Surviving an Adventurous Evening With Telltale’s The Walking Dead
Leading up to San Diego Comic-Con, I wondered what kind of special surprise Telltale Games might have in store for fans of its episodic adventure game, The Walking Dead. Based on the comic of the same name, we've had two seasons of zombie-fueled personal stories centered on the littlest survivor in the world, Clementine. Instead of vaguely teasing the upcoming third season, which won't be ready until 2016 at the earliest, or the upcoming Michonne mini-series, due later this year, Telltale took the opportunity to celebrate its landmark first season with a one-night only live performance.
This event had actually been in the works for some time, with the original intent to have it happen as a way to kick off the launch of The Walking Dead, Season 2. Timing just couldn't be worked out, so this live performance sat on the back burner until this year's Walker Stalker Con over at Petco Park in downtown San Diego. There, at home plate, an inflatable movie screen stood tall over a tiny stage. As the sunlight faded behind the stadium, Telltale introduced the players, and we began our journey back to that fateful day when Lee and Clementine first crossed paths.
A great deal of the original core cast returned to reprise their roles, including Melissa Hutchison (Clementine), Dave Fennoy (Lee), Gavin Harmon (Kenny), Nikki Rapp (Lily), and Nicole Vigil (Carley). Adam Harrington (who voiced Bigby in The Wolf Among Us) also returned to play Andy St. John, and filled in for Terry McGovern to play Larry. Additionally, special guest Elias Toufexis (Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution) offered his talents as the narrator and as Danny St. John. Seeing them all together was a bit surreal. It's one thing to know actors behind the voices don't often look like the character on screen, but it's another entirely to see them in person, acting scenes out like a radio drama from a bygone era.
Once the scenes started playing out however, any worries about the potential for this juxtaposition to be a distraction faded quickly. Fennoy and Hutchison's rapport never missed a beat from the start, and their attachment to these characters could be felt from the moment Clem and Lee exchange words early on. As a way to fast-forward the plot, scenes from the game itself were shown above the cast on a screen. Though there were a few technical hiccups, the transitions worked well enough for what Telltale was trying to do.
If you played through the original games, you might recall just how tense the first major group encounter at the pharmacy was. After narrowly escaping a (relatively) small zombie onslaught, Lee, Clem, Duck, Kenny and Katjaa just make it inside to safety, where they're immediately under intense scrutiny from Larry. The man knows how to push people's buttons, and is willing to throw anyone under bus to save his own hide. Even though there was no action on the stage--everyone was just standing and reading--the anxiety felt just as raw and palpable Saturday night under the stars at Petco as it did when I originally played through it a few years ago.
Falling back into these roles seemed effortless from where we were all watching, and as the performance rolled on through the tough moments like the massive argument outside the RV after departing the motel, or Kenny's sacrifice to save Ben, the fateful conclusion drew near. Much of the third and fourth episodes was skipped over, and for good reason. While there were some small character moments, those episodes were more action-packed, and thus not exactly prime material for this type of recreation. Of course, when it was time to deal with episode five, it felt like the entire audience was holding its collective breath in anticipation of this season's heart-breaking finale.
If you have yet to play The Walking Dead, you might be a bit skeptical that a video game could bring someone to tears. But the thing is, you've spent hours with Lee and Clementine on this journey. You've helped shape their relationship from its earliest, uneasy moments, to the final hours when Lee has done and would do anything to save Clem from harm, both physical and emotional. However, there are some things that you can't save people from, and dealing with the ramifications of that kind of moment is hard on you. It was hard on the actors, too, as Fennoy and Hutchison struggled with their own emotions in making it through the concluding moments. The connection between the two was real, and it was almost too intense.
I may have felt the emotions in my chest when I first played the game, but I never welled up. All those feelings I'd kept bottled up for the past few years were inescapable this night. Like just about every other person seated, as well as those on stage, my face was a waterfall of emotion.
After it was all over, and I wiped my face clean of the salty discharge I was completely unfamiliar with to this point in my life, I was chatting with some of the Telltale crew when Director of Creative Communications Job Stauffer had an offer for me. As the event was taking place at Walker Stalker Con, that meant there was a Walking Dead Escape happening in the same facility. Telltale had arranged for the cast to do a run through the interactive obstacle course event, and wanted to know if I'd be game enough to try and survive with them. Who was I to pass up the chance to attempt surviving the zombie apocalypse with those who had done it themselves?
The Walking Dead Escape originated back at SDCC 2012, and since then has become a bit of a roaming phenomenon. The event tours the country, allowing you to attempt escape from new scenarios every year, or be one of the zombies (with make-up and prosthetics from a professional team) trying to take out the humans. This year, the event incorporated the comic book bad boy Negan (and Lucille) and his Survivors. Not only would we have to contend with the undead menace, but the human threat as well.
Now, I'm a fairly fit person, but I wasn't expecting to run an obstacle course that night. As such, I was woefully unprepared in the clothing department. They tell you very little about what to expect from the Escape, but press materials intimated that you could take the course at your own pace if you so desired. That's not necessarily true. The Walking Dead Escape is not something you can lollygag through in the least, and after a slow start, you'll be hustling from checkpoint to checkpoint with the other attendees as if your life actually, truly depended on it. Hey, a surprise workout on a humid San Diego night is just what everyone is looking for after walking a few miles at a crowded convention center.
Truthfully though, it was fun. It's about as close to a controlled zombie outbreak as you can get, but there was still a sense of dread even though I knew these things (uh, people) couldn't hurt me. Sadly the same couldn't be said for my favorite Clutch shirt, which fell prey to a spurt of zombie blood (worth it?). I never did get bitten though, which was fortunate because those things came from every which direction, and did make for some interesting encounters. Sometimes a strategy of just running full steam ahead was great. Other times, you definitely wanted to ensure the zombie was looking at someone else so you could skirt by without catching its attention.
It wasn't until we were catching our breath at a Survivor outpost that it really hit me. After two seasons of controlling these actors' characters in a zombie apocalypse, here I was, side by side with Clementine, Lee and Kenny, and also Bigby Wolf, doing the very same thing. Sure, this Escape was just a fictitious as the Telltale's games, but on this night, everything felt that much more real. Well, except for the guy playing Negan. There was nothing wrong with him, per se, but the replica Lucille bat they had given him was comically small in his hands, making his threats that much more hilarious, no matter how many F-bombs he threw in.
After it was all said and done, everyone high-fived and congratulated one another on making it through alive. It wasn't the first time I had sweat out some dangerous situations with this cast of characters, but it was the first time I had seen many of them smile and laugh in such dire situations. Not a bad way to end your first Comic-Con.