I remember buying this first season of Walking Dead on a whim. Gamestop was having a B2G1 sale, and I had two other games in my hand. I grabbed the Xbox 360 version of this one because it was sort of a horror adventure game, which wasn't really a big thing at the time. It seemed unique enough to give it a shot. I brought the game up to counter, and the sales guy told me I was in for a treat. "I cried," he said. And I was already glad I bought this one.
I played through the whole game quickly, and loved it. I played through the whole thing again before Season Two was released to refresh my memory. And over the years, I played through much of Telltale's portfolio. I was hooked on these games. And I was devastated when Telltale went out of business years later.
Before I was a dad, I was a pretty big comic book nerd. So I tend to think of The Walking Dead as being based on the comic books, and not the show that's been a huge success for many years, and that a friend of mine begs me to watch. We watched the first episode of it so long ago, and we were like "eh, it's alright," but we didn't feel the need to keep watching for 100 seasons. But the games? I like the games a lot.
Like I said, I'm a Telltale fan. I think I've played the majority of their games. Actually, I had delved in prior to this event (I am an adventure game fan, remember). I honestly didn't love the Back To The Future game. But I've solved crimes as Batman. I've cried over Guardians Of The Galaxy. And I've fallen in love with the world of The Wolf Among Us.
Which I guess is why I'm playing season one of The Walking Dead again right now. I was thinking about Telltale. I heard that somehow The Wolf Among Us, Season Two is coming out - which is amazing, but I'm both optimistic and skeptical. But I wanted to go back to the game that really hooked me on Telltale's work. I figured I should start at the beginning - at least for me. So let's go back and restart the journey of Lee and Clementine. And let's see how it hits me now, a decade later.
Firing this one up again and reading the intro credits, I guess I had forgotten the involvement of some of the Idle Thumbs dudes. Man, I miss that podcast. This is a little bit of a tangent, I know. But honestly, it was so great. Those guys would talk about games in such a passionate and interesting way. Probably because they were viewing it through the lens of industry insiders, I guess. But the years I spent listening to that podcast, I was always deeply sucked in. I always learned interesting things. Because they were primarily PC gamers, I was exposed to so many cool indie games. And then because they were also Nintendo dorks, I was also nudged towards the hype of the Switch early on. So yeah, seeing some recognizable names in the credit really made me miss that podcast. And I can't believe that we're going on like five years now since they just stopped. Ugh.
And then more stuff happened as the game began. Playing The Walking Dead in 2022, it's hard not to see this game as a metaphor for the pandemic. Which of course, it couldn't have predicted. But it feels so weird. Just people so scared of the threat that's everywhere. People are talking about going back to work someday. People from different walks of life with different politics and backgrounds bonding over the lousy situation they're in. Even early on there's mention of getting back to Florida. There's mention of a hope that soon the government will come out with "shots" we can all take to prevent us from getting infected (by the zombies). It's... weird to play this now.
Of course it's also cool. It's cool when a well written game can be the starting point for a conversation about real life. Or when a game can be a way to view the world in another light.
Speaking of, the last time I played this game I wasn't a dad. Now I am. So when I'm making decisions now, I feel like there's so much paternal instinct that comes out of me. I didn't even think about the decision to save Duck. "I was worried about the boy," I told the old man farmer who had given me a place to stay. We all watched as his son - an adult - was ripped apart. I mean, I felt bad. But Duck is just a kid.
Likewise, when we were in the pharmacy and the zombies started coming through the walls, I didn't think to go save Doug. Instead, I had to protect Carley. Partly because she was a heck of a good shot with her pistol and I thought that might come in handy. But also because, well, she was a woman, and I'm thinking - what would I want to happen if that was my wife in there? Maybe it's sexist thinking. Maybe it's dumb and oversimplifying. Maybe, it's the opposite and I'm over thinking a game. But I don't know, I just have a very real women-and-children first way of thinking in this game that seems to come from my desire to protect my own wife and child in real life. And so I'm projected onto Lee (which actually seems to fit the story quite well).
The second episode really kicks things up a notch. The weird thing is, having played this game before, I didn't remember this episode at all. Which is strange to me. It was really dark and creepy, and I'm surprised it didn't leave more of an impression on me the first time. Basically, you and your crew of survivors are invited to a local farm, and things seem way too good to be true. There's safety, and there's food. Of course, there's division within the ranks. Some think this is the best thing that could happen to us, while others are suspicious. And it's done so well. The optimist in me wanted to believe. But the realist in me felt like something was off the whole time.
Spoilers ahead, because the whole episode devolves into a sort of Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes sort of scenario. It's not good, guys. And I should note, that for a game that presents itself very much in a comic book or cell-shaded style, this gets bloody as hell. Some of the gore scenes legit made me cringe, and I'm a long time horror movie fan. Maybe it's because there were moments where I was pressing A to swing the axe. I mean... how many whacks does it take to cut a leg clean off, really?
And in typical Telltale fashion, the decisions in this episode are just not easy. Through this game, I tend to try to make Lee (A) a protector of Clementine at all costs, and (B) a good and kind and fair person. I try to be diplomatic. I try not to act on impulse or be too hot-headed. But I'll be honest, I did get some blood on my hands. When I killed one of the farmer brothers, I did so with the vague motivation that letting him live could endanger Clementine or the rest of my new "family." But part of it - I can't lie - was just cathartic.
But overall, I try to put Lee into my own shoes. I try to be the father/husband/protector that I want to be. And sometimes that feels messy, I guess. There are hard moments that don't even involve killing anyone or anything. I mean, there's even a section that basically just showcases the classic "would you steal bread to feed your starving family?" dilemma. And honestly, it's a tough one in practice, especially when you feel like you've got an impressionable young person watching you for moral guidance. Sometimes my judgment is flawed. But all I can do is my best. All I can do is have the best of intentions.
Episode three is way too sad. Carley getting killed actually made me gasp loudly. I told you there'd be spoilers here. And then things got even worse. As a dad, watching Duck – a child – turn into a walker just really destroyed me. And also watching his parents deteriorate destroyed me even more. The grief and guilt his mom went through. And the denial that his dad went through. It was just all really relatable. The fact that the saga ends with Kenny's wife killing herself, and then having to kill the kid... as a husband and a dad, it's tough material to cope with. Maybe that's why The Walking Dead is so lauded as a franchise. This is serious stuff, just viewed through horror tropes.
I will say that sometimes it feels like episodes drag longer than need be. I don't know if the studio felt they had to pad things out to hit a two-hour or so length per episode. But we could have really made the whole train section shorter. A lot of walking back and forth to relay messages or grab items. Eh. A small complaint, really.
Season four takes place in Savannah, and UGH there's another dying kid walker in the attic. And again, I felt like crap putting this kid out of his misery.
Then there's the sort of social commentary about the section of town who kicked out all of their kids/elderly/weak to up their chances of survival. Of course, viewed through the events of the COVID pandemic, this plot point feels even weirder. And then... I hit a glitch.
I got into that little shanty town and went into a school with my crew, and suddenly they were gone. Huh. I walked around, left the school and then was thrown back to like fifteen minutes earlier. It was weird, so I Googled it (technically, I Binged it on my Surface Go 3... but who says Bing as a verb? Maybe I will try to spearhead this movement), and it turns out that this is a rather common bug in the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game. To my knowledge, Telltale hasn't figured out how to fix it. Their suggestion is to go restart the whole episode and keep your fingers crossed. Well F that.
Look, I've already played through this game and sequels in the past, so I really don't see myself replaying episodes in the HOPES that it won't glitch again. So my solution was to just jump ahead to Episode 5 and let the game generate my choices. Which sucks. It totally negates the choices I've made through this whole game and replaces them with ones I wouldn't have made. Which ruins a lot for me. And of course it means that any subsequent playthroughs of the sequels will now carry over these choices. Lame.
But no crying over spilled milk. I don't have the patience nor energy to restart the episode, so this is what it is, so that I might roll credits. And I think I did things pretty different from last time. At least how I remembered it. Cutting off Lee's arm actually made me feel squeamish. Yikes. Rescuing Clem felt like I had actually achieved something, no matter what happens next. And while Lee HAD to die, I didn't remember it like this, so I'm quite sure that I handled things differently when I last played this one on the 360.
The crappy glitch thing aside, this game is a total masterpiece. I've been a fan of adventure games since I was a kid, but there's no doubt that The Walking Dead alone rejuvenated the genre. Sure, they had games before this one – but none were as revolutionary or had the same level of attention. But the games that followed? Those were all influenced by the reaction to The Walking Dead. And beyond that, I mean look at developers like Dontnod – their games completely took the baton from Telltale and ran with it.
As I write this, the new Telltale 2.0 is wrapping up work on The Wolf Among Us: Season Two – finally. And I'm looking very forward to that one.