The trick would never work so well again. Telltale's The Walking Dead was so unexpected and disorienting on its debut that it was easy to identify with Lee Everett's escalating anxiety over the course of its opening car ride to prison. An affable sheriff's deputy is peppering you with questions to which you have to respond while outside the window there is mounting evidence that the world is slipping off its axis.
Something different is going on here. What's unusual is that we already know what Lee's getting into: a zombie apocalypse. The bigger question is what are we about to get into?
The Walking Dead debuted five years ago this week, and it's striking how it arguably remains unsurpassed despite a legion of imitators from the same studio, spanning all manner of universes and licenses. I might be biased in this assessment—I count the lead writer and directors of that first season among my friends and colleagues—but having just played Batman: A Telltale Games Series, I don't feel I'm wrong for thinking that The Walking Dead Season 1 seized a moment and an opportunity that has not been and likely cannot be recreated.
Timed responses and ostensibly branching narrative paths weren't exactly new, but it felt like the options we chose for Lee had weight that they never did in games like, say, Fahrenheit and Heavy Rain. You might change the course of one of those silly vignettes, but your character would likely move onto the next scene with all his or her relationships in the exact same place. The Walking Dead, on the other hand warned you that "Kenny will remember that" and you knew that some kind of karmic force was loose in the game, waiting to settle accounts later.
The setting perfectly suited Telltale's own limitations as well. What is a zombie uprising if not a series of bottle episodes where characters are forced to make conversation and hash out their differences while trying to answer the overriding questions of: "Are we safe here, and what should we do next?"
The game is all about the suspense and the threat of action, which is exactly what a Telltale game is equipped to handle. Having just played Telltale's Batman, I can definitely say that they're not at their best once the lead and the fists start to fly. But I wonder if any Telltale series can commit to being a sequence of one-set plays the way that The Walking Dead did, indifferent to an audience's desire for show-stopping action.
Five years later, The Walking Dead has practically spawned a cottage-industry monopoly for Telltale, and its novel mechanics have become familiar and even a little tired. We know we don't have as much control over the story as it once seemed. We know some character will remember our fork-in-the-road choices, but it's also clearer how many of our choices merely serve to inflect a scene before the game and its character forget all about them. But five years ago, it was easy to feel the weight of the horror and responsibility settling across Lee's already burdened shoulders, knowing that for once in our lives, people were going to live and die by our choices.