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The Walking Dead

February 8, 2013

So a few weekends ago a couple friends of mine decided to sit down and play through the universally acclaimed videogame adaptation of The Walking Dead with me. We had all watched at least two seasons of the televison show, and I myself have read through around 70 issues of the comic, but none of us had played through the game, despite the constant accolades and good press it had been given.

It’s won four awards from DICE:

  • Adventure Game of the Year
  • Downloadable Game of the Year
  • Outstanding Character Performance (Lee Everett)
  • Outstanding Achievement in Story

TWD even managed to grab Spike’s game of the year, a huge change from their usual choice of mindless action and testosterone fuelled orgies of violence.

So, expectations were high, to say the least.

It blew my expectations out of the water.

I wasn’t the one “playing” the game this time around. The last time our little crew got together was for Asura’s Wrath, which failed miserable in grabbing our attention, and before that it was for Catherine which was a brilliant experience marred by the final hours of the game. In both instances I was at the helm, being the final arbiter for group decisions. That duty fell to my pal Kevin, to my mixed feelings. Its nice not having the pressure to choose, but I liked being in control.

Unlike both those games, The Walkind Dead held our attention from the get go and never disappointed. The tale of Lee Everett and his ward, Clemetine, is a hugely impacting story of survival, of having to make a choice between choosing what’s right and what’s best, about what to cling on to in a world that has “survived” the apocalypse. But, most importantly and chillingly, it is a story about being a parent.

Lee Everett is a convicted murderer going to jail for killing the man who slept with his life. The game opens with you, as Lee, sitting in the back of a police car as the cop in the front seat talks to you about your crime. You have the choice of responding in one of three ways, or by saying absolutely nothing at all. That’s pretty much the whole game, deciding on how you respond to other people, or what you do in certain situations.

The scene continues, with police chatter on the radio getting more and more frequent, with more and more police vehicles speeding towards the city behind you as you are driven towards prison. The tension grows and grows, until the policeman driving you slams into somebody(somezombie?) stumbling onto the road. You careen off an embankment into the woods next to the road and black out. You wake up an indeterminate amount of time later, still in the wrecked police cruiser, and kick out a window to escape. The cop that drove you out here is dead, but as you try and get the keys to the cuffs on your hands off of him, he comes back to life and starts dragging himself towards you. You have to scramble to find a shotgun, load it, and blast his brains out before he chomps you.

Your efforts to survive attract more zombies, and you escape over a fence into a backyard. You investigate around a bit until you find a voice recording of a mother phoning her daughter, Clementine, detailing her husband getting “bit by a vagrant” and things are “getting crazy around here,” until the last recording tearfully begs Clem to stay safe. You find Clementine hiding in a treehouse, and vow to keep her safe.

12 hours of playing later, we were through with one of the most touching, adrenaline pumping experiences of my life. The Walking Dead is, ostensibly, about surviving the apocalypse, but it is really about being a good father figure for a poor orphaned girl. Throughout the game, you are confronted with difficult, horrible decisions on what you are willing to do to survive. Other games usually give a standard “save the baby, eat the baby” choice between being an absolute monster or a saint, but in The Walking Dead, there are only one type of choice: shitty.

ENTERING SPOILER ZONE

Everything you do is shitty. All of your outcomes are shitty. There is very little you can do to improve your situation. All you can do is control how you react. At one point, you have a person who cut off the legs of one of your pals to eat for dinner at your mercy. You can’t be certain you’ll be able to prevent him from doing something like that again, you lack the resources to lock him up, so your realistic choices are kill him or let him go. Kill a man or don’t. To my great disappointment, my friends al ignored my cries of “You aren’t an executioner!” and killed him with a pitchfork to the chest. Lee(you) turns around and sees little Clementine staring at you, horrified.

Everyone in the room was instantly ashamed at their decision, even if they had all rationalized it as the best option available seconds before. For the rest if the game, there was only one objective: shield Clementine from the hard reality of the world she lived in. Then the game throws you a curveball.

Another kid in your group gets bit. Eventually, it gets to the point where the kindest thing you can do is put him out if his misery. His mother and father go off into the woods with a gun. Instead of killing her kid, the mother shoots herself. We then had to choose how to deal with the situation: kill the kid, or make the father shoot his own child.

Not wanting to force the poor fellow to kill his own flesh and blood, we shot the gun for him. But all I could think about was “what if it was Clem?”

The writers of the game are Very Smart People, as you then have the opportunity to teach Clem how to shoot, and cut her hair so it’s harder to grab. We were all still committed to keeping her safe, but we all knew that violence was unavoidable in the world Lee and Clem live in.

There are many opportunities to do the “smart” thing in the game, but after the pitchfork scene we all chose the “moral” choice. It wasn’t out of some desire to play the good guy, or to be a hero. It was to be a good person for Clem. At one point, the survivors vote to kick a person out of the group. That person had almost gotten Clem killed hours earlier, and is in general a completely useless member if the team. We gave Clem a vote, and she voted to let him stay because he’s “doing his best.”

There was no question how we would vote.

Soon, however , the worst case scenario happens: Clementine is abducted.

Because we had never let anyone hang out to dry, we had the entire group help us out trying to get her back. Karma.

The final scene of the game left me in tears, along with a room full of twentysomething year old dudes. You are given the opportunity to give Clementine some advice, with very little time to say much. Trying to decide the most pertinent information to allow a little girl to survive in a zombie apocalypse alone, a girl you’ve come to care deeply for, was heart wrenching.

SPOILER ZONE ENDING

The Walking Dead is not about zombies. It’s not about surviving, about the losing your humanity in inhuman conditions, or about numbing yourself to pain to carry on.

It’s about a man and the child he’s trying to raise.

The voice work and writing for Lee and Clem is superb. I hate children in almost any medium except books, video games and cartoons, because they are the only forms in which children don’t have to play themselves. The bar has been raised even further.

Play this game. There is very little “required knowledge” of video games required; at its heart it is a point and click adventure game. If you can move a mouse you can play it.

It’s 12 hours. That’s like a season of a TV show. No TV show has come close to impacting me the way this game has. If you want an amazing narrative experience wrapped in the most convincing illusion of real, impactful choice I’ve ever seen, buy this game.

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From → Video Games

2 Comments
  1. Adam Levin permalink

    Did you also play the Left 4 Dead series? I think those games are about 5 years old now– but the zombie theme doesn’t seem to be losing its popularity any time soon.

    • I’ve played a lot of L4D, but that’s a narratively shallow but thoroughly entertaining co-op shooter.

      The Walking Dead was a far more cerebral experience.

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