The Walking Dead: Episode 1: A New Day Review

Platform | Release Date
XBLA, PSN, PC | April 25, 2012
Developed by Telltale Games
Published by Telltale Games

The Pitch:

Lee Everett, a man convicted of a crime of passion, has been given the chance for redemption in a world devastated by the undead. Players will experience life changing events, meet new characters and familiar ones from the original comic, and also visit locations that foreshadow the story of Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes. The Walking Dead offers a tailored game experience – player actions, choices and decisions affect how the story plays out across the entire series.

What is it about the undead that makes them so prevalent in modern pop culture? Zombies, on an individual level, do not terrify us in the same way Lovecraft’s eldritch horrors or Giger’s slithering xenomorphs do. Traditionally weak, slow, and easy to fool, zombies have somehow managed to become one of the most commonly occurring enemies in gaming; ascendant in the pantheon alongside alien warriors and mercenary thugs. As they shuffle forward, it’s their ever-growing numbers that frighten us. The scientific community has named our species homo sapiens sapiens. Translated as “wise wise man”, this demonstrates how much we value our intellect. Zombies serve as an affront to our hubris; amid scarcity and faced with an overwhelming force, our intelligence and technological advancements mean precious little.

The Walking Dead: Episode 1: A New Day is a game about zombies in much the same way Hamlet is a play about uncles. Though the zombie apocalypse propels its story forward, the game is wholly focused on the tenuous nature of civilized interaction and being resourceful enough to outsmart your circumstances. You are placed in the prison jumpsuit of Lee Everett, a man whose past crimes are shrouded in mystery at the game’s onset. Though a constant source of intrigue for the player, his pre-apocalyptic life feels like just one more obstacle stacked against Lee. His case was fairly high-profile, and even a casual aside in passing conversation might be enough to make a fellow survivor recognize him as a convicted murderer.

At the core, there’s a traditional adventure game to be found here. These games historically feature exceptionally simple mechanics whose only job is to stay out of the way of the story being told. Item management, pixel hunting, and dialogue systems are at their best when they happen without conscious effort. In classic iterations, there’s routinely a moment when you use the chewed gum on every other item in your inventory out of desperation. It’s in these moments that the game itself obfuscates the experience it’s intending to provide; a failure refreshingly unshared by A New Day.

Every potential pitfall of the genre seems to have been neatly sidestepped by Telltale games; formulas derived from years of similar games are finally seen through to their apex. Items share one single slot on the interaction wheel, and only items that can be used are suggested. The game will highlight objects with which you can interact, or not if you prefer to preserve the immersion. Telltale Games is so gracefully flexible in the way it allows you to operate in this narrative, but nowhere more so than in character dialogue.

Altercations, verbal and otherwise, ignite among survivors, and take on a life of their own if left to burn unchecked. During these heated moments, the dialogue wheel is accompanied by a timer; take too long to respond and the conversation will gather momentum without you. Defusing these situations requires equal parts wisdom and speed. Your fellow survivors have their own motivations, and often they stand in direct conflict with each other. Helping one inherently harms another, and these choices promise to carry forth over the expanse of this series.

For all its successes, there is a slowly advancing sense of dread here as well. One is left to wonder how many of the game’s most pivotal moments only work once. How many times can Telltale Games make Lee’s life-and-death choices feel weighty? The potential for future failure is plain to see in the stark relief of everything done right here. But if they continue to up the ante, stave off the creeping advance of heightened expectations, and somehow manage to shock us again when we are looking for it, Telltale Games may just provide us with the greatest episodic experience in gaming history.

About Adam Bash

Adam Bash was the host of the Fall Damage podcast and is currently a contributor to Splitkick. He helps make the site do things.
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