Never heard of Telltale Games? They might be creating the blueprint for the future of videogames — and that might not be a good thing. The formula for a Telltale game is simple: Adapt a recognizable TV or movie, ideally a brand with a large fanbase, into a point-and-click adventure game. Sprinkle in obvious references to the original TV/movie to prove to fans that you care just enough to make obvious references. Cut the game into “episodes,” with a new segment of the game appearing like clockwork every month. Earn an inflated grade because your licensed game is not as bad as 99 percent of the competition. The Telltale Games model combines every buzz phrase of the modern videogame industry: casual gaming, cross-platform, downloadable content. It doesn’t matter if the games are bad. In fact, Back to the Future: The Game and Jurassic Park: The Game weren’t very good at all.
In episode 1 of Telltale’s newest licensed effort The Walking Dead — four more episodes are due in the coming months — you play a mysterious convict named Lee who gets set free by the zombie apocalypse. For the most part, you control Lee in three types of situations: walking around an environment looking for magic circles to click on, frantically pressing the X button when a zombie attacks, and selecting a dialogue option during one of the game’s frequent conversations. Like the comic book that inspired it (and the TV show that likely inspired the decision to actually make it), the game is more talk than action. Which is actually pretty fun. Walking Dead only gives you a limited time to choose your dialogue, and your decisions influence the fates of various supporting characters and your own journey through the game.
The dialogue-decision aspect of the game suggests a sped-up version of Mass Effect; the regular threat of zombies popping through a window and inspiring a Quick Time Event creates a tension reminiscent of Dead Space. I mean both of those comparisons as a compliment: The Walking Dead suggests that the developers are pushing the retro point-and-click structure forward.
On the other hand, the majority of game play in episode 1 of Dead feels halfhearted. Some background: Telltale Games was founded by refugees from LucasArts, the developer that defined the graphic adventure genre. The point-and-click genre has mostly fallen by the wayside since the ’90s, and the genre itself occupies an uneasy gray area: They’re kinda action games and kinda puzzle games and kinda just travelogues. To newcomers, they can seem boring and outdated. It’s just one evolutionary step up from interactive fiction games where you typed words and waited for more words to appear: Zork with a screensaver.
But LucasArts games like Maniac Mansion, the Monkey Island games, Sam & Max Hit The Road, and the majestic Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis have a quality that is unusual: They are so well designed within the technological limitations that you can’t imagine them being improved — by better graphics or faster load times or save points. They combine an Encyclopedia Brown brain-tease quality — make sure you click on everything — with a meta sense of humor.
Now, back to Walking Dead. Stylistically, the game looks like a smart evolution of the graphic-adventure style. Characters are rendered with a nifty cartoon-gritty animation. The camera regularly shifts from over-the-shoulder to a free-floating, third-person perspective. But the process of moving around Walking Dead‘s world feels stilted. Whenever you walk into a room, you see magic circles hovering over a few objects. You obediently go and click on those objects. Stuff happens. It’s not too different from the “investigation” scenes in LA Noire, when “investigation” meant “Look for shiny objects,” but this time, you’re not investigating everything. There are times when The Walking Dead feels like its own strategy guide, which is a nice way of saying that the game barely trusts your ability to play videogames.
The game closely resembles the mythology of the Dead TV show: children in peril, Southerners who don’t look or sound Southern, characters with a tendency to underreact to the apocalypse. It’s a step above the AMC series in both dialogue and characterization, and Lee’s backstory is a slow-burn mystery which helps forget the name Rick Grimes. It still doesn’t remotely compare to the lurid, cerebral, unhinged vision of the original comic book — at least, not in this episode.
And therein lies the rub: Walking Dead is still a game in process. I finished the first episode with the intention of returning for the next one. After all, when you see a TV premiere that you enjoy, you don’t immediately cancel the series from your DVR. There are just enough elements in the game to make me interested in coming back for more. (The fact that the game prominently features an adorable child in peril who’s not annoying is probably its most impressive dramatic accomplishment.) There are also elements in the game that feel half finished. The dialogue can be sharp, but it can also be a genial chat where one character says, “It’s almost like we didn’t see people eating each other for the last three days!”
Nostalgists and Walking Dead fans and people looking to kill some time will find a lot to passively enjoy in this first episode. Modest ambitions achieved!
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich
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