Because I’ve never played an interactive graphic adventure game, The Walking Dead: A Telltale Game Series is unique to my gaming experience. Unlike most zombie games, Walking Dead involves no open-world combat and little shooting. Action instead stems from player-made choices. By focusing on choice, forgiveness, and relationships, the first season of Walking Dead creates a wonderfully personal, emotional, involving story unique to the individual player.
Walking Dead possesses a fair amount of combat, but these violent moments appear in linear, movie-like sequences. This gameplay often follows one path, making combat simple and straightforward. (Nonetheless, these battles exemplify the struggle of combat through quick movements and the jamming of the Q key, keeping combat fairly difficult and engaging.) Gameplay instead focuses on choice. Intensity comes not from defending yourself but from choosing one of two friends to save. Rather than following a linear storyline and defeating enemy after enemy, Walking Dead presents multiple options. Every conversation forces Lee, the player-controlled protagonist, to choose a line of dialogue which will (more or less) sway the game’s direction. Choice causes hesitation, compelling players to consider actions and outcomes as the timer ticks.
Options create a fascinating tension between Lee and his companions. Gameplay relies less on a linear story and more on the variable relationships between characters. Dialogue influences group dynamics, often forcing Lee to choose a side and/or act as peacekeeper. In several instances, Lee must determine to defend or abandon characters. Life, death, and concord become the player’s responsibility as they choose who to trust, who will trust them, and—most significantly—who remains in the group.
By centering story on relationships, the game wonderfully develops characters. Players act through Lee and thus understand his conflicts and choices. In almost every situation, my emotions mirrored Lee’s. In particular, I cared for Clementine and felt legitimate regret when disappointing her. After killing Danny and subsequently terrifying Clementine, I hated myself. Thus I determined to never kill an unarmed human again, causing me to spare Andy, Lilly, and even the Stranger (who Clementine killed instead). Walking Dead uses choice to establish empathy, making Lee and players face challenging decisions together.
Certainly, some moments are difficult to relate to. Having your arm chopped off is obviously much easier from behind a computer screen than in real life. For the most part, however, choices create sympathy through their emotional—rather than physical—attachment to Lee. Agency increases both control and concern for events, making me care about relationships, feel stressed when choosing sides, and want to preserve happiness for everyone—particularly Clementine. Because of its emotional, relatable action, I thoroughly enjoyed Walking Dead and its complicated decisions.
Because the player relates to Lee in the apocalypse, Lee’s past remains, for a time, mysterious and intriguing. The game maintains great suspense as the player wonders about Lee’s past, discovers his murder, and questions how thoroughly he regrets his crime. Initial ignorance causes some confusion, especially in the opening car ride with the police officer. While Lee and the officer understand the subject of the conversation, the player remains oblivious, making responses difficult. After that, however, the game slowly tells players of Lee’s past, effectively presenting the past and then forcing players to discuss it.
Despite its confusion, the conversation with the officer ends well by emphasizing the inherency of confusion in the game (and in life), stating: “You’ll have to learn to stop worrying about things you can’t control.” As with Lee’s murder, the game offers little opportunity in many situations. The player cannot undo Lee’s past, nor can they protect or satisfy everyone. This lack of control blurs the border between choice and necessity, right and wrong, murder and survival. Although Lee seeks a virtuous life, his past impedes the present. Lee questions whether his murder may be forgiven—as do the other characters. Distrust follows murder, creating tension within Lee’s group as players choose who to trust with their secret. Walking Dead forces players to control the present despite an uncontrollable past, powerfully questioning whether bad people can change.
Through a definite past, Walking Dead places players in the shoes of a killer. By doing so, the game wonderfully complicates all death and murder within the plot. Lee faces murderous foes and friends alike, giving players authority over death and forgiveness. Kenny and Lilly forgive Lee’s past; should the player similarly forgive their murders? The cannibals supposedly kill out of necessity; can players rightfully slaughter the cannibals when given a choice? A variety of scenarios and motives allow players to decide which—if any—murders are acceptable.
Apart from the cannibals and the Stranger, Lilly seems to be one of the most misguided, selfish murderers of the game. Her quick departure is disappointing, for she could have greatly complicated the dynamics of the group. Of all the murders in the group, Lilly’s is most severe: Ben indirectly, accidentally causes Duck’s death, Kenny destroys a man who may or may not be dead, and Lee’s crime is distant. Lilly, however, kills a friend out of false paranoia. When accused of murder, though, Lilly exclaims: “Murder? Lee’s killed before and I forgave him. You’ve killed before and I’ll forgive YOU.” Lilly establishes equality between crimes, making every murder both evil and beneficial. Every killer justifies their act; Lilly should have remained to make the player further contemplate her actions, compare justifications of murder, and determine whether Lilly deserves forgiveness.
The choice of forgiveness occurs throughout the game; the most unique moment of judgment, however, occurs through Ben. Ben is the only group member who Lee may actively murder—and Ben encourages Lee to do so. What makes this scene extraordinary, though, is the bell. Bells toll throughout Episode 4, with Chuck saying early in the episode: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls…It tolls for thee.” This quote, which originates from John Donne’s Meditation XVII, makes each bell creepily whisper: “Thou must die.” The sudden tolling in Crawford—as well as Chuck’s allusive quote—produces a surreal moment in which the bell demands Ben’s death. An unnoticed zombie hangs from the clapper, causing death itself to ring the bell and pull Ben toward oblivion:
The first shot of the zombie only reveals dangling legs, establishing the bell as a tool of death:
Ben’s legs then replace the zombie’s:
Parallel shots depict Ben as a dead man in Lee’s arms. Visuals combine with the strange situation to set up Ben’s shocking request: “Let me go…We both know.” Ben’s mistakes and desire for death make murder plausible: the bell and visuals fascinatingly use surreal, almost supernatural forces to further tempt the player into killing Ben.
The church-bell stimulates a significant question: where is God in the apocalypse? Chuck’s quote recalls the religious implications of Donne’s Meditation XVII: “The bell doth toll for him…from that minute…he is united to God.” Bells continuously toll in Savannah, the home of Crawford. Crawford represents the epitome of evil: humans slaughter the weak to preserve themselves.
When Kenny sees this wall of corpses and murmurs, “Jesus Christ,” Molly responds: “Well, just the opposite, when you think about it.” Crawford abandons virtue for survival. A small cross can be seen hanging within the headquarters of Crawford:
As Molly describes Crawford and the brutal, purist actions which led to her sister’s death, the cross slowly vanishes behind Lee:
Though present, the cross lies forgotten in the apocalypse. The bell tolls immediately after Molly’s story, suggesting God may enact judgment to those who forsake virtue and the cross. However, these religious moments are rare and subtle: I am surprised and somewhat disappointed that religion isn’t questioned more in this apocalyptic game.
Despite a lack of religious dilemmas, Walking Dead splendidly uses apocalypse to show human tendency toward evil. The most effective portrayal of evil appears in Episode 2, when Lee wants to trust Andy, Danny, and Brenda but inevitably discovers their cannibalistic ways. Whether the player trusts the cannibals or not, the game slowly undermines the family’s facade through Jonele, the bloody barn, and the surgical equipment. Creepy music escalates tension as Lee explores the house, preparing players for the terrifying sight of a legless Mark.
Inevitability shapes Episode 2, leading to both Mark and the horrifying dinner. While players may prevent Clementine from eating Mark’s cooked meat, nobody else escapes. As the game offers dialogue choices, the camera shows characters ravenously consuming food. No matter how quickly you act, you cannot prevent the inevitable dinner.
Persistent hunger—which has intensified the entire episode—climatically results in cannibalism despite Lee’s objections. Duck and Larry refuse to listen; even Lilly and Kenny initially doubt Lee. Trust falters, transforming good people into faithless, desperate animals. This hunger-driven cannibalism almost justifies the cannibals’ actions, making Brenda’s desire “not to waste” somewhat understandable. However, ignorance separates Lee’s group from the cannibals, keeping cannibalism distinctly evil. Rather than supporting cannibalism, the inevitable dinner illustrates the terrible results of hunger and apocalypse.
Walking Dead further implements inevitability through Lee’s bite. Though leading to a predictable ending, the bite builds toward a fantastic climax. The contrasting tones of urgency and inevitability made me hurry toward saving Clementine and pause to cherish the final moments of the game. Each line of dialogue could be the last, perfectly setting up the dissipation of Lee’s group. Omid and Christa disappear while Ben and Kenny die, forcing Lee and the player to conclude relationships as unavoidable death approaches.
Lee’s final, most vital resolution stems from a single yet generic force: the Stranger. This unnamed man embodies the past, accusing Lee for every major decision which put someone else in danger. Despite the Stranger’s insanity, he highlights the negative choices made by the player, questioning whether anyone has the ability or right to protect Clementine. The game’s focus on choice, murder, and regret culminates in this moment, forcing the player to reconsider their actions and face the consequences. In this peak of guilt and regret, Clementine saves the player. She defends Lee, killing the Stranger despite his promises. By choosing Lee over the Stranger, Clementine justifies the player’s choices, showing Lee’s virtues far surpass his mistakes.
The Stranger provides resolution not only for the game but for Lee’s entire past. Despite the walkie-talkie, the Stranger’s knowledge seems unbelievable and surreal. Though all-knowing, the Stranger solely focuses on the death and danger inflicted by Lee. The Stranger connects to the most significant moment of Lee’s life: the pre-apocalyptic murder of the senator. Just as the senator stole Lee’s wife, the Stranger speaks to Clementine behind Lee’s back, kidnaps Clementine, and confronts Lee with Clementine in the room. Death pervades the conversation, recalling Lee’s murderous past and his fate for prison. Unlike with the senator, however, Clementine helps Lee. Thus Clementine alters the outcome of the past, resolving the sin which Lee regretted for the entire game. Lee regains Clementine’s trust and love, finally offsetting the guilt of disappointing his loved ones.
After absolving the past, Lee must complete one final, dire task: determining Clementine’s future. The player’s final choices are those of advice, giving Lee one more opportunity to raise Clementine. Although the game ends with Lee’s death and Clementine’s departure, players face a significant choice which will affect the rest of Clementine’s life. Shooting Lee or letting him live eternally as a zombie will traumatize Clementine regardless. Walking Dead leaves reasoning and choice open, letting players decide for themselves how to best be a survivor, a leader, and a parent.