You don’t play video games, but you’re curious about them. How should you get started?
It’s an interesting and difficult query that highlights how forbidding many games can be to inexperienced players.
It’s not easy to think of a good “gateway game,” one that’s sufficiently approachable for the gaming illiterate while also demonstrating the promise of video games as something more than a vehicle for fast-twitch excitement. But right now, I’d nominate “The Walking Dead: Season Two” from Telltale Games.
“All That Remains,” the season’s first episode, was released recently. It lasts two or three hours, depending on how you play, and can be had for $5, which is “the cost of a Starbucks latte and roughly one-hundredth the cost of a PlayStation 4,” as Joseph Bernstein put it at Buzzfeed. You can check it out on a PlayStation 3, an Xbox 360 or on a computer, but I also tried it out on an iPhone 5s, and it played beautifully on it.
The touch interface on the iPhone or iPad might be the best choice for newcomers, though I preferred the more involving exploration that came from the “minimal” display style available in the game-play options on a laptop. This approach removes a number of on-screen hints that, to me, break the immersion of an interactive story. But the standard display certainly makes it easier to find the objects that you’re supposed to interact with inside the game.
More formats are forthcoming, although the first two on the list – the PlayStation Vita and the independent console Ouya – are probably owned only by people who are already video game aficionados.
The first season of “The Walking Dead” game – five episodes that were released serially over seven months last year – was, by a country mile, better than the television show of the same name. (Each draws on the universe established in Robert Kirkman’s comic book series for its source material.) The second season picks up where the first left off, except that the controllable protagonist is now Clementine, the girl that Lee, the protagonist of the first season, protected and cared for. (Lee was – spoiler alert – on the verge of turning into a zombie in the first season’s final episode, at which point the player could choose to have Clementine either shoot him or leave him behind.)
The least tense parts of the game are the fights with zombies, which on a touch screen involve Fruit Ninja-style swipes and repeated tapping. More engrossing is the game’s dialogue system, which demands focus and attention because you only have a few seconds to make a choice. Paralysis results in the same response from Clementine: silence. “The Walking Dead” isn’t a game about killing zombies. It’s about analyzing the characters you meet, deciding whom to trust and whom to leave behind.
“What game would you recommend to new players?” is a good question, but it’s also the wrong one, if what you’re looking for is an exemplar of the medium. You wouldn’t ask a book critic what to read if you had never cracked a spine before. Or, at least, you wouldn’t expect the critic’s suggestion to be the most rewarding material around. Accessibility is not always a virtue.
“The Walking Dead” game, however, is excellent even if it’s not challenging. It’s particularly good as an example of how to give a player interpretive freedom without undermining the integrity of the story or the characters – or relying on black-and-white “moral choices.” The right, or best, course of action in “The Walking Dead” is rarely clear.
The strong first episodes of this new season of “The Walking Dead” and for Telltale’s series “The Wolf Among Us” suggest that the success Telltale achieved in 2012 was not an anomaly. The studio is working at a creative peak – something that should give hope to fans of HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” which is collaborating with Telltale on an episodic video game scheduled for release in 2014.
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