Gateway Games – Video Games for Beginners: Telltale’s The Walking Dead Franchise

Gateway Games - Video Games For Beginners
The Walking Dead Overcooked
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Telltale’s The Walking Dead Series At A Glance

Recommended Player Experience Level: No previous gaming experience needed
Starting Difficulty: Easy
Ending Difficulty: Easy
Difficulty Spikes: Minor spikes towards end of game
Learning Curve: Gentle
Visual Aesthetic: A high-quality comic-book visual style
Storytelling: Top notch roleplay and storytelling
Controls: Both controller and mouse + keyboard work well, but mouse + keyboard is more fluid

Imagine you are sitting down with your friend/family member/significant other watching the season finale of AMC’s The Walking Dead. As the episode progresses you grow more and more frustrated as the characters on screen make dumber and dumber decisions. You sit there and debate what you think the characters should have done, but at the end of the day agree that both of you would have handled the situation better.

When the episode finally ends in dramatic fashion, you start scouring the internet gobbling up all of the insights and fan-theories you can find. However, while you are scouring the discussion you had during the episode looms in the back of your mind. You really start to wonder if you really would have handled those situations better?

As a gamer the first idea you have to find a way to scratch this itch is to google “The Walking Dead Video Game”. You immediately discover that it already exists, and there are multiple seasons to boot! You want to tell your fellow show-watcher right away, but your enthusiasm is deflated when you remember an unfortunate fact.

That person doesn’t play video games.

This was pretty close to the situation I found myself in months ago. My girlfriend and I really enjoyed watching The Walking Dead together, and when the season ended we found ourselves starved for content. At the time I was aware that there was a critically acclaimed series by Telltale Games where you play as characters in The Walking Dead’s universe, and figured it might be an enjoyable experience for both of us.

However, she had hardly picked up a controller since she was 9 years old. Furthermore, based on some previous experiences I had showing her other games I enjoy playing, I figured it was safe to say that she wasn’t really into video games.

It was unfortunate, but I wasn’t about to let my girlfriend’s poor choice in hobbies stop me from playing! So I went ahead and bought the first season of the series and played through the first episode.

One day when we were flying to the west coast to visit some family I decided to play a bit on my laptop. When I told her what I was playing it immediately caught her interest. She watched as I played through the intro sequence, and about 10 minutes later she said the words that would change how we spent our free time together forever.

“Can I Try?”

Preparing To Play Telltale’s The Walking Dead

Before sitting a brand new gamer down to play The Walking Dead there is some initial configuration that needs to be done. The last thing you want is to have your friend, spouse, or loved one lose interest because of boot errors or constantly needing to access the options menu to tweak settings.

In an effort to streamline this process I created a pre-flight checklist of sorts you should complete BEFORE sitting the player down to play The Walking Dead.

Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Pre-flight Checklist

Graphics Settings: Adjust the video settings to bring the game’s framerate up as high as possible. The game looks good at lower resolutions but poor optimization can cause the framerate to chug occasionally.
Audio Settings: Adjust the audio settings to favor dialogue, then sound effects, then music. Recommended spread – Dialogue: 10, Sound Effects: 8, Music: 7
Control Settings: No configuration needed.
Gameplay Settings: Subtitles optional but recommended. Adjust the mouse sensitivity to match your windows environment.
Difficulty Settings: There are no difficulty settings. No action required.
Profile Settings: There are no profiles in the first two seasons, but you can create a telltale account if you are playing Season 3: The New Frontier.
First Boot: Make sure you have played at least 2 minutes of actual gameplay before your first session. This way you are sure you have completed all installation tasks, downloaded all of the patches, and confirmed your system is compatible with the game.

While future seasons of the game have most of their issues ironed out, season 1 was fairly buggy on PC. For example I ran into sporadic issues trying to play season 1 when internet connectivity wasn’t available.

To try and account for any issues you might run into I recommend completing about 10 minutes of gameplay before the inaugural session. Do your best to predict what the situation will be during the first session and emulate it to the best of your ability. This is especially important if you are playing on a laptop where your network connection might be limited. During this dry run make sure you tweak the settings to your liking.

This may seem like a lot of preparation for something as simple as playing a video game, but it is important that you go from 0 to gaming as quickly as possible. As mentioned before you will have a very narrow window to draw the person in, so every second counts.

Gameplay Overview

While The Walking Dead has its own unique style, when you boil it down it plays a lot like point and click adventure games made decades ago. However, instead of focusing on solving convoluted and often times arbitrary puzzles, the game puts more of an emphasis on dialog and decision making.

This emphasis on storytelling is what makes Telltale’s The Walking Dead an ideal choice for someone who is looking for a way to ease a TV-viewer or movie-goer into gaming. Many of the tropes and concepts used in traditional media are exhibited in this series, which results in a familiar and easily digestible experience for the newbie gamer.

This familiarity combined with great pacing and a comfortably low difficulty ensures that the player will remain attentive, and become invested in the characters. If you can get the player invested in the story, then the magic really starts to happen.

Personal Anecdote: Breaking Through The Wall

The Walking Dead was the first game my girlfriend was really able to get into. As a big fan of the show she was immediately familiar with the situation the characters were in, and was pleasantly surprised by the occasional cameo from characters in the show. However, much to my delight the thing that drew her in the most was the relationship between the main characters Lee and Clementine.

By the time she reached episode 3 of season 1 she was so invested in the story that she started binge playing the remaining episodes. After finishing season 1 I bought her season 2 and season 3(A New Frontier). She was so hooked that on more than one occasion I lost track of where she was only to find her in her room playing the game with her headphones on.

While there are many great video game stories out there, it can be very difficult for a new gamer to get immersed in the story. This is because typically these stories are locked behind complex and cumbersome game mechanics. While I am confident that most players would appreciate brilliant storytelling in games such as The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite, the difficulty curve for these games is too high for most day 1 gamers to overcome.

However, The Walking Dead’s very low difficulty skirts around this problem nicely. One method they use to keep the dramatic tension up is putting time-limits on difficult dialog choices. This forces the player to think on their feet, but they rely on their conversational skills rather than their ability to determine what sequence of buttons to press.

As mentioned before there is also a variety of environmental puzzles to solve as well. Completing them typically involves a combination of dialog and item interactions. For example a puzzle might have you trying to lure someone away from a door which might require a few conversations with characters around a barn, and fiddling with a nearby generator.

The final core gameplay mechanic we will go over is the quick time events(QTEs). QTEs take place in a variety of scenarios, but most commonly when dealing with potentially lethal threats such as zombies or people. Typically these events require you to press one or several buttons to avoid a potentially gruesome death. However, there are occasionally some more challenging sequences that require you to move, aim, and grab/stab/shoot in tandem.

Challenges and Roadblocks to Expect

Although The Walking Dead is an extremely good choice for new gamers, that doesn’t mean it is without fault. Furthermore, there are a number of challenges that all newbie gamers encounter that need to be carefully managed.

Learning The Controls

The first and potentially most important roadblock is helping the player familiarize themselves with the controls. Irregardless of if you are using mouse and keyboard(M&K) or a controller, there are many concepts here that will be foreign to a new player.

Getting Used to Using a Mouse and Keyboard

On the M&K front getting the player used to using the W, A, S, and D keys(WASD) to move around will probably seem very strange when there are perfectly functional arrow keys available. What makes it even more confusing is the fact that you are still able to move the character around with the arrow keys as well! However, given that WASD is the standard for most games, I recommend that you put an emphasis on making sure the player uses the WASD keys for movement.

One effective way to handle this is to bring up the fact that the majority of in-game interactions are handled with the Q, E, 1, 2, 3, and 4 buttons. I found that quickly demonstrating how it is possible to move with WASD, look around with the mouse, and quickly interact with the environment was enough to sell the merits of control scheme.

However, if the player doesn’t adopt it right away but still seems to be enjoying the game then save this fight for another day. There will inevitably be a challenging sequence requiring you to move, point, and interact simultaneously that they have trouble with. When that happens you can go over WASD controls again, and have them try the sequence a couple of times using the new control scheme.

Getting Used to Using A Controller

Unfortunately learning how to use a modern gaming controller isn’t really much better. While the dual analog design was a breakthrough in input development for console games, the increase in capability is met by an equally significant increase in complexity.

Depending on the age of the player, it is possible that they have some experience with a game pad. In the case of my girlfriend she had some fond memories playing SEGA genesis growing up. However, the pads used in those older consoles are much simpler than a modern day controller, and learning how to move around effectively will still take some time.

Fortunately The Walking Dead is not a very challenging game, so it serves as a great opportunity for the player to get used to using a controller. The game regularly has you moving, looking, and interacting with the environment all at once. However, the game rarely has you do all 3 in time sensitive situations. Be patient as the player works through the controls and resist the urge to blurt out where you think they should go unless they ask for your help.

When the quick time events do happen you should also expect the player to die quite a bit, especially in the earlier games of the series. This is because the earlier games tend to have tighter hit-boxes that the player needs to aim at. If this concerns you then it might be worth starting with a later game in the series such as The New Frontier. However, it should be noted that you could potentially run into major story spoilers if you do.

Irregardless of where you start, resist the urge to step in during challenging encounters unless they ask for help. If they do hand the controller over it is important that they understand that the only reason it looked easy when you do it is because you (most likely) have a great deal (possibly decades) more gaming experience than they do.

If and when they get frustrated remind them that there is no rush and practice makes perfect.

The Burden of Choice

Weirdly enough one of greatest features of the game might actually end up being a sticking point. It turns out that requiring the player to make high pressure and often ambiguous decisions can stress them out!

Most people are conditioned to try to find “the optimal way” to play a game. However, choices in The Walking Dead often have unpredictable and dramatic consequences. If the player ends up with an outcome they didn’t want and wants to go back, try to convince them to just accept the outcome and move on. Sometimes in life preserving the mystery of what is behind door number 2 is the best choice, and the decision trees in The Walking Dead are no exception.

What Do You Want From Me Game!?

Sometimes despite your best efforts you’ll find yourself getting stuck on a puzzle. While you can usually plow through the game by simply touching everything, there are some instances where the exact combination of choices and interactions needed to progress are frustratingly arbitrary.

When it comes to guiding a new player through adventure games, there is no shame in occasionally peeking behind the curtain to get things back on track. If you spend more than 10 minutes on a particular puzzle and neither of you can figure it out, just look it up. Often times you’ll find you were on the right track, but maybe you didn’t move the cursor close enough to see the exact item you needed to interact with(such as the panel on the generator that allows you to remove the belt).

In a game with no true failure state, there is no point in letting a single puzzle derail the entire experience.

My Fingers Hurt…

One last, but relevant roadblock I want to bring up is fatigue. While The Walking Dead is usually pretty low key when it comes to button pressing, they occasionally throw some situations at you that have you punishing your keys/controller. Most infamously is the QTEs that have you repeatedly bashing your buttons/keys like they owe you money.

While your grizzled gamer hands will likely be able to handle these situations without any issues, it is important to remember that it is very possible that a new player will encounter some fatigue after several of these events. It also possible during these mash-a-thons that the player won’t be able to press the button fast enough to complete the QTE.

I actually ran into this situation several times. My girlfriend would be mashing just too slowly, and her hand would tire out before she could complete the QTE. Usually after about 20 seconds of trying she wouldn’t object to me relieving her and finishing the event, but once the sequence was over I made sure to show her a couple of different ways to press the button more quickly.

Final Thoughts

Turning someone into a video gamer is not an easy task, but I can’t think of a better gateway game to get the job done than Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The combination of strong story telling, simple controls, and visually pleasing art style make the game accessible to any audience.

<Introduction Overcooked>

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