Pop Quiz: You’re trapped in the basement with a half-naked member of the undead, who is slowly shambling his way toward you. As he moans and salivates at the thought of devouring your sweet, delicious flesh, what do you do? Do you:
- Bring the poor guy in and clothe him. He looks like he's had a bad day.
- Talk him out of it. Point to yourself, and say "BAD." Point to some fried chicken you happen to have and say, "GOOD" while rubbing your tummy. Even the undead can tell the difference, right?
- Cry yourself into a corner.
- Shoot or stab him in the head with a very pointy object. Then shave your own head as you stare at yourself menacingly in the mirror, pondering how you've become morally corrupt in a world where the dead rises to eat the living.
If you answered "4", congratulations! Ever since George Romero tantalized movie audiences with Night of the Living Dead — cementing zombies as we know it into our popular culture — we’ve been conditioned to shoot, kill, maim and otherwise survive at all costs when the world quite literally goes to hell. Many video games over the years have reflected this notion: whether it’s Capcom’s Resident Evil and Dead Rising franchises, Treyarch’s brand of zombie survival with a Call of Duty spin, or Valve’s own frantic four-player co-operative shooter, Left 4 Dead.
So naturally, when you hear that Telltale Games is creating an episodic “Adventure Horror” game series based on The Walking Dead comic books, you think, “Oh great, another zombie game.” But thankfully, it's more than that: like the comics and the television show, Telltale’s game will focus on the human drama and moral ambiguity of surviving the zombie menace.
The developer's behind-the-scenes video series, dubbed the Playing Dead, has already touched on some aspects of the story: it will follow new characters — a criminal named Lee Everett and a little girl named Clementine — created specifically for the game, though some characters from the comic will make an appearance.
To find out more, I ventured into the Image Expo, Image Comics’ first comic book convention held in Oakland, California over the weekend. Robert Kirkman, creator and writer of The Walking Dead comic books, is an Image Comics partner, and was at the expo all weekend long signing autographs with fans and attending panels as a way to celebrate the publisher’s 20th anniversary.
On Sunday, Kirkman held a Q&A panel about his current and future work, where I took the opportunity to ask him more about The Walking Dead video game. My question was, “Will the stories in the episodic video game thematically follow the same beats as in the comic book and the television show? Or are you trying to tell something totally new?” His answer:
“Yea it’ll be something completely new. . . new characters interacting in new ways and having a new story. There’s gonna be characters like Glenn, and others that haven’t been revealed from the comic book, who will be popping in. And the cool thing about that is that it takes place in Atlanta early on in the game, and you’re gonna see where Glenn was, and what he was doing before he met up with Rick and everybody else from the comic. . . There’s going to be little tidbits where we see backstory from the comic that we didn’t know about, but it’ll mostly be a new story.
And one of the really exciting things about the game, for me, that I haven’t really gotten to talk about a lot yet — so I’m just gonna talk about it now — is that the way the game works is not really running around hacking zombies because those games exist. This game is gonna be much more about. . . there’s actually things where your in a situation where your trying to protect this little girl that’s with you and you only have a certain amount of food, and you have to either steal food from someone and feed it to that girl or she’s gonna die, but you’re actually kind of condemning this other person to death by stealing that food and making those decisions and allowing that other person to die will actually change the game as you play it. So it really is going to be this unique experience where you’re actually kind of living in the world of the walking dead, and like as different characters die, and you make different decisions, the game changes.
So when you play through all of the chapters, when you start the second chapter, it’ll be different for different people. And there are gonna be recaps, [as in] recaps of the game that you played in the first chapter, and those recaps will be exclusive to you because of how you played the game. So you’ll be able to play through all 5 chapters of the game and then when it’s all done, go back and play through it again and make different decisions along the way and different characters will live and different characters will die and that will lead to changes throughout the story.
So it’s kind of a really, like, all-encompassing neat thing.”
The Walking Dead creator/wrter Robert Kirkman at his Image Expo Q&A panel
When reading the comic books or watching the show, the audience is often left wondering how they would personally react to a situation when placed in a character’s shoes — will they be as law-abiding and fair as the hero Rick Grimes, or will they adopt a new moral paradigm and a no-holds-barred attitude of survival, as seen in the TV show’s adaptation of Shane Walsh? By focusing less on killing zombies, who will be seen as more of a real threat than what we’re used to in video games, and placing the emphasis on survival, Telltale Games has a chance to convey a very profound experience when it tasks the player with the responsibility of making life-or-death decisions.
As Robert Kirkman described, even something as trivial as stealing food could have far-reaching, and permanent, consequences through each episode of the game. The only other series where we have seen such wide-reaching effects of the player’s choice is Bioware’s Mass Effect franchise — a series which has numerous permutations that changes from game to game depending on how the player acted in a previous entry. Though The Walking Dead game will be smaller in scope, split into five monthly installments of bite-sized content, it appears that the consequences are no less vital to the gameplay experience.
The first episode of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is currently slated for multiple platforms and a Spring 2012 release.