It's hard to distinguish which threat is bigger in Telltale Games' The Walking Dead: Episode 1 – A New Day: the ghouls stalking the streets or the frightened, unpredictable people with whom I've taken refuge.
Among the ragtag band of survivors huddling with me in a deserted pharmacy is a redneck whose anger is tempered only by his heart condition, a reporter busy blocking out the horror by fixating on a broken tape recorder and a reclusive geek who sees in the chaos an unexpected opportunity for heroics.
And then there's me: a convicted murderer for whom the undead apocalypse might actually prove a blessing. If it weren't for a zombie wrecking the police cruiser I was riding in, I'd likely be rotting in a cell.
Plus, I've been given a chance to redeem myself by playing the role of protector to a young girl whose parents were killed. I'm still not sure which of us needs the other more.
The Walking Dead is unlike any other zombie game you may have played. The first episode of this five-part series, which looks and feels more like Robert Kirkman's graphic novels than the hit television show they inspired, isn't just a mindless slaughter-fest. Rather, it's a study of human relationships formed under duress.
You'll spend the bulk of your time in conversation, where character backgrounds are revealed, secrets are spilled and alliances are formed. Authority and trust are recurring themes. The only way to get people to abide by your decisions is to earn their confidence, but it's impossible to please everyone. You'll need to make hard, emotional decisions that will play well for some and poorly for others – and all concerned are quick to remember whether you helped or scorned them at crucial moments.
Of course, like any good zombie story, there's also a bit of terror and gore, such as a scene in which a crawling carcass refuses to let go of my boot, forcing me to repeatedly kick it in the head before pulling myself through a door to escape.
However, even these moments – which play out as quick-time events in which we must tap specific buttons on cue – are unlike the action in most zombie games, which typically see well-armed players offing cookie-cutter creatures in numbers so high a computer is required to calculate them. In contrast, I fought only a handful of undead in The Walking Dead's first episode, and each encounter was a heart-pounding experience.
The most haunting situations are those that force a hurried decision you know, even as you make it, will have lasting consequences. When ghouls suddenly attack a quiet farmyard, do you rescue the defenceless young boy being pulled off a tractor or the farmer's grown son, who not long ago saved your life by giving you a lift out of a zombie-infested neighbourhood?
Even more interesting: What does your choice say about you?
Indeed, after spending three hours in a world in which the living and dead cause stress in equal measure, I think I've learned more about myself than anything else. For the video-game medium, that's a step in the right direction.
The Walking Dead
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Release: April 27, 2012