Everything old is new again.
The idea of appointment television isn't a new one ... on television. Shows like Lost, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and yes, The Walking Dead have come to define the concept. Viewers set aside time for the latest installments of episodic media. When release schedules are measured in weeks, with some programmatic consistency, it's easy to see why the idea of appointment television is so alluring. But for video games, whose release schedules are usually measured in years and where the term "episodic gaming" means anything from the Sam & Max series to Valve's slow roll out of the Half-Life 2 episodes, we've never experienced "appointment gaming." That is, until Telltale's The Walking Dead debuted last April and the long, two-month wait for Episode 2 began.
Zombie games aren't new. In fact, zombie games have undergone something of a resurgence in the last half decade, as seen by games like Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead, Red Dead Redemption's "Undead Nightmare," and even Wii U launch title ZombiU, whose name recalls Ubisoft's very first game, 1986's Zombi. Zombie games persist, even thrive, in the video game industry for one very simple reason: Zombies are fun to shoot. Slow, stupid and humanoid, zombies are the perfect object to point a gun at. Which is why the zombies in The Walking Dead are all the more interesting. Pointing a gun at things isn't the focus of The Walking Dead — though it does have a handful of clumsy action sequences which involve just this — and so the zombies become more than just bullet fodder. Their presence makes up the entire basis of the world, a world built over the last ten years in Robert Kirkman's comic series of the same name. Speaking of that source material ...
Licensed games aren't new. Even decent licensed games aren't new, though they're still rare. Throughout gaming's glorious history, it's enjoyed games featuring everything from pizza chain mascots to comic book heroes. While licensed games struggle to remain relevant in the AAA retail gaming space — even well-reviewed games like last year's Transformers: Fall of Cybertron fail to move millions — a strong license can continue to make the difference between success and oblivion on mobile app stores. And so it is that a licensed game based in the world of television's #1 show, made by an independent developer whose struggles to make episodic licensed games successful spans seven long years, is all the more meaningful when it works this well.
For everything that isn't new in The Walking Dead, there's something decidedly fresh about the experience.
Adventure games aren't new. Even zombie-themed adventure games aren't new (see the aforementioned 1986 Ubisoft title). In The Walking Dead you point a cursor, you click to go there — anyone who's played an adventure game should be familiar with the format. There's even a sort of vestigial inventory in the upper left which only serves to remind you of the game's heritage, not the protagonist's belongings. With its cross-platform release strategy, and a focus on the iOS universe, The Walking Dead managed to translate a console gaming experience to the touch-based world of mobile and make adventure games feel natural again. The bizarre logic of adventure game puzzles is gone, replaced by a streamlined system of choice and consequence.
For everything that isn't new in The Walking Dead, there's something decidedly fresh about the experience. A game defined not by its graphics, not by its action, not even by its reliance on the "z" word, but rather by its faith in the player to respond to something more than the mechanical pleasure of putting a bullet in a zombie. It's a game about characters, a relationship-management sim if you will, where death feels as heavy and grave as it should and the fragility of life is the main star. Doled out on a bi-monthly schedule, driven by meaningful player choice, The Walking Dead asked a lot of its players but gave them so much more in return: an emotional experience. And that's something new for video games.