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The Walking Dead videogame

Normally I am not a big fan of things that are bloody or gross. I don’t recall the last time I voluntarily watched a horror film, and I completely missed out on the epidemic of slasher and torture porn films like the “Saw” and “Hostel” series. Despite that, I started watching AMC’s “The Walking Dead” when it premiered and was immediately captivated. I have always been a fan of post-apocalyptic storytelling, which I blame on a childhood and adolescence spent eagerly absorbing Cold War-era science fiction, so the setting of the show suited me just fine. The ongoing emphasis on having to make the best possible choice from a set of bad alternatives, and often finding that that choice leads to a set of still more difficult choices, makes for compelling drama.

This is by way of scene setting: when I saw an Xbox 360 game based on the Walking Dead universe, I was curious enough to download it. It’s the first episode in a planned series of five. The game sets you in the role of Lee Everett, a convicted criminal who is on his way to prison when a car accident frees him from police captivity. He’s abruptly dumped into a world filled with zombies, where he quickly meets, and takes responsibility for, an 8-year-old girl named Clementine whose parents are missing. The story develops from there, as Lee and Clementine meet a variety of other survivors and travel to try to find Clementine’s parents and Lee’s family.

The story’s told in the visual style of the original comics, which I have not yet read; this is a bit jarring at first, because the graphics often look crude and, well, cartoonish, but that is by design. The ambient sounds and voice acting are both top-notch. I’m not sure what you would call it, but the scenery or set design is excellent as well; it very much evokes the feel of rural Georgia where most of the story is set.

There isn’t much I can say about the story without giving away key elements, so I won’t. I will say that the plot features a few characters from the television series, and that as Lee, you are forced to make some of the same kinds of difficult choices that other characters have encountered. The game developer claims that the choices you make in this first episode will influence the plot and gameplay both within this episode and in forthcoming episodes. I plan to go back and play it again, making different choices, to see how much truth there is to that. Interestingly, at the end of the episode, you see how your decisions compare to other players– for example, “You and XX% of players chose to…”. This is an interesting way to establish behavioral norms in the game world: did you make decisions the way other people did, or not?

The gameplay itself is fairly linear. If you remember old-school text adventures, where you would give the computer commands like “take rock” or “extinguish lantern” from a very limited vocabulary, you will feel right at home here. This is not an open world game: in each environment, the number of things you can interact with, and the number of things you can do with them, is quite constrained. Sometimes accomplishing your objectives is simply a matter of looking around until you find an appropriate object. Other times, you may find an object and have no idea what to do with it until you explore further. If you are used to a large open ended game like Fallout or Grand Theft Auto this can be frustrating. However, in this setting, the constraints are not too bothersome. I decided to look at this more as a television show (with lower resolution and more interactivity) then as a videogame (where I would expect to have a much broader range of action), so in that light it turned out to be pretty good.

One caution: the game is rated M for graphic violence and bad language. There is plenty of both. This isn’t a game for the kiddies by any stretch, although the violence is not as gross as the television show (though the language is far worse.)

I am looking forward to the next 4 episodes.

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