It's no secret that I enjoy video games. I imagine many of my peers consider this to be a sign of rote immaturity on my part. I would respectfully disagree, and simply cite the movies that they are consistently taking their significant others to see as Exhibit A of my argument. You see, I believe video games to be, in many regards, the most exciting method of storytelling out there now, mainly because it has not yet matured as an art-form. There are many out there who dismiss them as a child's toy, and even more who believe that the medium could never be classified as "Art" given its interactive nature. What many fail to realize is that this is precisely the argument that society had at the turn of the last century regarding films.
During motion picture's infancy, many dismissed it, declaring that it could never be "Art" because of the collaborative nature inherent to the process. This is how the Director became the most important aspect and most widely revered person in a film's production. Around the mid twentieth century, the French decided that a film would be considered the artwork of the Director (most credit used to be given to the Writer previous to this) so that they could ultimately put the argument to rest.
It didn't hurt that we eventually got films like Citizen Kane and The Godfather, which showed beyond any doubt what the medium of film was capable of, and decades later here we are, dedicating nights out to them and celebrating the medium with the Oscars, who treat film in many ways as the high art it always opined to be.
Video games are currently going through this exact same struggle in the early years of this Twenty-First century, and developers have yet to provide us with a Citizen Kane to shut everybody up.
With Telltale's The Walking Dead, that time may be close to coming.
I can honestly not remember the last time I was so moved and thoroughly engrossed by an interactive experience since Silent Hill 2. I guess in effect, that would mean I consider it to be the best game in a decade.
And I just might.
First of all, I've always been the rare animal who loves the point-and-click adventure game. Myst made an impression on me during my early years that has never dissipated, so any chance I get to relive those glory days, I take. Sure, it doesn't have the puzzles that Myst does. It doesn't have the graphical prowess of a Mass Effect. That being said, The Walking Dead excels to heights so much farther than any adventure game I've ever played, and this is due to its pacing, atmosphere, design, stellar soundtrack, and laser focus on story and character.
I'd like to continue, but Jim Sterling:
Sterling was spot on in his assessment, but the most important thing he said about the game was that it was, well, important.
The reason I got so royally pissed off during the whole Mass Effect 3 debate was because those who thought we were whining were saying so based on the assumption that we felt the endings weren't varied enough. To a degree, that's true, after all, if you promise apples and give me oranges, I have the right to ask why. But for me, it had nothing to do with that.
Overall, I hate moral choice in video games as much as I hate multiple endings, or at least how they've been implemented thus far. Moral choice has always been too binary, based solely in this arbitrary "good" vs. "evil" designation that holds no real relation to the real world and the humanity that fills it, and as a result, many times characters feel less real and human and more like a cardboard cutout. Additionally, multiple endings only trivialize the story because you are now unable to implement any literary techniques to enhance your theme, because there are too many variables by the end, so the experience has to become even more broad and bland to compensate. This is all supposed to make me believe I shaped my character and that the story is my own when it it not only isn't and never was, but that the narrative I'm supposedly apart of is now worse that it would have been had you just not bothered to give me pseudo-control in the first place.
I understand the need to bring a story to a clear and concise conclusion. With Mass Effect 3, it wasn't that the conclusion wasn't varied enough, it's that it didn't make and goddamn sense. In fact, the entire system driving that series could learn a lot from Telltale's magnum opus.
The Walking Dead also brings it's narrative to a clear and concise conclusion, with very little variation in how the story can end, particularly when it comes to the theme. And yes, there is a big difference between changing plot elements, and affecting the theme, and Telltale understood that. Having your choices mean something doesn't have to mean drastically altering the narrative. The feeling of helplessness in The Walking Dead was exasperated by this very potent design decision. The game never lost its tight focus, which made the intense moments even more so, and the emotional ones even more heart-wrenching.
Sure, it's technically light on gameplay, but I sure as hell didn't notice, because the moments of gameplay it did provide were more immersive than any other game I played this year, chiefly because these moments are a true extension of the character and narrative. There are some choices in the game that have deep ramifications, and many that don't, yet do on a much deeper, much more subconscious level. There is a moment at the end where you must rapidly tap a button to try to get up. You won't, the game won't let you. Lee simply does not have the vitality left to stand, and you as the player are supposed to feel that. You are supposed to BE Lee Everett, the everyman with a questionable past, who probably realizes he deserves to die, yet ultimately finds redemption in an eight year old girl. The game constantly reminds you of that by giving you choices that allow you to empathize both physically and emotionally with his situation, regardless of how the choices play out. I don't think I've ever hit the "Q" button harder in my entire life. This is how you marry story and gameplay.
I could gush all day, but the point is that Telltale's The Walking Dead isn't just an amazing game, it's an important one. This year has been something of a tipping point for video games, as downloadable indie titles are starting to gain as much recognition and reverence as their AAA counterparts. TWD shocked everyone by winning Game of the Year at Spike's VGA Awards.
Not only that, but The Walking Dead flies in the face of virtually everything that we are designed to think of as a recipe for success. It's indie. It's cheap. It belongs to a genre that died in the late 90s. It's downloadable. It's episodic. It has no multiplayer component. Yet despite all of that, it's brilliance allowed it to shine through.
So have we finally found the Citizen Kane of video games? Well, not quite, but The Walking Dead is important because it tells the industry that you don't need to sink 100 million dollars into a project to turn a profit. It tells developers that Story and Character not only matter, but they should be regarded and indeed can function as the sole driving force behind a title. It shows that some of the best moments in any medium sometimes come from subtleties. From restraint. From the personal.
And make no mistake, The Walking Dead is one of the best experiences I've had in any medium in 2012. People will be talking about what this game did for the industry for years to come.
Just, play it. It doesn't matter if you play video games or not. You owe it to yourself to check this out, because ten years from now, everyone's going to have a "where were you when you played No Time Left" story and you shouldn't be left out of the conversation.
Thank you, Telltale. I'm with bated breath for Season Two.