A lot gets lost in the discussion of video games as entertainment, and whether or not video games are art, etc. I consider the medium to be in its infancy, much like film was in the 1920’s. Video games are still awaiting their “Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind” and “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane.”
When we think about games today we often confuse them as being “competition” to each other. Battlefield competes with Call of Duty, Halo could be said to compete with both of them. Cityville competes with Simcity, or even Sony competes with Microsoft and both compete with Nintendo.
The reality is with the ubiquity of electronic entertainment today, these titles and platforms are competing for people’s time. We have reached a level of saturation that there is simply way more incredibly entertaining content than there actually are hours to consume it, even if one had all the hours in the day to do so. When I decide to do something not specifically designed to earn me money to pay my bills, etc, I have more choices than I could possibly know what to do with. Play scribblenauts on my iPad? Civilization 5 on my PC? X-com on Xbox? Watch a blu-ray on my PS3? Play my bass? Read a book on Kindle? Watch a show on netflix?
This is somewhat of a longwinded way for me to describe my criteria for calling something “Game of the Year.” For me, game of the year simply means that dollar for dollar, minute for minute, I got more pure enjoyment out of something than any other entertainment experience that year. At the end of the year I would say “I would gladly give up all the other experiences I had with other titles this year, for the enjoyment this title gave me.” One might think that definition would lend itself to a bias to multiplayer games since those tend to be ongoing and don’t have a set “start” or “end”. Except I include one extra vector in the equation: Did the experience also have an emotional impact, beyond simple fun?
This year, even though the year is not over, my Game of the Year is hands down The Walking Dead by Telltale games. In fact, it might very well prove to be one of the most important games of the decade. That it achieves such an accolade in my mind is somewhat amazing given that:
Its graphics are simple, stylized, and designed to scale across a variety of devices. This means it’s certainly not the best looking game out there by far in terms of graphics quality.
Its play mechanics are alienating. A combination of industry lightning-rod-for-controversy tropes like Quick Time Events and Point and Click exploration, just trying to describe how to play the game makes a hardcore gamer turn their nose up.
It’s based off of an admittedly popular comic book which has spawned a TV show of uneven quality. Few games based off of another medium have proven to be good, let alone great.
It’s produced by a small studio, without any big name publisher or marquis AAA game designers affiliated with it.
It’s only just now available as a whole, for the past several months chunks of the game have been released sporadically, leaving players easily distracted by the plethora of options out there free to drop it in favor of other things to play especially in the holiday cycle of Black Ops 2, Halo 4, and Assassin’s Creed 3.
The odds against this title even being entertaining were already stacked against it.
And yet again, clearly and without reservation I call it the Game of the Year, and perhaps will have more impact beyond. Why?
It’s a combination of several factors. The first two are quite simple to state but the hardest to get right: The actors and the writing. The Walking Dead game is an adventure story in which your choices impact both the story and the way the non-player characters interact with or treat you. This is not new, many games do this, such as Mass Effect. But by focusing the cast on just a few members, then throwing them into the “Zombie Apocalypse”, small choices have deep weight. The choice to not give a character some food might mean they are not strong enough to escape the zombie horde. In another game you might not care, because the game wants to make sure *you* survive.
But take some stellar writing and *outstanding* emotional voice performances and roll them into a plotline that quickly reveals the game doesn’t really care if you as the player are happy or feel successful or not, and put you in charge of a little girl under all the same survival pressures that you are, and you apparently can achieve a story arc that left me sitting in my chair emotionally devastated as the last scene played out.
I can’t tell you how many times I shouted “NO!” at the screen, not out of frustration but out of denial and disbelief as it is revealed a choice I made several play hours ago had a tragic and horrific impact to the plot. I can’t tell you how many times I paused the game and set my controller down so I could spend a few minutes processing what had just happened.
***WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS***
The game is definitely a Role Playing Game couched in an Adventure Game structure. I chose to make each choice as if I was the one making the choice, as if it were me in the game.
This led me down paths where I found out I might make some choices in certain end of the world scenarios that make me not-a-very-nice person. And when you have to make a choice, the game only gives you 5 or 6 seconds to choose (not choosing anything has it’s own implications). During a heated argument that I thought I was handling well, someone got shot in the head. In a choice whether to rescue someone or let them sacrifice themselves I chose to let them go, almost as much because they had repeatedly put the group at risk through their bumbling actions as much as their death would buy us time.
I made the call to have my arm cut off after I was bitten by a zombie, to try and slow the spread of the zombie infection. When it came down to deciding if I was really the best person to take care of Clementine (your ward the entire game) I very nearly handed her over to a deranged lunatic who talks to his dead wife’s head in a carpet bag, solely because the accumulated guilt of the severity of all my choices to date left me feeling that she would be better off with anyone other than me.
At the end of the game you’ve saved her, but you’re bitten. You’re about to turn right in front of her eyes into a zombie walker and you have to decide whether or not you want to have this eight year old girl go through the trauma of shooting you in the head. I chose to advise her to save the ammunition since I was safely handcuffed to a radiator, but the real reason was I didn’t want to have to force this child I had worked to save all this time to have to kill me, even though in a previous moment she had already taken a human life when it was required for survival.
Before she left, I made the dialog choice to tell her to always remember to keep her hair short, so the zombies couldn’t grab at it. It was a callback to an early episode of the game. I was pretty emotionally involved when I decided to make that choice, because that felt like the right way to say goodbye. Lee, the person you play, is a murderer sentenced to jail at the beginning, and takes up Clementine as his salvation.
It seemed only right since I was bitten and I told her to leave me, and keep her hair short, that I was still trying to do everything I could for her survival, but also to not make her experience more horrible by having to kill me.
To say this game is an emotional rollercoaster is to do disservice to the game, emotions, and rollercoasters all in one.
I’ve never been so invested in my choices as a gamer. I’ve never thought more about how simple and trite the “You’re either Jesus or Hitler” binary morality choices in most games are compared to this one. In this game you can make all the right choices, and everyone suffers horribly. Or you can play it bad boy, and find that those choices end up having a positive impact. Or you can play like I did, right down the middle doing everything I thought was the important choice at the time be it harsh or gentle, and end up really wrestling with what you have done as a person to these people in this world.
It’s not without its flaws. In the second and third episodes some dialog choices seem out of whack in how the NPC’s react compared to previous events. In places the game mechanics commit the old video game sin of “teaching the player what to do by killing them until they get the one thing right”, and as mentioned before the stylized graphics tend to low resolution textures and some world geometry can be wonky.
And yet I think it’s the game people will look back on in 2020 like they look back on Half Life 1 (or even Half Life 2 for that matter) as being a memorable emotional experience that made them laugh, or cry, or look in awe at a moment and wonder how some pixels on a screen have put you into an emotional state.
But the best thing about this game? It’s big enough, and different enough depending on your choices, that you can play it again immediately and get a totally different experience. They even keep statistics on everyone who has played the game so you can see where your moral or survival choices map to the larger playing population.
I view this game as my Game of the Year 2012. Congratulations TellTale Games on making something so important to the genre. The Walking Dead game is an accomplishment those of us in the industry aspire to, and you guys nailed it.
[EDIT: It’s been pointed out I might be somewhat biased as I know the overall story consultant and author of episode 4 of the game, Gary Whitta. So I’m calling out that yes I know him, and he’s an extremely nice person. However he and I never once discussed the game, plot, or anything about The Walking Dead other than the fact I was playing it episode by episode and he was working on it.]
[SECOND EDIT: Stay through the end credits of the finale, there’s a brief Epilogue.]