Telltale’s The Walking Dead Was A Game About You, Not Zombies

Episodic gaming always seemed born of necessity. Game development is hard work and breaking a story into smaller parts and releasing it progressively appeared, at least from the outside, to be a way to manage smaller projects with a rolling development structure. In its heyday, no one was more successful at this than Telltale Games, which made its name on adventure games, mostly licensed, with a strong episodic structure. Its breakthrough success, and still one of the best episodic experiences of all time, was The Walking Dead, which turns 10 years old today, April 24. The first season, especially, created appointment viewing for video games, and in the process made for one of the most emotionally resonant video game stories in my lifetime.

The idea of “appointment viewing” may be foreign to those who didn’t grow up in the era of “Must See TV” Thursdays, TGIF Fridays, and Simpsons Sundays. The term refers to an era of workplace water cooler culture, where it was fashionable to keep up with a few key shows and chat about them at work the next day. If you didn’t catch the show, you missed out on the conversation. This still exists to some extent with mega-hits like Game of Thrones or streaming shows that premiere on a particular day, as the hive-mind of Twitter rushes to share its opinions on the latest plot revelations. But it’s more fragmented now. A few breakout events aside, like the Super Bowl, we don’t often have a national conversation about a single television show. In the wake of Telltale’s Walking Dead, streaming culture has become the dominant entertainment medium and created a voracious appetite for content, wherein viewers consume a new show almost immediately and move on to the next.

That dynamic goes for video games, too. Games are diverse and have historically been more niche than television. When a massive success breaks through, like Pokemon Go or Elden Ring, it’s notable because it reaches a level of mainstream conversation that isn’t present for most other games. It’s often not practical to center the gaming community’s attention around a single subject, which makes what Telltale accomplished 10 years ago that much more impressive.

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Author: Steve Watts