The Walking Dead is harsh and hopeless, and that’s a good thing. Most games provide a rigid and unambiguously correct way in which to be played. Others, like Infamous, clearly split available missions and skill sets depending on whether you’ve been good or evil. Still others, like Mass Effect, allow you to hedge your bets, switching between playing nice guy or bad ass, which results in a lack of any real consequences or effect to your reputation. Here, your every choice is so agonizing that there’s a time limit for dialogue, and your actions are so depressing that the episodic presentation becomes a lifesaver. The Walking Dead is an outstanding experience, but you wouldn’t want to play it for more than two hours at a time, as it makes Heavy Rain and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, which tell dark and mature tales with the aid of light puzzle mechanics and branching scenarios, seem light by comparison. After all, those games offer “perfect” endings. Not so with The Walking Dead, which ensures that you not only can’t save all of your friends (for example, an early choice determines if clever Carley or techie Doug will make it out of the first episode alive), but that you probably won’t be able save any of them, especially when the game cruelly and suddenly takes the choice out of your hands.
With writing and characterizations that are strong enough to rival those of the television show and roughly penciled art direction that matches the distinct and non-cartoonish feel of the comic, in addition to the relentless dread and pacing of a survival-horror game (like Dead Space), The Walking Dead employs the best elements of these mediums. Only occasionally does one format overshadow the others, changing the game into a Choose Your Own Adventure. More often, the limited control you’re given, combined with light, one-room environmental puzzles, shooting-gallery sequences, and QTEs is enough to suck you into a three-dimensional pop-up book—and it all feels like more than the sum of its parts. Hell, it might be the first video game that Roger Ebert would enjoy, and for the more consummate gamer, it’s a powerful lesson in the strengths of losing control. What sticks with you are the indelible images of an emaciated zombie corpse being buried beside a headless dog; a sad girl off playing soccer by herself; a barricade of dead bodies and still-wriggling walkers, impaled on spikes; a mother’s jaw trembling with resolve as she trudges into the woods to do what must be done. There’s grim satisfaction in seeing the statistics at the end of each episode—comparing the choices you made with those of the rest of the community (a la Catherine) and then living with them in subsequent installments.
Such ambitious storytelling isn’t without its rough moments: The protagonist you control—Lee, a convicted murderer, who escapes on the day of the zombie outbreak—is, until the last hour or so, a brick house of emotion. You’re meant to feel what he feels, and yet, because he’s the main character, he doesn’t have the chance to break down or reflect like those around him. (What sort of game—even by these loose standards—would that be?) In addition, some characters abruptly choose to leave, or are brusquely killed off, so as to keep the various paths from branching too severely.
For the most part, though, the narrative is filled with surprising callbacks to earlier decisions, all of which reward your investment and encourage players to make the most of the three save slots and the “rewind” feature that allows them to replay scenes and try a different approach. This doesn’t always pay off, as you can’t fast-forward through dialogue-heavy scenes that are only really ever tender or tense the first time, but then again, that only serves to emphasize the weight of your choices. It also makes an act as simple as choosing a line of dialogue a valid game mechanic: Your responses are timed, silence is always an option, and your verbal cues are randomly shuffled in order to avoid making any decision seem better or more moral than another. The Walking Dead doesn’t care whether you survive, only whether you can live with what it takes to do so. Consequently, you don’t just play The Walking Dead—you experience it.