For her number one selection, Senior Editor Jessica Conditt reveals why the emotionally impactful and suspense-rich first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead was her favorite game of the last decade.
The Walking Dead: Season One – Telltale / 2012 The Walking Dead Season One scares me. It's a zombie game, so of course at times it is scary, but that's not what makes me hesitate before loading a new episode. The Walking Dead is awful – it's emotionally draining, stressful and, at times, brings me near tears – in the best way imaginable.
It's not as if I'm almost shedding tears of joy while watching another one of my friends get chewed to death on-screen – it's a testament to the writing prowess of The Walking Dead team that we first become so emotionally invested in these characters, and then that we keep coming back after they're all killed in gut-wrenching, gory ways. The Walking Dead asks us to make life-and-death decisions in an apocalyptic wasteland, surrounded by selfish people that we inexplicably care about, while insisting that we still have something to live for: Clementine.
Clementine is one of my favorite video game characters ever, and her story begins with The Walking Dead Season One. We meet her early on in the first episode – she's hiding out in a treehouse and waiting for her parents to come home. She has no idea what's happening to the world, but no one does, not even Lee, the playable protagonist.
I call Lee the protagonist, but I do believe that Clementine shares this role in The Walking Dead Season One, despite the fact that we don't play as her. Yes, we have to protect Clementine, but we also have to simply talk to her, hear her story, share her dreams and find ways to help her achieve her goals. She is Lee's student, but she also provides context to every decision we make – even if we really, really want to kill someone in this hell on earth, even if killing this person would be the best thing for the entire group, we still think about Clementine first. How will she react? Will she see Lee as a monster? Will she understand? Do you really want to do this?
Clementine is our rock; she is the reason our decisions in The Walking Dead carry so much weight. She provides the context of love in a world of death and survival. And she grows throughout the season, changing from a scared, intelligent young girl into a badass warrior who knows how to shoot a gun, and who isn't afraid to face a world brimming with ravenous walking corpses. But throughout all of it, she retains her humanity, and ensures that we keep ours.
The Walking Dead Season One introduced a new breed of point-and-click narrative adventures, one packed with dialogue decisions and the opportunity to form or destroy relationships, plus scenes of tense, high-octane action. The balance of narrative to action alters with each episode, but throughout the entire season, the emotional struggles remain just as surprising and important as the fighting scenes. We're not simply reading a story of survival; we're shaping the story, making friends, finding enemies and fighting off zombies before they kill too many of the people we've come to care about. Each of our stories is different, even if they end up in the same place – after all, it's not the destination that matters, but the emotional, blood-soaked journey.
Left 4 Dead – Turtle Rock / 2008 Everyone remembers killing that first zombie. You remember the tension before the horde shuffles into view; you recall carefully selecting the weapon that best represents you, your personality and your slaughtering style. You remember zipping into those first health packs and popping back those pills. You know that rooftop like the back of your rotting, green hand.
Nothing builds better friendships than murdering the bloated, hooded and slobbering undead – together. Unless of course you are the bloated, hooded and slobbering undead, feasting upon panicked humans – also together. Left 4 Dead not only provides a taste of horror and action, but it excels in crafting an innovative and replayable multiplayer game.
If I can thank Left 4 Dead for just one thing, it's for teaching me which friends I truly want to call in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Thank you.
Catherine – Atlus Persona Team / 2011 Talk about a game with everything – friendship, puzzles, talking sheep, sex, secrets, alcohol, pretty ladies and horny men in their underwear. Well. Horned men, at least.
Catherine stands out to me on a shallow, aesthetic level, but it sticks with me over the years for its cleverness and unique personality. This is a weird game from Japan with global appeal – we can all relate to feelings of regret, vengeance, lust and being lost in love. A mix of soap opera, animated cutscenes and rapid, tense gameplay makes Catherine playful, even as it gets too strange to explain to friends without sounding absolutely insane.
Outlast – Red Barrels / 2013 Ah, terror. My old friend. I thought we had been parted forever, destined to never meet again – and that's when you snuck up behind me, covered my eyes and chopped off my fingers.
I wavered between adding Amnesia or Outlast on this list, but in the end, it came down to which game scared me more, and Outlast takes the trophy. It has an advantage in that it draws from the horror game tropes first laid out by Amnesia, but it refines them and packs them all into a disgusting old asylum. Instead of lamp oil, you have night vision and batteries, and rather than swim through murky, dark water with a vicious beast out to kill you, you wade through murky, dark water with a vicious, giant, excessively violent man out to kill you. Outlast knows the way to my heart – through an endless number of dirty, dank hallways with a murderous and disfigured sociopath around any corner.
Portal – Valve / 2007 Portal is a riddle wrapped in a mystery and thrown through a fiery blue ring that bends physics and teleports it to the inside of an enigma. Mostly, it's a surprise. It could have been a simple puzzle game challenging ideas of space, velocity and long falls, but it ends up being so much more: Portal crafts a robust, hilarious and scary world that transcends its stark white walls and logic problems. GLaDOS is a true super-villain, equal parts treacherous and hilarious. Chell is a hero given just enough story to invite players to fill in the blanks, to let them care. The portal gun is badass and its puzzles are so cleverly concocted that they're best described in contradictory terms, such as "complex simplicity" or "controlled chaos."
And the cake is a lie. Of course.
To The Moon – Freebird Games / 2011 There are beautiful games, those that display elegant scenes filled with rivers of color and splendor, or rendered so crisply that we forget they aren't real life, and wish it were. To the Moon is beautiful in a different way – it's created in RPG Maker, filled with pixelated people and things, but emotionally, it's gorgeous. To the Moon tells the story of a dying man and his final wish, tying together the secrets of his life in slow, heartbreaking snippets. We learn about his first love, his dead wife, his mysterious desire to visit the moon, and the importance of platypuses.
It's the kind of story you wish you could forget, if only to experience it all over again.
Fez – Polytron / 2012 Joy. When I think about Fez, the first word that pops into my head is joy – it's the look on darling Gomez's face when he completes another cube, that wide-open, I-don't-care-who-sees-me grin with the little red hat floating right above his head. It's how I feel while sorting through the game's puzzles, flipping the world sideways and whatways, from 2D to 3D, through pastel sunsets and crystal blue water, up bright green tangles of vines. It's the rush of "hell yes" when I finally figure out what that sneaky owl wants.
Fez asks players to have fun, to think hard if they want to, and to enjoy the beauty of its puzzles and scenery. Joy.
Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening – Capcom / 2005 There is a moment in the lives of many teenagers when they are highly susceptible to falling in love with a man who eats pizza half-naked while fighting off a horde of demons. When I first played Devil May Cry 3, I was in that moment. But pizza-lust can only sustain a game for so long – Devil May Cry 3 offers a silky combo system, allowing you to switch between weapons with super, sexy speed. The game is frantic yet satisfying – when you kill an enemy, you deserve it. You've earned it. You've also earned another slice of pizza.
BioShock – Irrational / 2007 These are a few of my favorite things: Seadrops on rivets and cat masks on Splicers / Sci-fi and Ayn Rand and cold, failed cultures.
BioShock introduces the dystopian result of transcendent technology and individual hubris in a form that we can all understand – the first-person shooter. The meld of big, steampunky guns, self-injected superpowers and creepy little girls guarded by behemoth metal monsters gives BioShock depth rivaling that of the bathysphere, with a story to match. BioShock re-writes what it means to be a first-person shooter, incorporating fast-paced action with tense horror elements and alternate universe twists.
Braid – Number None / 2008 Braid is the grand-daddy of mainstream independent games, and it's the reason I've come to respect and enjoy games from smaller studios. I didn't understand what Braid was when I first went to play it; I knew it looked pretty and it was a platformer. Turns out, Braid was – and is – so much more.
Braid takes simple mechanics and transforms them into a complex game: platforming, puzzles, time travel and saving the princess. We know what these things are, but Braid shows us what they could be, when showcased in a gorgeous, hand-painted landscape and driven by a red-haired hobbit man in a tie.
[Images: Telltale, Capcom, Irrational, Number None, Polytron, Valve, Red Barrels, Atlus]