D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die

I think D4 was worth a day’s laugh, but even paying $10 (specifically for it) in a bundle feels a bit steep now. Though it’s called “Season One”, it’s like a third of the length I’d expect from a modern graphic adventure game, at just two episodes. This took me completely by surprise while playing. It seems that things were prematurely cut short; Swery left the studio and there’s no more coming.

The ridiculous characters would fit in well with an Ace Attorney episode, and the same stand-out Swery style is here, but the small cast on D4’s airplane didn’t pull me in like Deadly Premonition’s warm town, which had some of the most relaxing pacing of any game. It’s unfair of me as a reviewer to expect to bond with an incomplete experience, I suppose, but it’s also unfair to be sold one, so, here we are. I’m sorry if things fell apart for the studio, though–I don’t really know the details at all.

Sadly, the actual mode of interaction is gimmicky and unenjoyable; you do little unnecessary “tilt the control stick” QTEs whenever you want to open a door or whatever, and you do longer, annoying scored sequences of QTEs when the action heats up. Life Is Strange did amazing things just on the basis of exploration and interaction and a simple time control mechanic as well, but where in its case it didn’t feel the need to throw pointless tests in to distract you from the story, D4 doubly overcompensates. There are also a few timed interaction challenges and a bad minigame where you touch objects that fall from the top of the screen before they reach the bottom–the latter of which just feels pathetic as ideas go. I’m trying to imagine this game if you just walked around like a normal person and looked at things, and it seems nice.

There’s a million collectible objectives, and I do think it’s kind of cool to have characters commenting on your outfit or saying they don’t like your beard or whatever. The Tales From The Borderlands model of this stuff, which also put currency and items in a graphic adventure, was certainly better. I’d prefer fewer missable items and associated achievements, but it seems they had some bigger ideas they couldn’t quite deliver on. We see hints of the game as a New Game Plus-minded thing, including one quest that can’t be solved unless you replay the chapter with an item from later in the game. I found it tedious getting past the content I’d already played even just to do that one sidequest, though: I could skip dialogue, but the mission structure was still pretty locked up and there were still various little motions you had to go through. This chapter-select replay for scores and other junk is far better suited to games like Resident Evil 5; graphic adventures like D4 are better off keeping their eyes straight ahead.

It’s not all bad. The mechanic that lets me shove people at any time is extremely good. Some parts are really funny, like the crazy passenger making a scene about how the plane is going to crash and who needs calming down. Or the overtly stupid sidequests–like travelling through time just so the player can check a shelf in their house and find out which James Bond movies Timothy Dalton was in, simply because the question was bugging somebody. That’s the kind of game this is, and I can definitely appreciate that.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Life Is Strange

I think this one was a very beautiful game. The drama and its characters are extremely well executed and acted, and I think what surprised me most was seeing the specifics of the medium used remarkably well at times to convey things beyond what could be done with the traditional storytelling. In one scene Max is just lying in bed and it becomes clear as it exits a cutscene that it’s one of those times where you can press a button to actually get moving, but Max is reluctant to move and I actually found myself reluctant to move her… it’s not something that can be easily described, but I thought it was particularly special.

But the execution of the time travel and the game’s themes of choice, and loss of control, and feelings of regret over trying to play God (awfully like the movie Project Almanac if you’ve ever seen it) don’t always appropriately deliver. It’s an incredibly hard thing to get right in a game, but it’s one of those works of fiction that will tend to frame things in a limited fashion to make an argument that only sort of works on its own incredibly specific terms. You see a few false dichotomies, lacking the agency to take actions or make arguments that should be there, because the absence of choice is a contrivance that creates more dilemmas. Sometimes choices you might not want to make are made for you, which is ludically unfortunate, although it might make for the best story in the end. And narratively speaking, the limits on your rewind power–being unable to use it during a cutscene, or after leaving a room–can feel sometimes arbitrary. These things were often forgivable but just as often worked against what I feel were the story’s best interests as a work of interactive fiction.

Sometimes it’s a classic Inadequate Telltale Argument situation, not even related to the time travel: like when you’re trying to talk the religious girl down from suicide and eventually you’re lead to three options that all involve appealing to her religion, despite that Max doesn’t even share the religious views at all. To me that seemed like three incredibly fucking condescending choices when I just wanted to make an earnest appeal to a suicidal girl to just slow down, because the rest of her life was worth a few minutes of reasoning if nothing else.

But I think what bothered me most was when our favorite girl Chloe was doing target practice and hit herself with the fucking ricochet: your only choice is to rewind time and tell her to pick a new target, causing them to keep at it right up until the drug dealer enters the scene–unavoidable–and the situation gets worse. I badly wanted to give Chloe a smack in the head and to tell her that it was time to stop playing with guns, that it’s not fun anymore after something like that; to say if the ricochet had hit me instead of her, it all would have been over, because there’s no rewinding that.

Like a lot of fun time-travel films that don’t quite get their logic right, Life Is Strange messes up. Putting aside the other method of time travel that gets introduced later on, Steins;Gate style–in which case I have so many questions and assumptions to challenge that I don’t even know where to start–Max is supposed to be retaining her position in space when she rewinds, which means that when she gets up from her seat at 9 AM, walks out of the room and stands by her locker at 9:02 AM, and then rewinds the clock back two minutes… to any outside observer, for all intents and purposes, she teleported from her seat to her locker. But nobody notices that, and the game is inconsistent with how this works in cutscenes. But… apart from wanting to yell at the game sometimes, I have to admit that the errors didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story in the end. And I liked Project Almanac more than Primer anyway.

I found the time travel most thrilling when it allowed me to put something I learned to use in conversation thirty seconds before learning it, such as making people like me by saying the things they hadn’t said yet. And before Max’s klutziness got played out a few episodes in and they stopped doing it, it was nice wish-fulfillment to get to undo the occasional error. But I didn’t find myself rewinding much as a result of equivocating on major choices: unless Max said something I hadn’t intended for her to say from a dialogue option (thankfully not such a big problem in this game, for obvious reasons), I basically knew what I wanted the first time around. If there were ever more games based around this premise–and I’d be thrilled to have them–I think the most obvious place to really get more out of the rewind would be in the joys of optimization; speedrunning by virtue of rewinding until everything is done. Entering a building at exactly noon and having teased every bit of info out of every NPC and having all the nearby objects in your pocket before 12:01 PM. Put a clock in the UI and make it matter.

The last episode did drag a bit with the extended nightmare scenarios–I felt like it had all been done before–though the first conversation with the teacher pulls a Hatoful Boyfriend trick with your dialogue options that I was pretty delighted to see again.

Ultimately, and especially with the big (and evidently divisive) choice at the end, for me it was an Orpheus and Eurydice love story. There’s beauty and poignance in petulantly fighting for one person at the cost of everything, even if you have to use your fingernails to dig straight to hell, and even if it’s ultimately greedy or fundamentally self-centered and misguided, like the original Orpheus probably was. But if you already know all your uncomfortable priorities… if you really have your trolley problem shit figured out–like, would Lee drown a baby to save Clementine or whatever?–you can always live with the hard choices you’ve made.

I think the Dontnod team managed to match Telltale at their best on this one. (And there are no QTEs, which was even better.) In all seriousness I was hit pretty hard by this game, and I would have very likely given it a 5 if it had done better in just one area between its occasional weak choice options, the pacing of its final act, and the low level of mechanical ambition. It’s still, I think, a must-play title.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Tales from the Borderlands

This one was Telltale done right. Really good. Compared to Game of Thrones, I felt like I was far more involved. For one thing, there’s a lot more freedom to act in the Borderlands world, both in terms of licensing and in tone. I know they won’t kill off Ramsey Snow, but they could always go kill Moxxi. You can act out and get away with more. And it became clear at the end that some of the interactions I’d had with certain characters could’ve gone down a lot differently.

I’d be hesitant to replay the game, especially with no option to skip lines of dialogue, or to set the controller down without having to frequently rapid-tap some button to pretend I’m participating in a cutscene. The QTEs would be a lot better if they were only in there when they provided options. Are there really any Telltale players who wouldn’t be alright with just watching a movie until it’s time to talk again?

Still being a Telltale game, there are some occasional hiccups and areas that could’ve used a quality pass, but it’s really not too bad this time.

The Borderlands series isn’t for everyone. I’ve watched a couple friends get burned out on those games. In the flagship shooters, the storyline has just sort of been there. And I’ve personally felt that the forced attempts at being wacky fall flat a lot, in the same way I thought the Lego movie was sort of charming but not funny at all (see “Everything Is Awesome”). We get it: Torgue likes explosions. But there’s a lot of extremely funny stuff, too, and the Telltale collaboration is the cream of that crop. It’s got a fairly classic but polished story structure, and makes good use of the multiple protagonists/perspectives (including having a conversation with yourself). And it’s twisted: if you’re going to do a QTE, it may as well be to peel a psycho’s face off.

If there was a standard Borderlands shooter that kept the stuff that really worked, like neat builds and cooperative skill synergy, but where they dropped a lot of the MMO questing loop stuff and had players take turns taking action with Telltale-style choice mechanics outside of combat, that could be quite amazing.

There was great use of a money-spending mechanic, generally for cosmetic purposes, but which let you show some personality throughout your run. And while I haven’t played The Pre-Sequel, I liked a lot about how the existing characters were used: the existing Vault Hunters are fearsome figures whose actions (and the size of their bounties) completely dwarf yours. Even Borderlands 2 couldn’t manage to do that, where your low-level characters made the original heroes look like fools. It’s a nice touch.

Oh, and the soundtrack! Leave it to Borderlands to put the Dub in the Steppe, and leave it to Telltale to license some fantastic stuff for each episode. The orchestral menu theme really stood out for me, too. It’s really hard to come away from this displeased.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Game of Thrones

Of the post-Walking Dead Telltale games I’ve seen, this one’s the worst. I didn’t hate it, but it was often frustrating, and felt rushed (not to mention somewhat buggy). With The Wolf Among Us I said that they needed to do some focus-testing with the scripts if they wanted player choice to carry the nuances of intent and circumstance. Instead, they were completely flagrant here about how little these things matter. The flowchart for this game is a straight line.

Taken as such a straightforward tale, it’s better than watching some of the more unnecessary and boring or gratuitous TV episodes. There’s action and treachery, cowards, cunts, smug people, naive people. A dragon shows up to do more than just snarl at Emilia Clarke. They wrote some good stuff. But it’s not a TV show. Here, lots of action means lots of QTEs. Nobody plays these games for the QTEs.

It felt formulaic in many spots. It’s hard to feel guilty when the guilt-traps are obvious, like when you know someone’s just waiting to jump out from behind a corner and say, “I saw you try to steal that thing!” Why would you take that risk, especially once you’ve realized how little a difference it’ll make? You can try not to metagame, but the game itself never hides the idea that you’re making choices as a Telltale gamer, not as a human being. The toughest choices are probably the ones where you decide between making a promise you’ll have to break later, or putting yourself in an awkward social position by refusing to promise things in the first place.

Moving onto the specifics and spoilers. The worst thing may have been the contrivance of one of Royland or Duncan being a traitor to the house (neither was very believable in my run), but one thing that stood out to me, personally, as a farce, was in avoiding lethal blows in the fight against Britt: the next episode didn’t even bother to put the wounds on his corpse’s arms, much less allow Gared to make his case. And when Finn lied about what he’d seen of their fight, it just became one more of those inexplicable character moments.

In terms of the player’s involvement, I think Sera might have been the most complicated and interesting character. She’s very easy to dislike, as from the beginning, her clowning around poses an obstacle for Mira. She also tends to ask things of Mira without really offering anything in return. Even Sera’s sideways glances when you’re talking to Natalie Dormer give the impression of a busybody at best and a spy at worst. If you value your privacy at all, she acts as if you’ve wounded her. Telltale needs these sorts of characters. But later, at a point when you’ve likely resolved yourself to blackmail her in order to get her help, she decides to risk her own standing to help you when you simply ask. (Honestly, I know this is just another contrivance: if she hadn’t helped despite you blackmailing her, Mira’s story would be completely derailed. But I liked that moment anyway.)

Several other choices don’t even pretend to matter. Nothing in King’s Landing amounts to anything for the family, and the North Grove was just baffling in its supposed importance. I chose not to burn a letter, and it never came up again. I kept a dagger in case Mira had to use it, and when a time came where she was alone with Morgryn, she didn’t have it on her anyway. The dagger only exists to be sprung on her as evidence, and even then, only a few episodes later, when presumably weeks or even months have gone by. She just kept it in her drawers, covered in blood all that time?

Most troublesome of all, you’re made to bend over every time Ryon is pulled out as a hostage, no matter what sort of assassination plot you’ve promised to carry out or have committed yourself to. This may sound cold-hearted, but the whole family is torn apart piece by piece every time you let them hold that over you. Pretty much everyone dies while they fret over the fourth-born son. Not having the chance to cut our losses was really irritating.

It’s especially insulting when they make you reload from a “bad ending” where Rodrick kills Ludd in his own keep, and as a consequence, Rodrick is killed there along with his mother, and Arthur Glenmore. And then I finished the game only to find myself in a situation where Ludd was still alive, Rodrick and his mother were dead anyway, Arthur was tortured to death, and Asher was on death’s door on top of it all. Fuck you, I want the bad ending back. Maybe Ramsey would’ve taken everything in that situation, but I’d have liked to play it out. It was the sort of choice Telltale was too gutless or lazy to allow.

I give this one a passing score because I’m a masochist and I enjoy stories that make me miserable. Game of Thrones is a pretty good show and Natalie Dormer is hot. In conclusion, Game of Thrones is a land of contrasts. Thank you. [a sudden gust of wind catches my Bristol board with magazine cut-outs of Game of Thrones stars glued to it; somehow, it lands in a fire.]

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

The Wolf Among Us

The Wolf Among Us was a great game, with very interesting characters and dilemmas, but as with earlier Telltale games, I feel that the nuances behind my choices were often lost, and the resulting issues were more critical here. I’m unwilling to avoid talking about these choices, and so I can’t avoid spoiling a thing or two.

For example, I told Snow I would send the pig to The Farm, but told the pig that “she’d come around”. I wasn’t intending that to be my actual choice in the matter, but I was also hoping I would actually get a look at this place everyone was afraid of going to before sending a person to live there. When the frog confronted me about whether the pig was going to The Farm, I was a little vexed that the game had apparently made up its mind and that I had no option to say, “Don’t worry, the pig’s getting the exact same treatment as you.”

Here’s another one: I let Beast kick the shit out of me when he was misunderstanding things, thinking it might help our relationship in the long term if he felt guilty about beating me up, instead of giving him a new reason to resent me. It didn’t stop him from being a huge jerk later, and I never got to make a point of it.

The game touches upon some more complex problems than the immediate life and death threats of The Walking Dead, but in gaining this complexity it is sometimes harder for the game to accurately represent my thoughts and ideas in its multiple choice dialogue. For example, Snow was very clear in her belief that she believed that Crane was innocent of murder, and my responses seemed overly concerned with my own opinion of his guilt. I didn’t think he did it either, but I was more concerned with the process: you don’t just clear a person of suspicion because he’s pathetic-looking. When Snow was reading out the charges against Crane, I added “And suspicion of murder,” which prompted an argument I wanted to take neither side of. To me it seemed tactically useful to keep pressuring Crane under a crime he had no responsibility to take the fall for. Snow instead thought it was a good time to argue in front of our leverage.

Crane “acts” like he isn’t to blame, and in fact the game is generally pretty heavy-handed about how people act when innocent or guilty–the Woodsman, like Crane, is a complete asshole right until he starts crying feebly, and I (correctly) believed Vivian was involved just because she was being a little stoic in one scene.

Also: when a man has been actively trying to kill you by shooting you with a shotgun, and doesn’t die from lesser injuries, and you appear to be a society of a few dozen people without the capacity to enforce more civilized forms of keeping the peace, like exile or imprisonment, I think killing him and eliminating the threat forever is a foregone conclusion. Even if I felt like I was in control of the situation and didn’t “have to do it”, it seemed like a good idea, for either five minutes down the line, or a month down the line. But this was another nuance never communicated. The game touches upon very interesting themes I care about, in systemic problems and the difficulties of justice, but no character really points out that their whole society is like some tiny Old West frontier town without any real capacity to prove guilt in the first place beyond mob opinion, so the trial is a farce, in ways that do seem intended, but also in ways that feel unintended. It seemed obvious to me that Nerissa’s testimony was a lie, but this was an epilogue revelation that came as a shock to Bigby. I saw the trial as a way to make a couple people (mainly Snow) feel good about themselves before things invariably came down to crude mob justice no matter what was said.

The ending was a bit confusing, but mostly in a good way. Was Kaiser Soze lying even in her explanation at the end, when she said she came clean to Georgie out of fear? Did she deliberately orchestrate the deaths of her friends to bring the Crooked Man’s entire operation to Bigby’s attention? That seems somewhat unlikely, but I don’t know. I was unfortunately unclear on some of the specific points, like whether the Magic Mirror itself had been cursed somehow, or if it was just incapable of sharing the details of those cursed to others–different, for some reason, from how Bigby was able to tell Snow about Nerissa’s curse.

I only played the game one time through, but while I wouldn’t expect the end results to change much, there are times where Bigby has a choice of two or three places to go, and while these would probably be more like alternate scenes rather than changes to the big picture, they might make a replay more tolerable, and perhaps I’ll go back and take a look before a Season Two is released.

Overall it didn’t have the emotional payoff of The Walking Dead’s Season One. Still, I see more promise in a Wolf Among Us Season Two than TWD S2 showed. As long as they continue to write great stories, preferably focus-testing the dialogue responses a bit more for nuance, I’ll keep playing the games.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

The Walking Dead: Season Two

Season One review here.

Season Two is still a good game. But now that you are Clementine, you’re largely invincible and the consequences are minimized. Any time you get an option to save somebody, you take it, because it’s not like you’ve got some child clutching your leg who’s your only real priority. You are that child, and helping others isn’t going to get your player character killed. You can dismiss this as “metagaming”, but it’s impossible to play a game like this and not intuitively make your player character take personal risks at this point. And when people are like “Why didn’t you save my friend instead of me” you can just be like, “Hi, I’m eleven.” When grown-ups are split between two options and arguing about what to do, you can often stay quiet and not really piss anybody off, because nobody was actually going to benefit from the little kid shouting “I THINK KENNY’S PLAN IS NOT GOOD.” And rest assured if you had, [Kenny will remember that.]

One of the things I liked doing in Season 1 was establishing for myself early on just what my priorities were, as Lee, so I could make choices both easily and consistently. For example, I would quickly sacrifice every other person for Clem, but her own moral development was also paramount, so I would never casually chose to kill or steal from another person. The Clem I chose to be in this season was someone who was willing to take on huge dangers, not necessarily out of an eagerness to please others but because she has this idea that it’s what heroes do, and doesn’t really understand that all the adults saying, “Hey Clem, can you do all the hard and scary work?” are cowards.

Looking at the way Season 1 would play out depending on player choices, it became clear that Kenny was a real nice friend to have if you agreed with him all the time, but that he had a pretty low tolerance when things didn’t go his way, which showed a certain immaturity under pressure. There was this scene in Season 2 where Kenny plans to violently beat someone to death, and you have a choice to stay and watch, or to leave the room. The Lee I established in Season 1 would never have let Clem watch something like that, but she was always a sort of reality check for him–he was capable of worse when she wasn’t there to give him perspective. I’d hoped that Kenny would at least partially feel that way, and that he would maybe not take so much pleasure in it with Clem watching. But he didn’t give a damn that Clem was there. He’s a bastard, and has terrible instincts as a guardian or role model. But I thought it was interesting, fathoming the worth of a person like that, through your own actions. It’s not something a lot of games do or do well.

I did have a few issues with choice outcome, with the level of reactivity. For example, it means nothing to Arvo if you gave him back his medical supplies. To hell with that guy. And everyone blaming Clem for everyone else’s death is stupid beyond what is acceptable, even if they are grieving–the series is best when it provokes feelings of responsibility and guilt, but the things Clem gets the blame for are too idiotic for guilt. Kenny does apologize for the heavy shit he puts on Clem after Sarita dies, but Bonnie gets Luke killed while Clem keeps the zombies off him, blames Clem for Luke’s death, and this is on top of all the other crap Bonnie says and does. I wouldn’t have killed her in cold blood or anything, but she definitely earned the reward for Person Of The Year Whom I Most Wanted To Sacrifice For Any Vaguely, Probably-Necessary Reason That Comes To Mind.

It looks like the endings vary a bit in terms of who Clem can end up with, and where. But for Season Three, they can probably just say “6 months later” and put her wherever with whoever anyway, so I don’t expect any more reactivity going forward. Honestly, while I’d play another season, I know it won’t have the emotional energy of the first game–I think this was just an inherent loss in the idea of playing as Clementine instead of as her guardian. Improved reactivity would be a nice way to pick up the slack, but apart from that, I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to push Clem to the sidelines.

I stitched together an image of my major choices and put that here. Note that while it says I didn’t tell Walter the truth about Matthew, in actuality, letting him know was fully the intent of my actions, in urging Nick to come clean and everything else. But when the moment came and Walter had clearly already put the pieces together, I chose to be quiet while he stewed on what he’d already figured out, instead of superfluously saying “Yup, he killed him.” And Clem ultimately spelled it out for him anyway, in the dialogue that followed. So that one getting marked as not having told the truth is strange–the game doesn’t always register the subtleties of your choices quite right.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

The Walking Dead: Season One

The Walking Dead is a zombie survival game in a world inundated with zombie survival games. The actual level of interactivity and reactivity in the game tends to be shallow and illusionary, if convincing at first glance. It’s also one of the most profound experiences art had to offer in 2012.

It is about choice agony. Explorations of choice and with normative ethical codes in games are always very interesting, and The Walking Dead tests these concepts out in fascinating ways. It’s a masterwork when it comes to invoking responsibility.

But while it is about these things, choices and responsibilities, it’s not actually about consequences. It’s a part of what I once jokingly called the Jaded Empire. The voice actors who have to record a half-dozen variations on the same line would likely disagree that nothing changes in these games, but ultimately, the player is just pushing events into a slightly different order. The same people live and die. The dialogue and the player’s imagination appear to suggest a branching course, but the characters are rarely motivated by the player’s actions to change their own behaviors in any way that is of long-term pragmatic meaning. Though, certainly, the small changes have an impact on the experience, nonetheless.

Some of these games are wonderful. Their priority is only in making the first playthrough as engaging as possible. There are multiple paths to making a good game and lasting replay value is only one of them. The “Jaded Empire”, then, is just another valid school of thought that eschews this priority.

  • Making a person “jaded” is obviously not ideal, so it’s wise to consider this school of thought to be a trade-off for short-term value, or a compromise when resources are limited but you still have a great story to tell. The difference between the Jaded Empire and games which do not pretend to let the player make decisions at all is that the choice agony is very real in them–at least unless players become cynical enough to catch on and start metagaming.

The wonderful characters and high overall writing quality are what make your responsibilities so heavy and meaningful, and your choices so pleasurably difficult. Players control Lee, a convict for whom a zombie apocalypse meant escaping from the sentence for an old-world crime. Lee must care for Clementine, a young girl apart from her parents. In another genre it might be the premise for an awful game of infuriating escort missions, but Clementine is the best part of the game. A winner of the genetic lottery, her only real flaw is her troubling naivete, something worth cherishing. Lee’s motives need not be questioned; he is you, and he simply made a mistake once. Everyone else is a potential threat to Clem’s well-being, at least perhaps until you’ve come to know them.

This is where the game’s deep appeals to responsibility ethics lie. This is unique game horror: it preys on the rational person’s fear of parenting, while excluding the sorts of parental concerns that aren’t as thrilling. It’s been opined that if children could only be born at the age of five (or six or whatever), we’d just have to worry about helping them with their neuroses, instead of agonizing about the possibility of subtly, accidentally, creating new ones. Clementine’s been raised better than anyone could realistically ask, and while trauma is perhaps unavoidable in that lawless, violent zombie world, it’s evident that a lot of the hard work’s been done. It’s a fantasy.

People who love video games often feel an impulse to share or rationalize this love to others, looking for the most convincing examples of art games for outsiders. This is a fool’s errand: the language of games is its own, and looking at “accessible” games is a step in the wrong direction. It’s natural to want “your” art form to be appreciated, but a non-trivial amount of training is required to appreciate the meaningful things in games that are subtly communicated. If a person has difficulty making a character walk in a straight line, who can they appreciate the game on “our” terms? Isn’t this like a film review from someone who goes into a seizure at the sight of a moving picture on a screen? As a result, we stick to suggesting highly cinematic and simple experiences, avoid naming any difficult sixty-plus-hour epics, and people end up telling Roger Ebert to play Flower. The fuck is Flower?

The Walking Dead is the sort of game a lot of people would nominate in those circumstances, and in a way, that makes me hesitant. The game is powerful, and good, but barely interactive, and while there may be subtle benefits of prior experience with a gamepad, players are rarely tested in terms of skill, which may be an integral part of investigating the consequences of player choice: whether they can walk the walk after talking the talk, so to speak. Something like Dark Souls, harder to express or share to those who never ran the gauntlet for themselves, is a truer exploration of what games are capable of, less reliant on the techniques of another medium like film.

But The Walking Dead is still a non-optional experience for those who like to think about the artistic paths that are open to games. Even without a high level of interactivity, it certainly manages to be one of the greatest games of 2012, a year with tough competition. Admittedly, if it had Alpha Protocol-level reactivity instead of convincingly faking it, or if the actual play experience wasn’t largely governed by awkward controls and QTEs, it would be better. But as things stand, The Walking Dead still hit me much harder, emotionally speaking, than Alpha Protocol (or most other games) ever did. It’s been a couple years and the ending is still burned into my brain. We’d be lucky to have several more games like it.

This game is amazing, and whatever flaws it has, it is a mandatory experience for anyone whose tastes are similar to the reviewer’s. Things like frequent crashes or graphical issues do not even begin to make a dent on this score, because the soul of this game contains something eternal. It approaches perfection.