Friday, January 31, 2014

Outdated Review

Even though I call these things "Outdated" reviews, this is one is a little more relevant than most will be. The 17th of December saw the release of the first episode of the second season of The Walking Dead. More recently, the fourth season of The Walking Dead saw its midseason premiere. What's that, you're confused? In case you haven't kept abreast of Telltale Games' doings for the last several years, computer games can do that whole "season" and "episode" thing now. Let me try and explain how the TV show and the game are (and aren't) connected. Both are based on a series of graphic novels called (surprise) The Walking Dead. While the AMC show is a rough retelling of the Graphic Novel's overall story, with many liberties taken, the Telltale game follows a different story entirely, set in the same world but with a different cast of characters. BUT there is also another Walking Dead game, Survival Instinct, which is a spin-off from the show. But that's not a very good game anyway. So don't worry too much about it.

The parts that'd be considered more in line with the Adventure Game norm are simplified a great deal.

Telltale Games have quickly built up quite a repertoire of licensed adventure games: they've been churning them out for all sorts of properties (Back to The Future, Wallace and Gromit, Jurassic Park being some examples). The reception to these games has varied wildly from title to title, and my personal reception has been coloured somewhat in my crushing inability to finish most games is this genre, episodic or not. Having a quick sift through my Steam library, I own ten adventure games. I've finished two. Unless someone's asking you how many of the digits on your hands are thumbs, the phrase "two out of ten" does not carry positive connotations. It may say something for my attention span, or the expendability of games bought in Steam sales, but I also think it says a lot about how the obtuseness that all too often comes as a part of the adventure game package. The logic of adventure game progression often becomes less about thinking "what is a viable solution to this problem" and more about thinking "what solution did the developers choose for this problem". Sometimes there doesn't even seem like there's a problem to solve; you just need to go back and inspect that rubber duck before you can get past the gatekeeper. Why? Because, wise guy, that's just the way things go around here. This is adventure game country.

Ultimately, the appeal of adventure games, for me, has never been the part where it's a game. Attempting to combine item X with item Y and trying in vain to get ye flask doesn't do it for me. Maybe that's why Puzzle Agent is my only other completed adventure game on Steam. Because the game part was puzzles, and puzzles can be fun. For The Walking Dead, though, the part where it's a game is streamlined to the point where it's almost a non-issue as far as progression goes. Don't misunderstand me: if this was some other form of media, it would be unable to execute some of its defining aspects. For one thing, computer games simply have a much higher capability of immersing you into the experience. To demonstrate exactly why, I will recall a snippet of my first time going through Resident Evil 4 (the first horror game I completed and still one my my overall favourites). I still distinctly remember going into one room, and being shown a screen that showed footage of a monster headed down some corridor. The music made it clear enough that it was headed my way. The problem that I had is that I didn't know where it was going to come from, and if I was wrong there was always that possibility that I'd face horrifying spiky-monster-death from behind. Holding the controller gave me that responsibility. I wasn't watching someone else making the decision for me. The choice was purely mine. You know what I chose? I chose to drop that controller and cower in the corner of my room until Leon S. Kennedy got the Iron Maiden treatment, and try again knowing exactly from where that thing was going to come. The outcome of that encounter depended entirely on my focus and skill, and I straight up couldn't handle it. Gah, even recalling all that has made me tense up. Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts.

Even when the guns are out, most of the action here is in the words you choose. That's more pressurising than it sounds: most of the choices are timed.

In that example, I was at the proverbial driver's wheel, but the proverbial path was not a very complex one. There were two outcomes; manoeuvre through successfully, or veer violently off the proverbial cliff. While as a device to provide tension, that can be effective (and certainly was to my young and excitable mind), much of the experience is detracted by the knowledge that if you fall off the cliff, you can just try again with no lasting consequences. Hence why I let go of the proverbial wheel to see how it played out. Two words have become indicative of that strange time-travelling guarantor of eventual victory: Game Over. Almost all games have it in some form, and most would suffer for the lack of it. Imagine playing Super Mario World and having to throw away the game after your first koopa shell related mishap. That's not my idea of fun. As a storytelling device, though, it's a bit of hurdle. Not all games are trying to focus exclusively on telling a story, so that concession can be easily made. Not all games are trying to present an idea of living with your actions, and in fact, very few are. There are, however, many games out there designed to try and get a good scare out of you, and there's a strange relief in seeing that "Game Over" screen that deflate what a lot of those games are going for.

One of the first things you learn is that silence is a totally valid option.

Rather than driving that simple, single path, In The Walking Dead you'll find yourself at several junctions in the form of moral choices. I'm not talking light side/dark side choices; I mean genuinely heart-wrenching dilemmas. As you progress through the episodes, the question of "what unbelievably crappy decision will I wind to having to make next?" becomes a consistent theme. There are some decisions that may seem more palatable on the surface, but carry risks alongside them. Others may effect your relationship with fellow survivors, relationships that just as often culminate in biting you in the butt as they do work out to your benefit. There's a heavy lean on characters here, and a large part of how your experience actually differs based on your choices will be in how other characters treat you. I'd love to spend more time going over some characters individually, but the fact is I'd be describing the side of them that I got to see, and that process of discovery is something I'd consider to be worth pursuing alone. You may wind up hating a character I grew to enjoy. You may even find out more about someone who ended up dying early on for me. Although the story has its way of converging the differing roads into a very similar overall narrative, it makes you feel like your decisions matter. I resolved very early on to stick with whatever choice I made, no matter what happened, and that's the way I'd suggest anyone do it. It gives the moments of pressure gravity and makes the moments of regret meaningful. You can really buy into the world that's being built, because you really do have to trudge on past the tragedies you have a hand in.

Here's a spiler, though: You will hate Larry.

Now, while The Walking Dead averts "Game Over" states for the most part, my biggest grievance is the when they choose not to avert it at all: For all the does to make you feel like there's no "wrong" outcomes that you must then retry, the fact is that there are such outcomes. On occasion you'll find yourself in a life-or-death situation, and one slip-up will lead to your death. Game over, try that part again. It's not even always clear what the game expects you to do control-wise, and failing leads to a complete break in both the atmosphere and the narrative flow. Although it's going for a very different style, a comparison with the Uncharted series is not amiss here, because of the focus those games have on the cinematic experience. Here's an example of a typical Uncharted thought process: Wow, this is an incredible rooftop chase, whoops I jumped off this roof, here comes the ground, oh yeah it's a game. In fact, that phrase captures it in a nutshell, so I will now dub this Oh-Yeah-It's-A-Game Syndrome. The reason this irks me so sorely on this game in particular is because they had a solution. A solution that works perfectly for the kind of game this is. It'd be very tricky to avoid Oh-Yeah-It's-A-Game Syndrome in a game like Uncharted without taking away the element of player control that makes it a game in the first place. The writers of The Walking Dead successfully utilised the storytelling aspects that only games can bring to the table while avoiding this accompanying cognitive pitfall, EXCEPT for when they deliberately step into it. It's kind of baffling.

You know, when you don't screw up the action scenes, they're pretty alright.

But, well, the fact that those rare occasions still stand out in my mind really speaks for how immersive the rest of the game is. The Walking Dead does an incredible job of sucking you into its somber, post-apocalyptic world. Its visual style, clearly evoking the aesthetic of the visual novels it spawned from, strikes a nice balance between simplicity and realism. The whole thing just screams "moody", except not in the teenage-angsty sense of the word. Even in the quieter moments of simple exploration, The Walking Dead manages to convey a sense of melancholy that really stands out in comparison to most games with a similar setting. It's an unabashedly straight-faced take on an idea that many have grown tired of, but it stands out for the precise reason that it doesn't put any wacky twists on the formula. There are zombies, and yeah, it turns out that's a really big problem for society. As well as the obviously lethal possibility of your collarbone becoming the chewtoy of an animated cadaver, you have those pesky living humans to deal with, and with the Zombie catalyst thrown into the mix, humans can turn out to be an even bigger threat to each other's survival. These aren't new ideas by any means, but the execution is outstanding. This is no popcorn b-movie in playable form, and the fact that several computer games have risen above that level of writing makes me excited for what the future holds.

In conclusion, if you're not a fan of things like "emotions" and "feelings", you should probably not play The Walking Dead. Personally, I'm a big fan of those things, and I got them in spades on that Hallowe'en. I love it when a story manages to defy my expectations in the way The Walking Dead did. That's not to say I wasn't expecting a pretty harrowing experience; word of mouth had saw to it that I knew roughly what I was getting into, and I was still blown away. And I know it's not just me that counts it in a story's favour if it can make me cry. My favourite TV series made me cry twice. It successfully ripped my heart out on more than one occasion, and yet that counted as a massive plus on its figurative scorecard. Does that make me a masochist? I'm pretty certain that it doesn't. A high level of investment in both characters and atmosphere is a prerequisite to such moments, and The Walking Dead hit the nail on the head in that department. It earns its moments, which seems to be a harder thing to accomplish when the overall plot is such a depressing one. I remember watching an old movie called "The Call Of the Wild" that topped off its miserable tale had such an abrupt and brutal ending that it made the preceding hour-and-a-half seem like a pointless mess of unsatisfying idiocy. I was sad, but that sadness wasn't fulfilling at all. In fact, it quickly turned into annoyance, and I wound up chucking the DVD in the bin. It's a fine line, and The Walking Dead seems aware, yet completely unafraid of it. The writers went our of their way to yank at the player's heartstrings, but the story is so lovingly crafted that it's hard to accuse them of emotional manipulation. Not impossible, but hard.

aaaaaaawwwfsdkfdsaghfdshagqhr-oh, sorry about that. I would be amiss in not mentioning that Clementine is the most well written child character I've seen in a game, bar none.

I would say that I can't imagine what it was like to play when each episode took two months at a time to be released, but with Season Two I'm getting my turn at the waiting game. There was no way I could wait for all five episodes to come out before seeing what happens next. Still, whenever I want a reminder of how I felt during those beautifully realised quiet moments, I can just stick on the track i've posted here and sigh heavily for a while. Games have come a ways as far as telling a story goes, and The Walking Dead shows that a game can not only survive, but thrive as a pure storytelling device.
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