I’ve had The Walking Dead on the brain lately. I just finished reading the 17th TPB volume, and the mid-season premiere of AMC’s television adaptation is upon us. It seems as good a time as any to look back at TellTale Games’s (superior) videogame adaptation.
All things considered, 2012 was a pretty good year for The Walking Dead. Sure, the comic suffered its usual awkward plotting, but the television show finally found its voice. What it lacked in character drama, it made up in gory zombie action. However, it was TellTale Games’s adaptation that emerged triumphant over other iterations of the franchise, all-but-literally showered in Game of the Year accolades. Although it got off to a shaky start, the game not only gained confidence in its own characters and storytelling by the end of its five episode run, but in one particular sequence, it caused me to re-examine where I stood in its narrative space.You may recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by The Walking Dead‘s first episode. Coasting on the dull, pre-packaged conflict of zombies-want-our-brains, the first episode didn’t offer up any compelling decisions for me to make. Furthermore, outside of nondiegetic text telling me that KENNY WILL REMEMBER THIS, it wasn’t always clear how my actions really affected the world. This was a fundamental flaw in a game that promised to adapt to my choices before I was even allowed to play it. Surprisingly, the second episode both raised the stakes and better defined their consequences in relation to the player–both to great dramatic satisfaction.
At first, I thought episode two would suffer the same problems as its predecessor. After all, genre literacy informs most players that “prime rib” is post-zombie-apocalypse code for “Soylent Green” long before any of the characters are clued in. While I enjoyed a few small flourishes–particularly the gothic ascent of the stairs followed by a mad dash back down for the big “PRIME RIB IS PEOPLE” moment–it didn’t appear to address my concerns about agency. And then I was trapped in a meat locker.
At the beginning of the episode’s third act, five of the main characters–Lee, Lilly, Larry, Kenny, and little Clementine–are locked in a meat locker by their cannibal hosts. There’s no way out, and to make matters worse, Larry–leader Lilly’s father and the first episode’s obligatory Crotchety Old White Guy in the tradition of Night of the Living Dead–suffers a heart attack. This brings the tensions already brewing between Lilly and hotheaded Kenny to a dramatic head. After all, if Kirkman’s comic franchise has made any contribution to zombie lore, it’s that any corpse with a brain can be reanimated with a hankering for other people’s brains. Lilly insists that there’s a way to save her father, Kenny wants to ensure that they aren’t trapped in a locked room with a zombie. My Lee just wants everyone to get along.
Here’s where things get interesting: when I don’t immediately take sides, Kenny doesn’t just REMEMBER THIS. He is so frustrated with my inaction that he takes matters into his own hands. While I’m putzing around, trying to talk everyone down, Kenny picks up a salt block and crushes the old man’s skull. There’s a wonderful beat between the sudden explosion of gore and the characters’ reactions. It’s just enough time for the player to work through what just happened along with Lee–did he just–holy shit! How do I fix this?! Oh, shit, and Clementine was here to see this!–before having to jump right into the action. There’s still the problem of the cannibals outside, after all. How do I fix this? The best way anyone trapped in a meat locker by cannibals can, I suppose.
This feeling of helplessness was very different than what I experienced prior to playing The Walking Dead. I came to the first episode of The Walking Dead after playing Mass Effect 3, a game in which, aside from some serious mishaps, illusion of authority both within and over the text is integral to the player’s experience. Player-character Commander Shepard is not only the protagonist in her story, but her story determines the fate of everyone that has ever lived in the entire galaxy. Like, ever. As such, I spent a majority of my career in Mass Effect persuading the many factions of the galaxy to cooperate in Shepard’s mission. Granted, The Walking Dead undermines some of the trappings established by Mass Effect in its first episode. Lee, while the protagonist, is not the most important person in the universe–he’s not even the leader of their band of survivors. Even so, playing those first few episodes, I still felt that, if I said the right things to the right people, then maybe–just maybe–we could all get along and get of this alive. The meat locker sequences crushes these hopes.
My brief time in the meat locker brought everything else in The Walking Dead into perspective. It made it exceptionally clear that there wasn’t a magical threshold of Paragon points I could obtain in order to manipulate the variables into a peaceful outcome. Instead, individual players in The Walking Dead guide the story only in so far as how the other characters will react to it. Larry will always die in the meat locker. I will never know whether he succumbed to a heart attack or could have otherwise been saved because that’s not the point. The point is figuring out how to move forward and deal with the consequences–because there are consequences. Whether I off Larry or Kenny wrenches the decision from my indecisive hands greatly influences how I read the story. The real innovation of The Walking Dead, then, is its introduction of characters with consistent personalities and motivations on which they will act if the player does not. The timer that underscores every decision point becomes a symbol of finality and futility–two properties I do not often associate with videogames.
The episode closes with a scene that showcases this innovation well. Having escaped the farm, Lee and his group stumble upon a car full of supplies. The lights are on, suggesting the owner is nearby, but he is nowhere to be found by the group. Everyone elects to raid the vehicle except Clementine. The player is then faced with a choice: agree with Clementine, or convince her that looking out for number one is the only way to survive in this new, zombie-and-cannibal-farmer-populated world. There is no ludic reward for this choice, as the group is still the worse for the wear at the beginning of the next episode. Instead it is an entirely character-based, narrative decision. In the face of futility–the inability to shape the future–Lee and the player choose how they want to be remembered by Clementine. In my game, Lee chose to re-enforce Clementine’s moral perspective. While watching Lee and Clementine stand resolutely on the sidelines, I too felt despondent, but also a sense of pride. Even if I couldn’t guarantee Clementine’s safety in the future, I could make the choice to support her decision now.