Sunday 24 June 2012

Thoughts of The Walking Dead (ep1)

I played through the first episode of The Walking Dead recently and few stuff popped up that I thought was worth discussing. For those of you who do not know what The Walking Dead is, it is a horror adventure game based upon a comic book (which is now also tv-series) featuring Heavy Rain inspired gameplay. It is developed by Tell Tale (makers of the Sam and Max reboot, etc) and is released on an episodic basis. I was unsure if Tell Tale could deliver a game with this kind of atmosphere, but having played I have to say that it is quite successful. The first episode is not a master piece by any means, but contain a few things worth bringing up.

The comic-book inspired art direction combined with so-so animations does not look all that inviting and immersive. But when you play the game, it works very well and does the job. This even though the drama of the game is mostly about close-up dialog and relationships. I think this is a very important lesson about not having to have photo realistic graphics even though the game is meant to focus on human emotions. I have a hard time saying that Heavy Rain, which as a lot more gloss on its visual, managed to elicit any more emotions from me. However, watching trailers, Heavy Rain seems a lot better in this aspect and I thought Walking Dead looked downright horrible at times. But in-game it turned out not be really matter. This is also lesson in taking care of how you present the game in trailers and such, and make sure that the feelings you get from actually playing the game comes across.

Just like in Heavy Rain, a big feature is to make hard decisions throughout the game. You must choose who to save, whether to lie or not, etc. Most of these are made using timed dialog choices, where you only have a short time to decide what to do. On paper I think it sounds okay, but I just do not like how it feels when actually playing. There is just something that bothers me in knowing that all of these choices are prefabricated and that I the choice I did not make might have been better. And it does not really matter that the choices do not affect the game mechanically (eg like in Mass Effect where bad choice might mean less gain), there is just something holding me back from playing along with it.
I think a big problem is that it is way too obvious that you are actually making a choice. Supporting this hypothesis is that the game by default gives a pop-up hint of the consequences of a choice (eg that a character trust you less), and removing this makes it a lot better (but still not good enough). A few choices are made in a sort of "Virtua Cop"-like manner where you have to point a cross-hair over a target and then choose an action. It is not always clear that these are actual choices, in part because it is much more analog (not just choosing from a list of options) and partly because it is less clear that you can only can choose a ONE of the presented alternatives. These sequences did not bother me at all as much as the dialog options.

Pixel hunting
While the game does a lot to remove annoying adventure game features and make a smoother experience, it also falls back upon some annoying aspects of the genre. The most obvious is that of pixel hunting. There are only really two major adventure-game like puzzles in the game and both of these has the player searching for one or several objects, non-obviously located, in the environment. The worst of these is a remote control that is hidden in  drawer which is not accessible until you have done certain unrelated actions. This caused me to wander aimlessly in the scene for far too long.
I think it is really important to try and minimize this sort of things as it makes you go about exploring the scenes in a very unnatural way. Best is if the player can sort a puzzle out without having to search every nook and cranny for items.

Once you get caught up wandering without any real goal, like I mentioned above, you start doing the same things over and over. This is when you start noticing the slim output of lines that characters have. When asked the same question, they just repeat the same line they gave before. This is especially jarring when it amounts to longer exchange between the protagonist and a supporting character. Repeating canned responses like this really breaks the sense of immersion for me. I just simply cannot role-play when I am subjected to this sort of repetition.
I think the game should have removed hot-spots, given leading answers from characters (especially the protagonist), etc. Anything to push me in the direction and to keep up the make-belief that it is real characters inhabiting the virtual world. Now they just come of as cardboard signs the moment you start wandering off the intended path.

End Notes

I'd say that The Walking Dead is worth playing and being just over 2 hours of gameplay in the first episode it just not that much wasted time in case you end up hating it. While the game did not blow me away, I was pleasantly surprised and am intrigued to see how the next episode will turn out.

If anyone else has played the game, I would love to hear your thoughts on the following.:

- What did you think of the graphics? Was the discrepancy between trailer and in-game also large?
- What did you like the choices? Did it feel like you could roleplay or was it hard to put as side that there was a better choice?
- How did you feel about the repeated lines? Not bothering at all, or a nail in eye each time they were encounter?


  1. Its cool Thomas
    Hey Thomas Grip--Frictional games
    did your company need a level designer
    I am here
    Alem Sehic-

  2. I really don't like when the game goes like: THIS IS THE IMPORTANT CHOICE. It just makes all other things you do in the game mean less. You just go into the "if there's something important, the game will tell me it's important anyway" kind of thinking and start caring less about lesser things. I always loved how, for example, Silent Hill 2 and later Shattered Memories went with "important/plot-changing" things, where you were just analyzed, as you were naturally being yourself as a player. The "this is important" kind of thing is an ok thing in BioWare plot/character-driven RPGs, but for an Adventure game (or a survival horror game) you expect something much more subtle.
    And i think, the same is trues about repeating dialogue - it feels rather ok in an RPG, especially a non-spoken text dialogue, but feels wrong in an Adventure game. It's kinda ok, when it's just the game telling you that "this won't work" or just a simple "this is a door" when you "look at", but not for other situations.

  3. I have to agree here. Having played the game I can honestly say these choices are bullshit. Some of them don't even affect the game in the way you think it would. So you load a saved game to choose the different option. And that's about it for replayability and immersion.

    Graphics were ok, but it's true the trailer didn't look well. It's because it was taken straight from the game and it's clear this game is aimed at consoles. It's not good cell-shaded style, it's cheap.

    It was a good try, but turned out badly. Surely a game to check out for anyone who wants to be a good game designer.
    When it was over I wasn't sure if I was glad it was over or not.

  4. About the graphics: didn't play, but if the graphics are merely OK while animations are somewhat clunky, and it still works well, then I guess that's because it's on the other side of the uncanny valley - not getting down that slope yet. It probably feels stylized more than anything.

  5. I liked the game.

    The graphics are ok because they are stylized, and I knew what I'd get since I played their Back to the future and Jurassic Park which were far worse.

    I didnt have a problem with the decisions, since I turned off the pop-ups right at the start (because they are useless as you said and the experience is much better without) and didnt thought too much about the outcome. I always just try to just roleplay and answer how I think the character (or my interpretation) would behave in this situations, you as well as him just cannot know what the consequences would be, and when another would be better or your decision had other consequences than you thought it would, thats just how it would be in real life ;)

    When you think about the possible consequences both story-wise and mechanical, I think youre not roleplaying enough and try to look behind the game and/or play it like a traditional game trying to match goals, which is harming your own experience in my opinion (in this case).

    Repeating dialogue, yeah, that is annoying and breaking the immersion, but only when you think about them. I have the talent to overlook at immersion-breaking elements because I want to be immersed, but maybe thats wrong and I should be less forgiveable, forcing them to spend more money in a few more minutes of voice-acting, would be worth it.

  6. Hmmm... ok... I'll also start by saying that i like the game. Quite a lot as well. It was a very pleasant surprise from Back to the Future.

    So the things that i like. I thought the art style was very uniform all throughout, and in the end i think it had the gore, then deformation and the successful sequences that you would expect to see in a zombie game.

    I like the emotions in the circumstances and teh relation you start to forge with all of the characters you encounter. True that non of the choices you made played out in this episode. But i really hope they have a repercussion in this new coming one. I very much dislike having a timer go down when i was trying to figure out what the choice that i wanted to make represented my train of thought of the character i was playing as. I always wanted to tell the truth, yet i found myself lying to people at least twice! I think that might come from poor descriptions. I think a game like Mass Effect has the dialogue down. I think Deus Ex: HR did this pretty well as well. You really have to feel like the choice you are making is the natural one and there are no surprises.

    ammmm... teh repeated lines do tend to be a problem. It didn't really bother me, but i can see maybe an effort to at least have a whole lot more of conversation and interaction if you keep coming back to a character. I think some older games did this right, where they might just ask you to go away for the time being. Instead of repeating all of the paragraph of dialogue they just said.

    Overall, i am looking fwd to the new episode. Hoping that my decisions are starting to shape the game so that i can feel responsible for my actions.

  7. I think they did a fine job with the graphics, despite the creaky old engine that TellTale uses. It's really showing it's age now, but they did manage to squeeze a lot out of it. I was also afraid that the cell-shaded comic book style wouldn't be appropriate for such a mature game, especially being made by TellTale. I was proven wrong though. The game felt very adult and thought-provoking.

    The writing is excellent. I've come to love games that invoke strong, complex emotions from the player. A perfect example of this: In The Walking Dead, I tried to hide my criminal past as much as possible, not revealing who I really was or what I'd done. But when I was alone in the pharmacy talking to the little girl, I broke down. She asked me if I'd "done something bad", or if "something was wrong". I slipped up and told her because I felt so attached to her. I could've lied to her, but I didn't. The game didn't force me to tell her, I told her purely out of my own free will, because I trusted her. It was a tender moment and it was utterly brilliant.

  8. I would prefer reserving most of my coments this time around,,till my next visit...

  9. I do not play the game, because whan I watch gameplay videos, I know it isn't for me.
    I'm a classic old-school gamer ans love epic non-clichee-masterpieces. This is why I found Frictional Games.

    When watching The Walking Dead, i saw a zombie attacking the player and the player gets a weapon by a little girl and splattered the head off. Such kind of action-violence oriented gameplay sucks for me. This is not horror, I think this is pervert. It's like to get a chainsaw and torture children in a school. Such games should be forbidden.

    Several gameplay actions are done by Quick-Time-Events. Pushing on a key to win a battle. This is typical modern times garbage. Made for american teenagers because they just like action and easy, no challenging games.

    And we need to see games as a challenge, an immersing story. Without a superhero character.

    I remember the old game "Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine" the best adventure game with best puzzles and varied locations. This was same immersion for me like playing Penumbra & Amnesia. We really need more games like this.

    I think, The Walking Dead is like all the other (horror) games like Dead Space, Doom, FEAR or Quake etc. But I really can't immerse to the player because this is action gameplay and this totally sucks.

    What we need is a credible and realistic game setting, with decent gameplay.

    Frictional Games are one of the talented developers who understand that.

    1. The Walking Dead is completely story-based, though. Atmosphere, immersing yourself into the character you play; there's less action than Amnesia. Much less. Barely any, actually.

  10. I really like this game.
    It has some little flaws, but they're totally forgivable by the quality of writing, pacing, acting and atmosphere.
    It's one of the few games that made me FEEL something for the charachters involved. The little Clementine broke my heart, and I found myself with wet eyes by the end of the episode.
    They made it in just 2 hours, while Heavy Rain didn't succeed that even after 10 hours of game.
    A game with such power has something special for sure.

    And having not just chioces, but MORAL choices, adds a lot. The programmers took a lot of efforts to make these choices not just stats of behaviour, but really actions and thoughts you decided through the game.
    Jake Rodkin, lead Designer of the game, explains it better:
    "There isn't a score or a slider or anything like that. We look at all the different things you've done and try to figure out how those things would make the characters behave towards you. It's being looked at far more from the angle of a writer or storyteller than a computer spreadsheet. Kenny doesn't have an "Allegiance to Lee: 5/10" value or anything like that. We look at the different actions as story points and as events in the characters lives, try to figure out how much weight they'd have to that character relative to other events, and then weigh them all against each other to figure out which things that character would care about in your playthrough. From there it's easy to know what they should say to you and how they should act.
    It's not a very mathmatically clean approach (a hardcore RPG designer would probably barf at it), but it means (we hope!) that it won't just feel like you're being nice or mean to a character to push a "nice to you/mean to you" slider around."

    I feel this as something really human and artistic.
    And it succeds, making the game really engaging and tailored.

    1. They way they calculate other people's feelings toward you seem very interesting! I hope they release more info on that later on.

  11. What did you think of the graphics? Was the discrepancy between trailer and in-game also large?
    - As someone who has read the first 48 issues of the comic series and watched each episode of the TV series, I was rather pleased with the graphics. I thought they were a nice mixture of the visual styles of the comics and the TV show, so they felt right to me and I never even questioned it.

    What did you like the choices? Did it feel like you could roleplay or was it hard to put as side that there was a better choice?
    - I thought it was a little difficult to role-play Lee because of inconsistent options (I lie about being Clementine's babysitter, and then another character asks me about her and I can't repeat that lie), and because of how intentionally ambiguous his past is. It's a bit harder for me to get into character, so to speak, when the game gives me so little to go off, and it made a lot of my role-playing decisions with regards to Lee's past feel somewhat arbitrary.

    With that said, though, I felt surprisingly engrossed when I was actually playing the game; none of this stood out and ruined the experience for me. It was fun and engaging to keep up with the dialogue, kept me moving at a steady pace and thinking quickly, so I never felt any regret for any decision I made -- except for when a vague dialogue option effected a different result than what I had expected. Otherwise, it's a short, simple game that's supposed to be about making tough decisions on instinct and living with the consequences, just like in real life, so again, it didn't really bother me, especially since I knew I'd be replaying the game, anyway.

    I should mention that some of the choices are undermined by the game's own design, which takes a lot of the impact away from your initial decisions when you replay the game and find that, in some cases, your choices don't really matter, because the same basic outcome will happen regardless of what you choose.

    How did you feel about the repeated lines? Not bothering at all, or a nail in eye each time they were encounter?
    - Again, this did not bother me. On the one hand, it's nice being able to repeat entire conversations in case you missed something, but on the other hand, it can be a little disappointing returning to a character and having the exact same dialogue play out, in the exact same way. But for what this game is, I honestly don't expect that much complexity or sophistication in its design. More dynamic lines would be appreciated, certainly, and would doubtless improve the experience, but I don't feel like the repeated lines significantly detract from the experience as they currently are.

    In general, I was pleased with Episode One. It wasn't outstanding or anything, but it was a fun little game that exceeded my modest expectations for it. As something of a Walking Dead fan, it was a treat to play. I'll be looking forward to playing Episode Two tomorrow. /Shameless plug for my own review of Episode One.

  12. I agree. If you look at the issues separately then most folks will probably agree that repetitive dialogue and the limited choices negatively affect the game's potential. However, like Nick I also felt quite engrossed most of the time and wasn't distracted by them much. The graphics aren't great by a long shot, but are streamlined and uniform enough that they don't feel out of place once you're used to them. In that sense I think it did a good job.

    All in all it's not exactly a gem or even a diamond in the rough. But to me it was an enjoyable ~2 hour experience. I'm hoping the newer episodes will bring some changes and improvements though, otherwise it will just be the same game/mechanics in a different setting.

  13. Finished the second episode yesterday and I think it improved on a lot of the stuff mentioned above. I also liked the story a lot more. What I also liked about it was that it actually had feel actual doubt, which is really uncommon. I think that the consequence structure helped a lot on in this, because you feel that you cannot just say anything.

    The consequences for many choices are not major (at least so far!), but the trick here is that you can never really be sure and you are always paranoid that you will screw something up.

    The biggest problem right now for me are the action sequences where you can fail and just get to replay. That just decreases immersion and the level of fear. I think they really missed an opportunity there and the action sequences would be a lot more intense if failing them had consequences for the game. This makes design a lot harder, so can understand skipping it, but still.

    Also, I would love for less "try all options" kind of dialog and let everything I say to characters be possible of having some kind of impact. Now it seems like it is just timed sequences and that makes the rest of the dialog come of as a bit stiff.

  14. Hey great blog btw. Yeah I agree to I bought the game because I'm a huge fan of the series of the tv show and comics. So I payed 400 micropoints and started my adventure. I really tried to get my feel into the game as I like to do and the game does just that. You start liking the characters and hating others. But all the negative points you mentioned I agree. I had a problem finding the keys as I thought they had to be in the office. I spent 30min looking for them in the office. I don't like also how the game makes you have to make some dialogue decisions under like 10secs?.

    Great blog anyways can't wait to see more will you do chapter 2 of the game? Would love to see your opinion before I buy it myself.

  15. Wijtek, Thomas's opinion is just over your post :)

  16. Graphics: I think they are fine, I didn't see the trailer so I can't comment on that, but I like the art style. A bonus that comes from the art style is that it's easier to run on my PC.

    Choices: I like how you don't have time to consider the options. It makes the choices feel more natural.

    Repotition: Just don't ask the same questions. I don't see a problem here. What if someone zoned out or something and needed to hear the information again?

  17. I suggest this writeup by Chuck Jordan about the game, it might interest you:

  18. Choices:
    I don't see how some choices are better than others? Most of them are moral choices. You just do what you think is right, and if you have to think for so long that you can't keep up with the dialogue timer, then you are just not immersed enough.

    Pixel hunting:
    The way I remember the remote control scene:
    You go into the office, and notice the blood and stuff on the floor and go investigating.
    Then you remember that you have to get into the storage to get medicine ASAP, and therefore ahead and push the table.
    After pushing the desk you discover the door is locked and since you were told to find the key, you look the drawers of the desk and find the remote control.
    I don't see the unrelated action here?

    You are not immersed if you keep asking the same question over again. You wouldn't do the in the real world either. If you just play naturally you are not likely to meet any repeated answers. You say it breaks your immersion, but was there any immersion to begin with?

  19. Anonymous, I understand the repetition issue from Thomas' POV. Even if you're immersed deeply, being lost completely will result in you repeating stuff. Like going over the same areas, talking to people in the hope that something has changed, etc, to find out stuff. Personally, to me, it's not really that big of a deal though.

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  21. Would love to hear what you think of the third episode as well.

    1. Not sure I have that much to say. It kept the same quality as ep 2, but told a different kind of story. Some greats moments and it really evokes some emotions that I have not felt in video games before.

      One negative aspect (a part from what I said above) is the environments do not really feel realistic. They feel way to laid-out. When you need an item there is only that item and not else around, etc. It lacks the feeling of a living world and I thought a lot could be gained by fixing that. I think the reason for having it in the current state is because design get much easier and it probably also helps crafting good drama. Walking Dead is very filmic in a way, and the way to maintain that is not to stray to far away from the inspiration.


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