When The Walking Dead won the Game of the Year award at the 2012 Video Game Awards last Friday, some of the reactions were expected. Widespread elation from the game’s fans lit up Twitter, joined by more than a few exclamations of surprise and disbelief. What I wasn’t prepared for was the unbridled disgust that is still pouring in from some quarters.
I’ve professed my love for the writing, the voice acting and pacing in The Walking Dead, but I understand and respect that there are those that do not share my enthusiasm. Many of those that dissent didn’t derive the same emotional satisfaction or simply dislike the adventure genre. There are a host of valid reasons to disagree with the multiple honors it is receiving, and to be fair, many people who disagree with the selection are behaving graciously.
There is one complaint though, that must be addressed, torn down and burned to ash. I have heard multiple “gamers” espousing that The Walking Dead isn’t a game at all.
I simply can’t let this absurd complaint go without counter.
The Walking Dead belongs to a genre that was popular long before first-person shooter fans had ever answered the Call of Duty. Before Mario took his first steps in the Mushroom Kingdom, players were seeking out items to combine in odd ways to solve quirky puzzles. Even before graphics became functional for gaming and pointing and clicking became the principal method of interaction, these experiences existed. Infocom built its empire on text-based adventures, before flaming out as they became obsolete at the end of the 1980s.
If you deny that The Walking Dead is a game, then you have to follow the thread back to Zork, Hunt the Wumpus, Colossal Cave Adventure and Mystery Mansion. All were released before 1980. In other words, rejecting Telltale’s masterpiece a place in the pantheon of honorees is tantamount to tearing down the foundation of our hobby.
It also ignores the contributions that Robert Kirkman, Gary Whitta and the other writers and the team at Telltale have made. Prior to The Walking Dead, I believed that zombie games were all spoonfuls of the same fetid stew. I’ve grown tired of the undead and their singular motivation to consume anything in their way. The concept of a contagion transmitted by bite is a bit silly. That’s not to say that there is no enjoyment to be derived from games featuring shambling corpses. Left 4 Dead provided some thrilling and intense moments. The open world of Dead Island brought a more quest-based approach to the zombie apocalypse. The Walking Dead does something much more, though.
One of the hallmarks of the franchise that spans the comics, television series and the game is that everyone is infected. Bites merely speed the victims toward death and reanimation, and no one is safe. This has far-reaching repercussions. Unless the brain is destroyed, no matter how someone dies, their fate as a flesh-hungry animal is sealed. Even as encampments are formed, the threat of someone dying in his sleep and coming back to terrorize the remaining survivors means that safety is a complete illusion.
And that is what makes the enemy encounters in The Walking Dead so potent. Each and every zombie is different, retaining just a sliver of the humanity that once inhabited the flesh. Throughout the experience, players are faced with heartrending decisions, especially as they must come to grips with the animated husks of former friends. It is an exploration of the connection between body and spirit and our reaction in the face of that bond being severed.
The Walking Dead isn’t a perfect game. It did, however, get me to care about zombies in a way that no other undead-focused title has been able. Killing walkers isn’t about superiority; it is about survival. Even eye to eye with the corpse of someone who was a bastard in life, maliciousness is rarely a factor. Pity, mercy and fear of the future motivate every blow and bullet to the head of a walker. This blend of horrific emotions can be seen in the expressive eyes of Lee, Clementine and the rest of the cast. It’s a testament to the writing, animation and production. For those reasons, and for the sheer emotional impact these five episodes have had on me, The Walking Dead is my 2012 Game of the Year.