The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day
I'm aware this review is posting a little over two months after release of A New Day, Episode 1 of Telltale's take on Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead. It's appearing today at Digital Chumps because...
A) It's a great game
B) I'd love to write about it
C) I'm reviewing Episode 2, Starved for Help, in an official capacity and it helps as a reference point
D) All of the above
(the correct answer is bolded)
While A New Day works along the same timeline from The Walking Dead-proper, Telltale's take on the narrative is from an altogether different point of view from a (mostly) new cast of characters. It's still set in the Georgia area, and most everyone and everything is still neutrally obliterated in the wake of the recent zombie apocalypse. A New Day places the player in the shoes of Lee Everett, a thirty something male who we discover in the business end of a police car. It's difficult to find one's self in the back of a police car for any reason that is not morally reprehensible, and while Lee's crimes are revealed as an (apparent) matter of fact, the kind of person Lee projects is ultimately left to the player.
Examine A New Day's first proper encounter. Stumbling up a hill and suddenly cognoscente of this harsh new world, the first live human Lee meets is an eight year old girl named Clementine. Lee had previously taken refuge at her house a few minutes earlier, and, thanks to some answering machine messages, learned that Clementine's parents probably weren't coming home. Ever. As Lee, what do you tell Clementine; the truth, what she needs to here, or an optimistic lie? As you travel with her, what do you say to other people who assume that she's Lee's daughter? A New Day revels in its choices, and while a couple are standard black and white most are of a moral grey area and designed specifically for the player to discover their interpretation of Lee (A New Day also gets points for digging into conversational areas not specifically about the wretched state of the world. Sure, it’s on everyone’s mind but, like the source material, it’s more a story about people rather than their circumstance).
My Lee did everything for Clementine. Conversations with other people were structured entirely around the preservation of the relationship between him and the adorable little girl. Without spoiling much, I played Lee as a sheepish anybody incapable of directly lying. I didn't implicitly reveal who I was or what I did, but I didn't deny it upon being questioned by the few people aware of my infamy. Whenever someone's life was at stake, I chose to try and save the person who offered best chance of keeping Lee and Clementine alive. For her part, Clementine seemed to infer that I was guilty of a mistake, but appeared to be appreciative of my intentions (or lack of options) and granted me her trust when things got hairy.
The rest of the cast does its best to not fall into cliché. While A New Day manages to outright avoid or at least put an unexpected spin on the usual tropes of zombie fiction (the conspiracy theorist, the doomed loved one, the insane anarchist), few of the cast have more than one dimension. I was partial to Carley not only because she was the only one who wielded a pistol, but also because she initially was the only one aware of Lee's past and I was fascinated at the dynamic that fact presented. In any case A New Day does well not to make anyone feel expendable, and when you have to make a choice (and you will) it's certainly difficult.
The way I played didn't appear to be the only way to engage A New Day. Several responses which I dared not explore could have portrayed Lee as an impatient dick incapable of empathy, and while I have a morbid curiosity to discover that character I didn't want to replay A New Day because of a fear that it would somehow corrupt my idea of Lee. The option is certainly there, multiple save slots exist for a reason; however I would rather experience The Walking Dead as an (pardon the lift from David Cage) interactive drama rather than a traditional "game."
That being said, there was a good amount of game to A New Day. Those familiar with Telltale's resume will be at home with a few the light puzzles on hand. When Lee is free to walk around there are bunch of objects he can interact with. Some he can keep in his pocket for later, some are pieces designed to tell a story, and others are items his new friends may need. When I found batteries for Carley’s radio, for example, the game let me know she would remember my efforts. On the other hand I have no idea if trying to give all of my energy bars to Clementine served any purpose, but I'd like to think that it did. In any case The Walking Dead remembers your choices and states so explicitly, implying that what you say and do will have some sort of consequence, positive or negative, down the road.
A New Day also occasionally dives into action sequences of the Heavy Rain variety. Whenever Lee has to deal with a zombie (which, contrary to every other zombie game out there, isn't all that often) a button prompt will appear. Either mashing it or placing it in the contextually correct area will have an effect and, if you’re fast enough, gruesomely demolish the zombie and preserve your life. A New Day isn't one to skip out on horrific violence, there’s some serious carnage present, however its relative infrequency keeps it in check and not as gratuitous as one might assume.
More often than not, puzzles will require action and A New Day will do its best to create tension out of Lee's grim circumstances. This is best illustrated in a sequence when Lee and two friends have to figure out ways in which to eliminate a group of zombies surrounding a parking lot. Unfortunately failure in experimentation didn't lead to any sort of tangible consequence, just an unpleasant game over and complete reset to where I was, which scaled back the tension quite a bit. I understand the realities of creating a game, let alone a game with five varying installments can't go too far off the rails, but this sequence was the only one in A New Day where I felt my suspension of disbelief starting to slip.
The Walking Dead may not be the most technically proficient game around, but it gets its point across with what it's got. Clementine is absolutely adorable, and watching Lee's genuine panic when he's trying to think of something to say to her was fascinating (and slightly terrifying). Children in videogames are relatively unexplored territory; most opt to make them either super powered or overly helpless, but with Clementine the writers at Telltale created a little girl who believably runs the gamut from scared and independent to defensive and demonstrably trusting. Outfitting her in an endearing baseball cap and then linking it to a similar item of Lee's was a great move, and really sold me on the shared sentimentality between Lee and Clementine.
The Walking Dead: Episode 1 - A New Day
An underappreciated aspect of the interactive zombie apocalypse is the realization that you don’t get to pick your friends. Other prerequisites like the harrowing recognition of mortality and splendid instances gore are also present, but survival seems more dependent on how well one can manage their new acquaintances. A New Day embraces this concept and allows the player to revel in its characters and their conversations, and in doing so even manages to grant the player legitimate agency over the suspected protagonist. And, yeah, it’s a hell of a good ride.