I am an emotionally complex creature, capable of filling my human lungs with pure gaseous melancholy, then breathing husky plumes of ennui from both nostrils before turning to face a window and shedding a single, 400lb tear. I have cried at this scene in Robocop, as well as at this poem by Jimmy Stewart. I enjoy feeling awful, so hooray for the raw, charged sadness of the Walking Dead episodes that Telltale are busily pushing through our digital letterboxes. They're among the most emotionally exhausting and distressing point and click adventures I've ever played. They've elicited the greatest physiological response I've ever had after clicking on a dialogue option.
The Walking Dead episodes are important. I love them, and I think you might love them too.
I've just finished the third of five planned Walking Dead episodes which, if you've played it, you'll know contains one of the most harrowing scenes ever committed to code, an unfortunate event that cascades into a seemingly preventable but ultimately unstoppable sequence of gut-wrenching bleakness. It marked a high-point in the series so far, not just in terms of brazen shock value, but it terms of Telltale's ability to tell a mature, emotive story with precisely the correct degree of gravity. Which is odd in a game that looks like a comic book.
It works because The Walking Dead's characters aren't overly complicated — you'll relate to them immediately, with their clear cut neuroses, their identifiable fears and concerns — they're mostly basic personality types backed up with good writing and even better voice-acting. There are no good guys or bad guys in your group, simply people who will go to varying lengths to protect the people they care about. When these characters cross paths, protagonist Lee acts as a mediator, forced to quickly take sides as arguments escalate and voices raise, by selecting dialogue choices, often on a brief, panic-inducing timer. There's little opportunity to ruminate when the walkers are scratching at the door.
On only two occasions did this pressure to choose a dialogue option derail the game — once when none of the four options represented anything I'd have liked to say, and once when I'd simply been confused by the options present — but for the most part your finger will unthinkingly scroll towards something that echoes your most natural, instinctive reaction to a given situation. When that transpires to be a bad decision, you tend to roll with those consequences, embracing them as part of the game's plot in a way you rarely could with an RPG (where a badly navigated conversation tree might lock you out of new items or content, and prompt a quickload). Removed from the notion of rewards and achievements, The Walking Dead's narrative can spread its wings, like a giant undead eagle.
The series expertly turns its characters on their heads over and over again, at first presenting them as irredeemable assholes, then as vulnerable, scared children, then again as flawed, wretched tragedies. Each time the switch is made and the personalities are cast in a new light, the shift is believable and character revealing. The more time you spend with The Walking Dead's cast the more you care about them, the more you trust or distrust them. The careful balance of personalities and their objectives are precision-designed to split player opinion. It's testament to this balance that, at the close of each episode, where the five most crucial decisions you made are compared to the decisions made by your peers, the split often hovers somewhere around the 50/50 mark. That's great writing. That's better than great writing, that's great games writing.
Friends I've spoken to have even vehemently and personally (drunkenly) defended the decisions they've made in The Walking Dead in a way I've rarely seen happen in discussions about other games. Skyrim, Mass Effect, even Fallout 3's Megaton centrepiece is spoken about in more pragmatic gameplay terms: save the town and you get a nice house, blow it up and you're forever made a target of Megaton refugees. There's no emotional attachment to the decision. Ask somebody why they made a crucial choice in episode two of The Walking Dead and they'll reel off a list of convincing reasons, their feelings for and about certain characters, regrets and suspicions. And they'll likely differ from yours.
Discuss the game with enough different players and the smoke and mirrors become apparent however. Some decisions have less of an effect on the outcome than you might think, and while the game does its best to convince you that your every remark is being tallied and remembered by eyebrow raising NPCs, the game is also working hard to quietly keep the narrative threads from loosening. I fully expect they'll bung four episode's worth of your bad decisions into The Walking Dead's final scenes, a catalogue of errors come back to bite you in the arse like the undead eagle from a few paragraphs ago.
Anyway, those are some of the reasons why I think The Walking Dead is worth downloading and playing tonight. Episode three was the clincher, convincing me outright that this is the greatest adventure Telltale has yet wrought, and one whose finest moments may still lay ahead of it. Get it down you.