The Walking Dead’s Meaningful Storytelling

Spoilers for both Seasons of Telltale’s The Walking Dead
The last episode of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 2 is one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had with a video game. The Walking Dead is an episodic, choose your own adventure set in the world of The Walking Dead comics. It started in April 2012 and released every couple months until the last episode of Season 2 destroyed my emotions in December of 2014. I had never played an episodic game over so much time before. It had that effect that TV shows have where cliffhangers are really impactful because you know you won’t be able to see what happens right away, unlike in video games when an impactful moment leads directly to the next moment. This style of release for The Walking Dead made it’s incredibly engaging and meaningful story all the more so.

The Long Game

By the time I was getting ready for the last episode I had been on an emotional roller coaster stretched out over two years. I had been eagerly awaiting every episode, reading everything I could online and replaying each episode while I awaited the next. I was so ready for the ending. This anticipation and engagement built up over such a long time also brought with it an attachment to the game’s characters. I felt like I knew Lee, the protagonist from Season 1, better than some of my real life friends. And when he died at the end of Season 1 I was devastated. I couldn’t imagine a Walking Dead without Lee. That’s why when Season 2 took on Clementine as the lead I was overjoyed to return to the character who’d spent so much time with Lee in Season 1.

No, You’re Crying

Presenting such an intimate, emotional story in the form of a choose your own adventure is what really makes The Walking Dead meaningful. Letting players feel like they’re the ones interacting with the other characters and the world rather than just experiencing another player’s story, just pushing buttons until the next cutscene, is what makes the player’s interactions seem more natural, truly fitting the story. I felt like I had my own story, unique of everyone else’s. She was my Clementine, and I was going to keep her alive. After Lee’s death and Clem went out into the world to survive on her own I had left behind any thought of Lee, his story was closed. That’s why a scene at the end of Season 2 brought me to tears in an unexpected and incredible way.
The scene was a dream, Clem was remembering a conversation we never saw between them from Season 1. This scene got me for two reasons. First is that Lee had been a character I’d played as for over a year, I’d made tough choices with him, dismembered countless zombies as him and most importantly dedicated all his efforts to protecting Clem. And then he died. It took me so long to get past his death and fully dedicate myself to Clem. And then at the end of the Season when I was finally starting to forget about him they bring him back in a gut-wrenching scene that only has the impact it does because of the countless hours I’d spent playing as him, the months I’d waited for the next instalment in his story.

Final Thoughts

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Telltale’s choice to present their story in an episodic tale told over months and years allowed the player’s to develop a real and emotional connection to its cast. The way they made decision making and player choice an integral part of how player’s interact with the game is what makes moments like this, and ultimately the outcome of the story, so meaningful and successful. The player’s choices, their decisions, are communicated so effectively and in ways that make sense to the player but still can surprise them. At no point in my playthrough did a decision I made in a conversation or fight result in a frustrating or nonsensical result. That’s the brilliance of Telltale’s The Walking Dead and why that scene in the last episode of Season 2 will stay with me for a long time to come.

Published by Stephan N. Reilly

Freelance writer and designer.

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