I wanted to like the television adaptation of The Walking Dead when it premiered on AMC back in 2010. I like zombies; I like Frank Darabont. I'd heard nothing but good things about the comics the show was based on.
And I liked the pilot; I really did. But immediately after that… they lost me. The show almost immediately became a ploddingly paced snooze-fest broken up by moments of excitement that weren't worth the wait. It was almost entirely populated by underdeveloped characters who frequently behaved like unforgivable imbeciles when they weren't... just... sitting there.
If anything it got worse in its second full season, a farm-shackled slog broken up by just enough action to keep us hopeful that it would get better. And here we are after an action-packed season 2 finale... still hopeful that it might finally get better.
So, I approached Telltale's The Walking Dead video game with some skepticism. I've been reading the books, and their excellence has only served to make me more frustrated with the show. Could a video game adaptation really be better than a TV adaptation?
I've now played through the first episode of the game's planned five-episode run a couple of times. And hey, what do you know? It's very good.
Here are 5 reasons why I like the Walking Dead game better than the TV show.
The fact that protagonist Rick Grimes is the most interesting character on the TV show says less about what an interesting character he is and more about how uninteresting everyone else is. It's only in a few raw moments (the final scenes of the second season, for example) when we get a look at how he could be actually maybe be a character with some depth.
The game's protagonist Lee Everett, on the other hand, is more of a mystery. He has a criminal past that we don't quite understand, and even though we don't know what he's done, we're forced to make decisions about how clean we want to come to the other survivors. Some of them take him at his word, others are suspicious.
His relationships with his family and his ex-wife are complicated, and we learn about them through casually tossed off bits of conversation and, at some points, grisly discoveries in the game.
The game is primarily concerned with telling Lee's story, but the other characters I met offered just enough in their limited screen time to make me interested in them. And the young girl Clementine (who I'll get to in a minute) is another well-done, real-feeling character. Best of all, the game features Glenn, who is by far the least-toolish character on the TV show. It's a veritable cornucopia of non-toolishness!
I find that I want to know more about Lee, and I'm happy that there will be four more episodes in which I'll get to do so. Rick Grimes, on the other hand, has had two seasons worth of TV show to make me interested in him, and yet despite flashes of depth he's still kinda just this guy, you know? And the less said about those goons he hangs out with, the better.
In any zombie apocalypse, there's going to be some downtime; moments when you and your fellow survivors sort of just look at one another blankly, think about the horrible things you've seen and done, and sort of… cope.
In all its forms, The Walking Dead works very hard to conjure those moments; the comics spend page after page looking into the darkness of a soul without hope. But in the TV show, that navel-gazing slows to a glacial pace, and characters spend ages staring into the middle distance, blandly mouthing vague statements about being sad and feeling anguished about this or that. Aside from a couple of the main characters, we aren't given enough information about any of them to find it all that engaging.
The Walking Dead the game has had a fraction of the amount of the TV series' run-time to work with, so its characters are even less developed. And yet, I find that I'm invested in the bland conversations and the shell-shocked mumbling, and I'm eager to know what shell-shocked mumbles will happen next. That's mostly because I'm actually doing the mumbling, and making choices.
Watching a character be vague about his sketchy past isn't all that interesting. In this case, playing as a character who is attempting to be vague about his sketchy past is much more so. Let's call it a "win" for interactive media!
In fact, Clementine is pretty great. She's cute and funny, smarter than she lets on, yet she still acts like a kid. She's one of the most realistically drawn kids I've encountered in a video game in some time.
I spent the entire first chapter having Lee tell her half-truths in just the way that we really do with young kids—I'm not going to spell out for her that her family is most likely dead, and I'm not going to tell her the full story of my checkered criminal past. I could if I wanted to (those are dialogue options), but those just aren't things I would tell a little kid.
I like her and I found that I (and by extension, Lee) wanted to shelter her from what was happening as well as I could. I'm looking forward to seeing how her relationship with Lee changes over the course of the next four chapters. I hope nothing tragic happens. Knowing The Walking Dead, my hopes are most likely in vain.
Compare that to the Walking Dead TV show, where we spent the entirety of the second season anguishing over dumbassed Carl who left the cars like a huge dumbass and wandered out and got shot, in the way that only a real dumbass could. Ugh. Go away, Carl. Go off with your dumbass mom and get turned into a zombie or something. Maybe it'll make you smarter.
The TV version of The Walking Dead tends to be at its best whenever action is either happening or is about to happen. A tense buildup to a bloody confrontation in a bar was my single favorite sequence of the entire series to date. The season 2 finale, which I only recently got around to watching, contained the most engaging extended sequence the show has had in ages. But too much of the series up to then, hampered by uneven writing and budget limitations, has to take place in between zombie attacks. For whatever reason, the show-runners have been unable to turn this weakness into a strength.
Conversely, the action sequences in The Walking Dead game are its least interesting part—and that's by design. It's essentially a point-and-click adventure game, and the Heavy Rain-light controls in combat aren't really designed to be difficult. Despite a couple of harrowing encounters, I never came all that close to dying in all of episode one.
Rather, the game lives in the moments immediately after combat, when you had to make some terrible choice or other and then decide how to rationalize it to everyone else. It's where the central theme comes into play. And hey, speaking of choices and themes...
The Walking Dead is a game about choice. We often hear that in branching games like this: "This is a game about choice." Well of course it is! The player's ability to make narrative-altering decisions is one of the game's defining attributes!
But unlike some other choice-based games, The Walking Dead has something real to say about choice. Namely, that in the heat of the moment, difficult choices barely feel like choices at all. Every time Lee looks back at a difficult decision he made while under pressure, he says something that rings true: It didn't feel like a choice because he didn't have time to think.
"Sometimes," he says, "we don't make choices; we just do what we do."
Compared to the TV show, that theme feels focused and surprisingly fresh. The show feels like a bit of a muddle—sure, it plays with thematic material (Some stuff about religion? Maybe a thing about... like... caring about your kid?), but they're kind of lost in a vague stew of sadness and ennui. I've watched hour after hour of it, and I'm still not really sure if the show has anything to say.
"The zombie apocalypse sure is a bummer," I suppose.
The Walking Dead comics will probably always stand above their non-comic-book offspring. They are tight, brutal, fast-moving, and no matter how many various spinoffs we get, they'll always be the source of the series' guts and soul. (Its oozing guts and black, black soul.) But I'm heartened to see that the writers of the Walking Dead game appear to understand the source material, and have been able to execute it more convincingly and interestingly than their TV show-making counterparts, at least so far.
Even if you've never played a Telltale episodic game, this one really is worth checking out. I've been describing it as "All of the parts of a zombie apocalypse that you haven't yet played in a video game." I hope that sounds like the endorsement that I mean it to be.
I enjoyed the hell out of The Walking Dead and find myself very much looking forward to the next episode. That's something I haven't said about the TV show since the pilot aired.