I've never reacted to a game like I did to "The Walking Dead."
I've never bellowed at my TV like I did when my companions were killed. I've never second-guessed every single thing I did, so clueless and frightful of the consequences. I've never weighed who would live and who would die with such a mixture of affection and strategic advantage.
I've never felt so emotionally spent after playing a game.
Telltale Games' five-episode adventure, inspired by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard's comic series, feels exactly like I imagine surviving a zombie apocalypse would. Not by making you blast your way from point A to point B, and not by dropping you in a playground where you can disembowel them by the hundreds. No, "The Walking Dead" hurls at you the ceaseless horde of life-or-death decisions a real zombie apocalypse would demand in exchange for every hour of survival.
Every minute you're making a hard choice: whose side to take when two people disagree, what tactics to use in a tight spot, and who to save when the zombies swarm. However big the problem, Telltale never gives you an option that's clearly preferable to the others. And by subverting your expectations early, zigging when you think it'll zag, the game completely fogs your sight of the path your decision will take you down.
Because most choices must be made within a timed window, you almost always react in real-time — sometimes on pure gut. You think as hard as you can for those few seconds, press a button, and immediately second-guess yourself as the consequences set in and you ponder how differently things could have been. As the decisions quickly accumulate, so does the doubt. Could I have kept an ally's trust? Did I pick the right escape plan? Should I have saved the klutz who almost got us killed?
Making all these decisions would feel more like a puzzle game, technically absorbing but emotionally flat, if Telltale didn't paint its characters so well. Kenny looks like a hick dad leading his wife and son through the chaos, but he's a steely pragmatist who scrutinizes your loyalty to his family at every step. Ben is a gangly high-schooler who almost always lets you down in a pinch, but your conversations with him suggest he's got a good heart beneath all his bumbling.
The first survivor you meet is Clementine, a 6-year-old girl who will speak directly to your innermost guardian instincts. Adorable, down-to-earth and courageous, she soon became my first thought after every big decision and zombie calamity. I wanted to check on her, chase away her fright, help her make sense of the devastation and just remind her how precious she was to me. It's the most attached I've ever felt to a game character.
You do all this as Lee, who's on his way to jail when the dead rise. Lee's crime of passion cooks every one of his relationships with fellow survivors in dramatic tension — especially when he meets one who knows his well-publicized story. Like most decisions in the game, telling people about your character's past is a gray morass made almost unnavigable by Telltale's refusal to place in it any moral signposts.
The animation in "The Walking Dead," stylishly crude on the surface, is actually one of Telltale's most well-used dramatic devices. Clementine's squeals and spiking eyebrows speak the confusion and horror of the zombies more than any words could. Kenny's straining eyes say that underneath his prickly urging for your allegiance is just a man trying to protect his family. And Ben's sad-sack hunching almost makes you forget about his latest screw-up.
Amid all the drama and dilemmas is some action. To stay alive, Lee's often placed in spots that could loosely be described as puzzles: distracting the zombies crowding a street to grab a key on the other side, finding change for riverside binoculars to spot a boat. They're not quite brain-teasers, but they are calm, procedural breaks from the life-or-death moments.
Lee also snuffs his share of zombies — when the game lets him, in scripted sequences. You can't shoot or stab at will; you move an on-screen cursor over a lifeless face and press the prompted button to plunge a bullet or screwdriver into its skull. The game's narrow rails don't diminish these moments, they give them life. After passively watching so much unfold, it's a rush when you suddenly have to brain a zombie — and with a frantic push of the stick and a stab of the button, you do.
Telltale's tight grip on its in-game action also allows "The Walking Dead" to avoid the gulf that separates story and play in most games. Every button you press moves the story forward, whether you're stomping a zombie's face in or shaping another survivor's feelings about Lee. Such fusion of emotion and intellect, of spectatorship and involvement, has never been achieved in video games — and that's why "The Walking Dead" is the best game of 2012.
(Next week I'll publish my top-10 list and various awards for the year in video games.)