Aiming for the Head in The Walking Dead
If you’ve ever spoken to an opinionated man in a vintage Night of the Living Dead shirt at a college party, you’ve likely had the concept that zombie movies aren’t really about the zombies firmly drilled into your head. For one creator, the undead represent the shambling masses of commercialism. For another, it’s to embody human nature in a form that’s entertaining to hit in the head.
Whatever the symbolic aspirations may be, one thing remains true; by themselves, zombies are the antithesis of interesting. As shambling creatures, they can’t lie, cheat, or verbally threaten like humans can and we do it masterfully. That’s why zombie films spend their time showing us the breakdown of society rather than what’s fun about hitting a skull with a hammer. It’s the fear, mistrust, and rage boiling to the surface amongst the living that holds the spotlight. True to form, Telltale’s Walking Dead: A New Day isn’t about enduring the undead: the warfare happens in the words.
Like it’s predecessors in the Telltale catalog, Walking Dead is a playground birthed from a pop culture phenomenon. In this case, it’s the award-winning comic book franchise and adapted television series. But, unlike the other past Telltale point and click adventures, this tale avoids the sin of duplication. You won’t play as the iconic Rick Grimes, argue with Lori’s poor childcare techniques, or even see a crossbow. A New Day isn’t a recreation; it’s a parallel story that harkens to its source without mimicking it.
Rather than the commonplace beginning of an unconscious hero waking up to a world already fallen apart, A New Day’s protagonist Lee Everett witnesses it all happen first-hand. Through quicktime events, you’ll encounter your first zombie during a frantic effort to grab hold of a shotgun, load a shell, click it again after you’ve fumbled it, and finally execute the creature with the click of a button. All this while a half-mutilated corpse drags himself towards you.
As a point-and-click adventure, you won’t have complete control over every scene. I played the PC version, which leaves some basic movement within set scenes via the arrow keys. You can’t go off on your own or and action within each section is selective, as the game looks for your input only during crescendo moments or when there is puzzle solving to be done.
The game retains most of the control over the visuals, giving you a guided experience. The invisible cameraman is a fine cinematographer, even if the star of the scene sometimes forgets his place and wanders away from his mark without knowing it. The camera angles have a Resident Evil-like forced perspective that keeps you on edge, frequently not knowing what is lurking past the screen’s edges until you move to it. During conversations, the view is close and personal, as characters go wide-eyed, grimace, or blink like war veterans.
To interact with other survivors, you’re given a brief, time-sensitive list of responses. These options are frequently nuanced and an improvement from the usual up-is-good, down-is-bad karma mechanic. Without careful consideration, a stranger’s interpretation of you will come down to a matter of simple wording. Address them too aggressively and they’ll get defensive. Opt to say nothing and suspicion will creep across their face. The reactions are believable, but it’s often hard to tell if you’ve made an impact with persistent game-wide consequences or simply influenced what they will say next.
Even if the change upon the game wold is minimal, it’s hard not to enjoy the emotional impact of your input. During one scene, as you help a myriad of mismatched survivors build a slipshod fence, a young man asks you if you were forced to kill before you were rescued. He recounts seeing a child die and, visibly unsettled, Lee looks to his feet. Your options for response range from confidently boasting about your own run-ins with the undead, deflecting the inquiry with broad-stroked sentimentality, or remaining mournfully silent. Your choice won’t decide the fate of an alien race, but its impact on the pregnant silence that follows feels somehow more meaningful.
This is where The Walking Dead stands out from the mold. Instead of pummeling corpses for points, you navigate mistrust with words and secrets. Your ambiguous origins in the back of a police cruiser will haunt your responses, even though you don’t know to what degree you should feel guilty. The incessant gory festivals of murder common in the zombie genre are replaced with genuinely tough choices about survival and basic human communication. Like a rabid fan, the game demonstrates that this genre is not about zombies: it’s about people.
Of course, The Walking Dead is not devoid of brain-splitting violence. Negotiating the dangerous world of covnersation is important, but there’s no validity to the bottled emotional powderkeg if the zombies aren’t appropriately terrifying. There are plenty of tense moments of intensity with the undead. During one intense sequence, you must peer around corners without being spotted and determine a means of quietly killing a whole parking lot full of zombies. Even though your partner holds a pistol, you must find a much more complicated, silent path.
When Walking Dead asks for your input, it does so with great depth, but it doesn’t come to you often enough. Too often, the game’s various settings feel like wooden set dressings with a severe limitation of clickable items. Even during your time spent in a drug store, packed with rows of shelves brimming with items, you can click on only four of them. All the posessions you do gather seem relevant only because the game allowed them into the exclusive club that is your inventory.
In once scene, I faced the consequences of a failing to hide the secrets of my character’s ambiguous crimes. Plied for a response, I toiled for a contextually appropriate answer. Later, as I picked up TV remote to solve a puzzle involving the only TV in sight, I could scarcely hold back an eye roll. When the Walking Dead asks for words, it wants you to answer with everything you have. The rest of the time, it can’t seem to decide what you are: clever human, or braindead corpse.