The Walking Dead

By ND Mackay

THE WALKING Dead isn't just Game of the Year, it is quite simply the best game ever made. The reason? When I finished it on Tuesday night, I cried – the way I've cried at the end of a film that's twisted my heart or a novel that I can't bear putting down because I love the characters too much to say goodbye.

For those who don't know, The Walking Dead – based on the sparkly dark comic books which spawned the bloody and addictive TV series – has been released over five episodes since April. With the release of the fifth and final episode, the developers, Telltale Games, can quite rightly claim to have changed gaming forever.

This game is about emotion, character, storyline; it's themes are love, betrayal, courage, self-doubt, honour and trust – it is as close as gaming has come to the novel or the movie. You play the part of Lee, a black southern state professor living through End Times as the zombie apocalypse sweeps the world. As our hero and a bunch of ill-matched survivors try to reach the coast of Georgia in the hope of escape, Lee takes on the role of protector for an eight-year-old orphan called Clementine. This relationship is the heart-breaking bedrock of the game.

The Walking Dead is not about shooting, running, killing, jumping or puzzle-solving – it is about making emotional human choices. The core of the game centres on decisions you make about the other people around you. Do you lie to them – and risk later alienating them in a world where people need friends? Are you kind, wise, brave? Cowardly, mean, cruel? Your choices will make people love you or hate you, cause those around you to die, put your group in jeopardy, mark you out as a leader and hero, or a waster and a fool: no better than zombie chow.

I played The Walking Dead with my game buddy girl: my 15-year-old daughter. Maybe it was the fact that a father and daughter were playing a game together that so strongly focuses on the paternal bond, but Caitie and I invested a well of emotion in each episode. By the end, when the truly upsetting denouement unravels, I was feeling more than a little upset, but when I turned to look at Caitie – who's quite the tomboy – and saw tears pouring down her face, that was that, I was off into a weepfest. Forget the end of Titanic, make me play the last 10 minutes of The Walking Dead if you want to see a 40-something former crime reporter from Belfast cry like a baby.

By the end of the game, the depth of feeling for Lee and the sense of protectiveness towards Clem is palpable and – God forgive me, for I love books more than my own arms and legs – perhaps even more intense than can be evoked in the average novel. I am not saying that The Walking Dead is Sophie's Choice or The Great Gatsby but, believe me, it beats the daylights out of most of the predictable nonsense that publishers deem fit to foist on the reading public today. Despite the dystopian setting, the emotions are authentic – and as we all know you cannot buy authenticity, the one ineffable thing that we all seek today when it comes to art in a phoney world.

And it is dark – pitch black. Characters are killed off in a way that makes the boldest HBO series seem reticient and predictable. Still, it retains a mischievous humour and an eye for the absurd. It's rendered in beautiful graphic novel artwork, is superbly acted and directed – and comes with a wonderful post-game analysis of the choices you made, so you can compare yourself against the rest of the world: 95% of global players may have chosen to kill off a rival, but you didn't, so what does that say about you? Every action becomes a psychological profile.

For a fella who began playing games when games began, back in the days of Pong and Atari, The Walking Dead is the culmination of a lifetime's wish to see the form really take flight – with The Walking Dead games have truly arrived as legitimate art. I'm now on a mission from God: I want to get all those friends and colleagues who have never played a game – and deride games – and make them play The Walking Dead just so I can watch the scales fall from their eyes. Honestly, it is worth going out and buying an XBox or a PS3 just to play this one game – and be left with the strangely painful digital memory of keeping little Clem alive no matter what.

The five episodes of The Walking Dead are available for download for around £5 each for XBox, PS3, PC and iOS. The game will be released on disk later this month