We don't make choices. Not really. We think we did, in hindsight. But in truth, when the moment calls for action, we act. We rationalize our deeds later. That's what the hero of The Walking Dead explains to another character, during a lull between zombie attacks, and it also serves as the game's thesis statement. Halfway between a traditional point-and-click adventure game and a Heavy Rain-style interactive fiction, the central aim of The Walking Dead is to put players in impossible situations with no good outcome. It is not a game about mastering play mechanics, but about testing your moral bearings — even in situations where there's no passing grade.
Based on the well-loved comic, which also inspired a terrible TV show, The Walking Dead takes place during a zombie outbreak in the Atlanta area. I know, I know — zombies again. We were just complaining about that a few weeks ago. The great thing about The Walking Dead, though, is that it's not about the shambling flesh eaters as much as the warm-blooded survivors who, in an extreme situation, demonstrate the full range of human potential, from petty backstabbing to genuine altruism. The player's avatar, a convicted felon named Lee Everett, is the vessel through which the player's own choices are introduced to the story.
By now, we're used to playing games where dialogue choices can make our characters seem like renegades or paragons; here, Lee's choices are much more basic. More than once, he must help one character or another, in moments with gutwrenching implications. Do you rescue the hardy fellow who will probably be able to pay you back when you're in trouble? Or do you save the helpless child just because he needs you more? These aren't easy decisions, all the more because they must be made in an instant.
Credit must go to the game's writers, Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, who manage several feats that other scribes should take to heart. Their prose is economical, never using two words when one will do. Their cast are given strong personalities with a minimum of banter, and although the comic-inspired graphics are hardly advanced, the characters are able to communicate volumes with the raise of an eyebrow. And though the developer, Telltale Games, is known for its revival of classic adventures series like Monkey Island and Sam and Max, The Walking Dead keeps its puzzles lower to the ground than do those games. Solutions are logical and take some thinking, but don't require intuitive leaps that some players aren't prepared to make.
The Walking Dead is being released episodically, with a total of five chapters due out over the course of the summer. As of this writing, however, the release date for episode 2 was still up in the air. It's a shame. At about just about two and a half hours, the first episode is an appetizing morsel of interactive storytelling, and it's hard not to want to sink your teeth immediately into the next episode. On the other hand, considering the life-and-death choices the first episode springs upon an unwary player, maybe it's better to have a little more time to prepare.
LOOKING FOR THE PHARMACY KEYS? TRAVEL TO THE MOTEL FIRST.