WARNING: Major Spoilers ahead
Many years and three full seasons have passed since we first met Lee and Clementine. Telltale’s The Walking Dead had a significant impact on the world of gaming. In the process, it sold more than 8 million copies in under a year and gained a large, enthusiastic following. But what made it so successful? What has kept us hooked until today? Even if later seasons weren’t quite as good as the first?
Fans of the series were gutted when Telltale laid off over 250 employees. The delay of the rest of season 4 was made apparent. In fact, we might never have seen episodes 3 and 4. But then it was announced that Skybound Games and Telltale Games had reached an agreement. The final episodes of the series were back on.
We’ve all been anxiously awaiting this news. And now we ask the question… why? Why is this game series so good that we NEED more of it?
A good, solid plot is absolutely critical in a game series like The Walking Dead. There’s not a whole lot of gameplay to boast about. Even in the later stages, seasons 3 and 4 are rather light on the gameplay element.
All this game’s power comes from the story. So to analyze the success of The Walking Dead, we must analyze the story. It can almost be summed up in one word: Clementine. But there’s so much more to a story than a good protagonist. Let’s explore…
These elements are universal. They apply to most stories. And it’s cliché, yes. But for a good reason.
These elements are:
Each element must be strong in order to create a good story. The best plot in the world couldn’t save a dull cast of characters. The best characters wouldn’t hold up in a boring setting. And the conflict that makes no sense would lead to a dull, pointless resolution.
So, how does the Telltale series get these elements right?
The characters are what make this series shine. The fact that Lee was something of a blank canvas for us to project onto went a long way. We didn’t know much about him. And we certainly didn’t know anything about his character.
It was ours to create
That’s what sets this series apart from the rest. The characters we’re in control of are what we say they are. On top of that, we have well-rounded supporting characters who complement our main characters in the best way. Whether it be by help or by conflict.
The protagonists are all great. Javier might be the exception since he was a full character before we got to him. Complete with backstory and a set personality. Still, we couldn’t help but keep a watchful eye on Clementine and what she’d become. We were actually invested in Clementine. We’d grown to love this grouping of pixels on a screen.
Throughout seasons 1 and 2, we had a direct hand in her upbringing and we just need to know how she turns out at the end of the day.
And let’s not forget the villains in the series. The best by far being Carver. A totally believable, relatable villain - that you can’t help but hate. The film production team of The Walking Dead series could have learned a thing or two here. cough Negan cough.
There simply is a “too far” when it comes to villains. And without some realistic goal that the villain wishes to achieve, they can easily come across as unbelievable and put the player off completely. There are also those friends turned into villains, with their own set of selfish goals, all believable and relatable. We know people like this in real life...
And the character arcs… no character was left the same. Every single character changed in some significant way - except, perhaps, Omid. But most of the characters acted like humans. They changed, just like humans do. And that’s what makes them so damn believable. We could write a book on how this game series got the characters right. But let’s stop here for now and head onto the next element.
The Zombie Apocalypse
Not the most creative setting, but one of the most interesting for sure.
It’s the perfect setting to explore human nature. To see what we’re really like. Strip away the suits and business meetings. Remove the distractions and the luxury. Make survival the only option again, and our true colors start to show. It’s the perfect setting to explore yourself. To catch a glimpse of the person you really are. Will you keep up your “help everybody” attitude, or put your own safety first? The zombie apocalypse will let you find out.
But not without a good plot...
Plots are hard for zombie games. There’s normally just one goal - survival. But with the excellent use of characters, Telltale creates human-driven plots to supplement the survival aspect. And it gets harder with time.
In the beginning, you choose between Doug and Carley. A pretty easy decision, right? As time goes on, these decisions become harder. This ties back into the character element but adds an extra character - you. You change during gameplay. You start out as a starry-eyed adventurer in this apocalypse. Dead set on being nice to everyone and saving even the damned. A season and a half later you’re watching as Kenny bashes Carver’s skull in with a crowbar. And you enjoy it. We learn about our own human nature. And the plot is so excellently written that we don’t even realize we’re changing.
Well, mostly. We might realize afterward, but while we’re in Robert Kirkman’s universe, we’re just trying to do what we think is right. And our distinction between right and wrong does change over time...
Plenty of this
Again, it ties into the character element. We’re given characters that don’t always see eye to eye. That isn’t agreeable. That don’t take your word for everything, or do everything you say - just because you said so. They seem to have minds of their own. And that makes for good conflict. Not only between player and NPC, but between NPC’s. It fits into the secret ingredient too, which we’ll talk about in a second.
But for now, know this: a good story cannot exist without good, believable conflict. And we’re not talking conflict between protagonist and villain. We’re talking about internal conflict, a conflict between friends, etc. Because that’s the conflict that truly drives a story forward.
There’s never an end in sight in this series. There are always more walkers. Always more enemies. But the small resolutions we get - they keep us going. More importantly, they keep us satisfied. Finding and fortifying the Motor Inn. Discovering the gross secret at the St. John’s Dairy Farm. Escaping Carver’s compound. Etc…
There’s always a goal. And, therefore, always a potential resolution on the horizon. We’re still waiting for the big resolution. The resolution to rule them all - the big finish. And, hopefully, we’ll get it soon.
Yeah, we all cringe at that thought. But think about it. You quickly grow to love Clementine, feeling ever more protective over her. As Clementine, you grow to love Kenny and don’t want the others harming him. Even if he is dangerous and crazy. You love AJ - unconditionally. He’s a baby. And babies need protecting no matter what. Heck, we even grow to like Duck once we get to know him a little. His death is still an emotional blow.
There’s always someone to protect. Even in Season 4 - it’s AJ and then the other kids at the school. So the secret ingredient is helpless, or loved characters. Love.
It’s the will to protect that makes this game so damn addictive. Sure, you’d go to Atlanta and back (In a zombie apocalypse) for your own life. But you’d go all the way to Timbuktu for the lives of your loved ones.
The Walking Dead game series fits in pretty nicely with the standard story formula. But what they do best, is they don’t try too hard. The creators didn’t try to get all the aspects of a good story to perfection. If you strip away the characters, the plot is almost pointless. But their characters… they’re what makes the game series spectacular.
So when telling a story, don’t try to get all the elements perfect. Pick the element that best suits your genre, and focuses almost exclusively on that element. As long as the other elements are still present, your story might just shine too.