Long Road Ahead’s opening scene is a microcosm of what Telltale Games’ episodic The Walking Dead has served up so far. Crammed into five minutes, it provides all of the major elements the game has built itself on. Therefore, it’s the perfect morsel to provide an understanding of what it’s all about for those that have not yet played it.
Well, it would be if it wasn’t part of Episode Three and therefore carries a few spoilers about has been before…
A brief scene-setting conversation sets the tone and gets us ready for the fight for survival to come. That’s followed by a puzzle which is essentially an excuse to include some form of interaction rather than a genuine brainteaser, and a moral choice that’s surprisingly impactful despite its isolation as far as the bigger picture is concerned.
The scene ends with a high-tempo action sequence that is defined by your previous decision and has a big affect on what’s to come. Scene-setting, moral choice, outcome: it’s the loose framework that the first two episodes have followed. Seeing it all come together so starkly in a single scene highlights the writing technique applied to the series… it’s not complicated, but it sure is effective.
Of the three episodes so far, Long Road Ahead is similar. It’s not the most complex, but it is the most effective. More than the first two chapters, the emphasis here is on the relationships between the characters and the strain they’re feeling as a result of their situation. The motel has become like a besieged castle, our crew trapped inside to keep safe from zombies and gun-crazed bandits.
Feelings of claustrophobia, despair, paranoia, loneliness and suspicion come to the fore as a result. The result is something akin to movies such as Aliens, Assault on Precinct 13 and Event Horizon, stories that explore what happens to a group beset by external and seemingly overwhelming threats and problems. Despite the zombies, and like the aforementioned films, the main theme of Long Road Ahead is the idea that your greatest enemy is one another as individuals’ mental states begin to unravel, friends turn against one another and the smallest hiccups seem like enormous hurdles, betrayals and/or setbacks.
Whereas previous episodes have been defined more by the situation, this is defined by people and their actions. Without doubt Long Road Ahead sees the most surprising and gut-wrenching moment of the series so far. Seriously, my initial reaction to the moment in question was to want to start over and see if I could prevent it from happening. I decided not to, of course, given what kind of game this is trying to be.
One of the joys of the game is that your reaction to the same moment will be equal, stronger or weaker than mine. It will depend on your previous decisions, how you’ve identified (or not) with certain characters and what kind of person you are and what kind of person you see protagonist Lee as.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, The Walking Dead is at the forefront of ‘narrative decision games’ (along with the likes of Catherine, Heavy Rain and Deus Ex) and is shaping up to be the best thing Telltale has ever done. The reason is because of how well the narrative and the given decisions weave a sense of ownership over Lee and his emotions.
For example, you want Clementine to find peace and live a good life again because you care about her, not because you want to “win” the game.
The Walking Dead manages to do what so few games can or aim to do, it challenges what we think of a game. Anyone who sees a game as a series of interactions will inevitably lose interest. Anyone who agrees with the idea that a game can be about a series of narrative and emotional reactions will find much to enjoy.
Again, I’ve said this before, but here’s an example of a ‘game’ in which the term ‘game’ is a completely inadequate a description.
As you can tell, I rather like The Walking Dead, and Long Road Ahead is the best episode so far. Being the third of five acts, typical logic would suggest that it should have represented the difficult middle portion – the part where the start and the finale struggle to come together as a cohesive whole – but that’s not the case whatsoever.
Parts one and two were the warm up, things are now getting serious.