Can a video game make you cry?
It’s a question I’ve seen asked a number of times recently as the mainstream gaming media collectively takes in the dismal state of video game writing. While I feel it’s a bit trivial to boil the issue down to something so simplistic- poorly written, sappy melodramas can make a viewer cry just as easily as truly excellent writing – I can understand where the sentiment is coming from. In an era of sub-one dimensional characters and dialogue that sounds like it was written by throwing the script of Aliens and Black Hawk Down in a shredder and then pasting the pieces back together, in a landscape where even titles lauded for their excellent writing barely attain the minimum standard expected for a mid-level TV movie, a game that can illicit such a strong emotional response has become something of a symbolic holy grail. People are waiting for that shining paragon, that Great Game of Our Time.
Wait no longer.
By the time the protagonist of Telltale’s Walking Dead adventure games trudged wearily to the uncertain finish line I felt like I had walked every step of the journey in their shoes. I made allies and enemies, held grudges and forgave, risked my life to save others and left someone to die at the side of the road. I killed for food, for safety, for survival, out of desperation and anger. I felt it all as a participant and not just an observer due to the strength of The Walking Dead’s characters. Simply put, they feel like real people and not lazy stereotypes slotted into an arrangement of pre-set character archetypes. There isn’t a single character in the five episodes whose personality didn’t feel distinct and entirely organic, which is quite a feat considering the alarming frequency with which your fellow survivors bite the dust. When two of the longest-running characters died in a completely senseless accident I genuinely struggled to come to terms with the fact that they were gone. That’s not something I can say about any fictional work I’ve ever experienced, and could perhaps serve as an argument in favour of the interactive medium.
The central conceit of the story is of course the surrogate family of Lee and Clementine, two lost souls who save each other at the beginning of the game. The entire story lives or dies on their relationship and I’m happy to say that Telltale absolutely knocks it out of the park. Clementine is a character you want to protect not because the game designates her as a gameplay objective but because you want to. Wisely, the game holds off on putting her in physical danger too often, as she can’t actually die without triggering a game over screen. Instead the focus is placed on her fragile emotional state, with the game essentially taking the form of a long walk through psychological hell. Time and again I found my actions dictated by a desire to minimize the poor girls’s trauma as much as possible. In this regard the game forces the player to think like a parent- is it better to be brutally honest or try to sugar coat things? When Clementine’s acts recklessly later in the game do you tell her off or just let it slide? You know doing the latter is going to break her heart, but would it be for her own good? (If my time with The Walking Dead taught me anything it’s that I would be the world’s most ineffectively permissive Dad).
The Walking Dead is a bleak, dark game. And not dark in the way that Call of Duty is “dark” but genuinely, gut-wrenchingly painful. This is a world where anything that can go wrong will go wrong, where your favourite character is in constant danger of violent death (this holds true regardless of who your favourite character is). Sometimes there’s nothing you could have done to save then. Other times it’s totally your fault, and the game won’t let you forget it. This never feels cheap or unfair- you know that your actions will always have consequences. Very often those consequences won’t hit until much, much later as a seemingly trivial decision or dialogue choice comes screaming back to haunt you.
The Walking Dead had already more than earned it’s status as Best Written Game Ever by the conclusion of the fifth episode, a desperate, harrowing descent into darkness that I came away from feeling as though a piece of my soul was missing, but I’ll admit that it did fulfill the condition I set at the start of this review. Yes, I cried at the very end. I would defy anyone to make that last choice, to say those last words knowing that they can never make right everything that’s gone wrong and not choke up at least a bit.
There’s a second season coming out next year. I’m not sure if I’m going to play it. Partially it’s because if this story has a definitive ending I’m not sure I want to know what it is. But mostly I’m just skeptical that Telltale can improve on perfection.