For a game to earn a score of 10, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to dominate with technical aspects or present mind-blowing graphics. It doesn’t even necessarily need to offer gameplay that is smooth and responsive. All a game needs in order to receive a perfect 10 is to fundamentally change the nature of gaming. So, no pressure.
In all the years that we have scored our game reviews, we have yet to give any title a perfect 10. That shouldn’t in anyway be seen as an indictment of the games released over the last few years – far from it, there have been some exceptional games out recently – but when developing our scoring system we purposefully set down very specific guidelines for what denotes a 10 out of 10 score.
For us to give a game a 10, it needs to be a title that we will look back on and see it as a pivotal game that influenced all the games that came after it. You can find flaws in games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, but those titles have both shaped the way we look at games. They are important and significant, just like GoldenEye, Mario Kart, and dozens of others throughout the years that will stay with us forever. You can add to that list Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, Season 1.
Over the last five months, gamers have been given the chance to experience something old with a profoundly new twist. If you judge The Walking Dead’s five episodes on gameplay alone, it will come up as absolutely lacking. The controls are simple and often prone to sluggishness. If you mark it only on technical aspects, the occasional glitch mars the package, and the graphics – while perfectly tailored to encapsulate the comic-inspired world – aren’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination. And yet no one that has played these games should be entirely surprised to see the massive amounts of praise that this game has earned.
Over the course of the five individual reviews that we have written (feel free to catch up if you like: Episode 1: A New Day, Episode 2: Starved for Help, Episode 3: Long Road Ahead, Episode 4:Around Every Corner, and Episode 5: No Time Left), all of us that played the game chatted a bit about the story. We all made different choices, which personalized each of our games, and yet we all came to the same conclusions. From the debut of Episode 1: A New Day, we knew we were playing something special.
The mechanic of making choices in order to alter the way the story played out was well done, but more than that, the game takes a toll on players. Storyline consequences aside, the narrative was so well constructed that when you were asked to make hard choices that could very well affect who lived and died, those choices could not be taken lightly. There was no right or wrong selection, just shades of horror and heartbreak that stick with you.
Whether in games, comics, TV, film, or any other entertainment avenue, The Walking Dead does something many attempt but few are capable of achieving: It demands an emotional response from you. If you play the game to its fullest, speak to everyone and explore everything, the interactions are so well designed that you can’t help but form an attachment to those with you. That makes it all the more emotional when you see your current scenario shattered and one of the characters suddenly die. It is shocking, horrific, and utterly brilliant.
You can ascribe a huge portion of the success of this game down to the writing – and you wouldn’t be wrong – but there is more to it than that. The mechanic of choosing the outcomes of certain events is simple. You just hit a button and your fate is sealed. But the weight of each decision makes those moments radiate with importance, although you may not always know immediately what the consequences of your choices are. This isn’t a game where you choose to go right and you are safe or left and you are in a fight; it is a culmination of everything you have done, good and bad.
It’s interactive storytelling with a central story arc and dozens of ways to get there, but after you finish it, seeing where your characters were at the start, and where they are, and who they are by the finish is an impressive and remarkable feat of storytelling. You’ll mourn characters and often be left shocked at what you just saw. You’ll think you know where the story is going, then realize you had no idea. It challenges you by creating tense and moody atmospheres where no one is safe, and happy endings are the province of fairy tales. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, the game pulls the rug out from under you and you are forced to pick up the pieces and move on.
It’s difficult to go into too much detail on such a story-driven game without spoiling what makes it so amazing. Needless to say, there are moments that you just won’t want to make a choice because there is no good option and you know it. You may also find yourself backtracking through your memory, wondering if the choices you made earlier may have prevented an emotionally draining result that still haunts you. You’ll search and search and try to think of a way to make everything better, but you will never find that solution. But just the simple act of you examining it all, the emotional response you will have, and the intense anxiety generated by something as simple as selecting which button to press are testaments to the transcendence of this game. It is an experience, and one that all gamers should try.
The point-and-click adventure genre has been on its death bed for years. With new, and increasingly more powerful systems at developers’ disposal, abandoning the possibilities of technically impressive gameplay generally feels like a step back. The Walking Dead takes the conventions of the point-and-click genre and matures them. You won’t just choose to examine something, you’ll choose who lives and dies, then deal with the fallout. It can make you physically anxious, and force you to question your actions, while fearing those to come. It is a brilliant piece of gamesmanship, one that will stick with us for years, and likely be remembered as one of the quintessential games of this generation.
But the reason that The Walking Dead earned a perfect 10 from us isn’t just that it is a great story, or because it was able to genuinely illicit an emotional response from us – as all great art does. No, it received a perfect score because this game could change everything. With game development budgets on the rise and technical sophistication becoming almost synonymous with the quality of a game, Telltale Games managed to sneak up and remind everyone that you don’t need all of that to have a memorable gaming experience. You just need to challenge what we know and except, then take us in a new direction that is honest.
The Walking Dead certainly isn’t a “fun” game. You won’t walk away laughing. It is dark and often disturbing, and beautiful and heartbreaking. It is an important game, and will be remembered for what it is: a masterpiece.
Score: 10 out of 10
(the five episodes of this game were reviewed on both PC and the Xbox 360 via copies provided by the publisher)