It’s rare to see a piece of fiction survive adaptation into a different medium. Most often the thing that made that fiction’s story, its characters, or setting popular doesn’t survive the transition to another form. That new work often serves too many masters by trying to keep the original design and yet create its own, new direction. Many times adaptations fail to capture the features of the original medium that made that fiction so compelling to its fans in the first place.
When I first heard that The Walking Dead comics were being turned into a television series I was both delighted and leery of the idea. I was ready to accept that the television series might tell a different story, cherry-picking from the original plot, but was worried that it would take an altered tone from what made the graphic novels so compelling to me. I love the comics’ brutal, exhausting pace as you follow survivors in a zombie apocalypse while they fend off hordes of the undead and barely contend with their own crumbling humanity. Especially compelling to me is that the graphic novels make me care or at least be interested in every character and yet make no character untouchable— anyone can be killed at any time. You (and the characters in the story) are forced to get to know people as quickly as possible since they often don’t stick around for long before being torn to pieces.
Without launching into too much of a diatribe about the failings of the television show (though, the end of season two was much improved and, let’s also be honest, I’ll keep watching as long as there are zombies), my disappointment with the TV series meant that I didn’t give much thought to the announcement of the The Walking Dead video game. I did, however, allow a grunt of interest when hearing that Telltale Games would be the developer since I’ve very much enjoyed their Wallace and Grommit series and the first Puzzle Agent game. I couldn’t help but wonder how they might approach the drama and tragedy of The Walking Dead since my only experience with Telltale was with their quirky comedies.
At the start of the first installment of The Walking Dead video game you’re asked to make a choice about what kind of notifications you’d like to the game to display– whether or not you’d like to be informed if a decision you’ve just made will have an effect on how the game’s story plays out. I chose to keep the notifications on since I was curious about how dramatic these turning points would be and wanted to be aware when those moments happened. Many video games offer choices in dialogue with characters or with what actions you may perform but those decisions rarely mean anything. Most often games will still force you along the same path regardless of the things you’ve said or done and I wanted to find out if it would be the same case with this game.
Throughout The Walking Dead I was thrilled with how often the game gives its players choices that seem real and important. If you decide to support a certain character during an important group conversation the game posts a notification that the character will later remember that you stuck up for them. Or, a more intense example is when you’re faced with situations where two people are in trouble and you must choose who to help, knowing the person left behind will be killed by zombies. It’s the speed at which the game demands many of these decisions that makes it that much more thrilling. In dialogue you’re forced to react and choose a response quickly before a countdown timer expires– if it does expire your character simply says nothing which often leads to a worse conclusion. I still go back and forth as to whether keeping the notifications on was a good decision as the game’s story was so enthralling that the notifications seemed disruptive. Yet, specifically knowing when I had made a major choice made those decisions all the more foreboding.
The Walking Dead‘s moments of combat, while not frequent, were delightfully suspenseful— making you click on certain spots or interact with the game’s environment with precision timing. You are far from a zombie-killing machine and every encounter is tense and a near-death experience. Further, in most cases in the game, you’re not killing faceless, dead humans but people who are very real to the story.
The protagonist in The Walking Dead, a man named Lee who is on his way to jail for killing his wife, is a spectacular, deep character. You guide him through a world that’s falling to pieces only knowing small bits about him and his past and must make crucial decisions based on who you think he might be. The strong voice acting (most characters in the game are equally talented) made me truly care about the person he is and what he might become.
Without playing the second installment, it’s impossible to truly know if the decisions The Walking Dead asked me to make will have a real impact on how the plot of the series plays out for me. I’ve resisted (with difficulty) playing through the game again as the path I took told such a good story that getting a different result would only make me lose the feeling of ownership I have from the experience. Still, it is a video game and there are only so many paths the developers could have written and could possibly account for with more episodes to come. And yet, I very much hope that my specific choices will be important in the next episodes and that the story would have been different had I made different decisions.
The Walking Dead was a terrifying pleasure to play. If the freedom the game gave me was only skin-deep then it was a well-masked. The video game is exhausting, brutal, fast-paced, has interesting characters, and is aesthetically well-built— it perfectly captures what made the graphic novels so enthralling for me. Telltale has done a great job capturing the spirit of its game’s source material and I very much look forward to playing the rest of The Walking Dead series.