Lee reunited with Clem (who now knows her parents are dead) but close to turning, how do you say goodbye and prepare her for facing the world alone? The ending of Season One showed the power of choices that affect plotlines (do you have Clem kill you or let you turn to spare her having to pull the trigger?), but also of choices that don’t, like the final few dialogue exchanges, which simply affect the tone of the relationship that you’ve spent hours investing in. I cried during the final scene of the game, and nobody I talked to who played it was less than misty-eyed.
After completing the game, I discovered online that many of my choices were less impactful than the game had convinced me they were in the moment. I was less surprised at this after the weird, awkward bottleneck of the climactic Episode Five confrontation with the Stranger, but partly because I didn’t notice as much at the time, and partly because the Lee-Clementine throughline was so strong, this didn’t severely weaken the game for me. When I played the 400 Days DLC, I found it a good primer to whet my appetite for the upcoming Season Two. The stories were short and so I didn’t care about the characters as much, but each did a good job presenting the player with at least one terrible, thought-provoking choice. The DLC followed through on Season One’s excellent track record of refusing the player easy answers or choices without serious drawbacks.
400 Days was good, but Season One was special. It convinced me that episodic narrative gaming could be as deeply affecting as a good novel, a movie, or other game structures including interesting narratives. It made me think about the effect of my choices, not only on my character, but on a kid watching and learning from my example—and affected by the risks I took and the things I did, or didn’t do, to ensure our survival. The relationship between Lee and Clementine—or rather the array of potential relationships that can emerge from player choices— is one of the best in gaming, and that, in combination with the potential of the Telltale game design approach, made Season One of The Walking Dead great.
For my thoughts on why most of Season Two of Telltale’s The Walking Dead (as well as their other series, The Wolf Among Us) fell flat and why Episode Five of Season Two managed to save the series explained further in this review, follow these links to my three follow-up posts!