“Hell is other people.”
When Jean-Paul Sartre originally penned that line in the script for his play No Exit he was specifically pointing out that the company of certain individuals can be the worst form of torture for other people. In the years since, it has been colloquially adopted as the misanthrope’s mantra du jour, but regardless, Sartre has a solid point: There’s few things more horrific than the pain and suffering people can inflict on one another.
Granted, that was a very pretentious way for me to start a video game review, but I’m going somewhere with this. As I mentioned in my review of the second episode of The Walking Dead, this game (and the comic book and AMC TV series that share its source material) is not really a “zombie video game.” It features shambling corpses by the thousand, but more accurately, The Walking Dead is a horror story that explores the evil men can do to one another when staring down an apocalyptic horde of ambulatory stiffs.
As such, it makes perfect sense that the story would visit some very dark scenes, but the main appeal of The Walking Dead — at least in my opinion — is that creator Robert Kirkman has an unflinching willingness to repeatedly subject his characters to the most terrible things one can imagine. Over the course of the nine years that Kirkman’s comic has been in print the story has gone from dark, to worryingly dark, to “I’m going to need a stiff drink to get through this latest issue.” As our culture continually attempts to sanitize any and all creative efforts, it’s refreshing that at least one creator is willing to willfully go the other way and show everyone just how terrible his imagination can get.
When Telltale announced that it would be creating a game based on The Walking Dead, my main concern as a fan was that the developer might have to bow to censorship just to get the thing out there. I couldn’t imagine a game that accurately captured the oppressive, lonesome, maudlin tone of the Walking Dead comic book. As you can see in our reviews of The Walking Dead: Episode 1 and Episode 2 however, Telltale has absolutely nailed not just the dark tone of the source material, but also its aesthetic, and its complex, well-written characters. The first two impressed us, but with Episode 3, Telltale has taken its game to an entirely new level.
Before we go any further, I want to make sure to impress upon you that, despite what I’m about to tell you, The Walking Dead: Episode 3 is as dark as either of its predecessors. Actually, scratch that. The Walking Dead: Episode 3 is the darkest episode to date. Without dropping any spoilers, I will say that there is a moment in the first half of the episode that literally made me bolt up from my couch and scream expletives at the screen (which totally goes against my lazy, sedentary nature). If you thought things seemed bleak at the end of Episode 2 you should probably take a few Zoloft before starting Episode 3; I sincerely wish I could say more, but trust me, you need to experience this horror for yourself.
Back to that “new level” I mentioned a few moments ago: Though it maintains the foreboding tone of its predecessors, the most impressive facet of The Walking Dead: Episode 3 is how well Telltale was able to convey other, less sinister emotions within the story. There are multiple moments in the Episode that are legitimately heartbreaking — one of which actually caused me to cry — and there are even small moments of humor. Yeah, comedy amidst the ruins of the American South. Had anyone told me beforehand that Telltale would attempt to add levity to Episode 3 I would have either punched them or jammed my fingers in my ears, yet the developer manages to make it work by depicting this comedy as both rare, and as a brief, soothing touch of hopeful humor in a world populated by dead bodies with a taste for the flesh of the living. Despite the outlandish circumstances, that simply rings true: When facing down the end of days, I’d have to imagine that some people would respond to this pressure by cracking jokes. Taken as a whole, the series’ dark tone, and the humor and melancholy sadness of Episode 3 demonstrate that Telltale has a profound grasp of how to inject interactive stories with real emotional depth. After playing Episode 3 I’d say Telltale’s writing talent is second only to Valve Software’s scribes in their ability to create an engaging fiction that stays with you long after you’ve switched off your gaming machine of choice.
Emotional resonance aside, it’s also impressive that Telltale has somehow managed to further refine the mechanics that underpin this adventure game. Technically speaking, the first two episodes were pretty similar. Both offered a number of decisions that would affect the direction the story would take, both featured standard adventure game-style puzzles without the standard, incomprehensible adventure game logic, and both featured long stretches of expository plot, punctuated by brief moments of action. Episode 3 doesn’t just include all of these features, it improves on every last one.
Those crucial decisions? They seem to appear far more often in Episode 3 than they have before. The puzzles? I never spent more than two or three minutes figuring things out. That bit about the plot being punctuated with brief moments of action still holds pretty true, but the action scenes in Episode 3 are more bombastic than those seen in the previous two episodes, and there’s even a short mini-game that allows you to pick off bandits by staring down the scope of a hunting rifle and squeezing off a couple rounds into their stupid jerk faces. Normally we’d question why a developer would want to create a section of an adventure game that could double as a scene from the next Call Of Duty sequel, but since the sniper portion only lasts a few dozen seconds those players who are appalled by Episode 3’s sudden shift toward the shooter genre don’t have to suffer for long. Plus, given how many adventure titles in the past have tried and failed to add action-focused elements, it’s simply amazing how well Episode 3’s shoot ’em up mini-game functions, both as an individual diversion and as a fun, interesting piece of an entertaining whole.
Most impressive though, is the level of polish Telltale has put into this latest episode. When I was reviewing Episode 2 I didn’t notice that it occasionally has pacing issues, but in hindsight, when compared to Episode 3, it’s apparent that the last episode had a few minor moments where scenes simply went too long or ran too short to properly impart their meaning. That’s not at all an issue with Episode 3 though. Every moment in the game flows smoothly into the next, no line reading is rendered awkward by an odd camera angle, and most crucially the episode has a sense of timing so precise that some of the characters’ jokes are legitimately funny.
By now it should be pretty obvious that I’m incredibly keen on The Walking Dead: Episode 3 (and the series as a whole). The first two Walking Dead episodes were impressive enough, but watching Telltale improve by leaps and bounds with each new episode is just phenomenal. This is a developer that loves (and more crucially, understands) the license it has been given, and is more than up to the task of creating a tie-in that can qualitatively stand right next to its inspiration. A sentimental connection in my mind refuses to label Telltale’s Walking Dead game as the best iteration of Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead universe, but after playing Episode 3 I can see how someone might make such an argument.
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Telltale Games)