The Walking Dead
The standup comedy amateur might well ask ‘what’s with all the zombies nowadays?’ The prevalence of that least gracious subspecies of the undead has eclipsed even that of vampires – no mean feat considering the disparities in both sentience and sex appeal. What was once a cult movie premise, that of the zombie apocalypse, has officially achieved what might be termed total seepage into mainstream culture with the release of World War Z (starring Brad Pitt, no less), which itself is an adaptation of the 2006 novel of the same name (a New York Times best-seller, no less).
There have been parodies like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, and Warm Bodies, not to mention the Austen mash-up, but the best of the still-serious zombie fare has, of late, emanated almost exclusively from the graphic novel series The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman, source text for the critically acclaimed television show of the same name. Indeed, Kirkman’s work may be credited for breathing unlife back into the genre, in great part because of its emphasis less on the blood and horror of the zombies themselves (though it retains plenty of both) and more on the intense psychological strain placed upon the living. This, after all, was always the most interesting aspect of the zombie apocalpse scenario: the pains of loss, the struggle for survival, the high cost of living, the inevitability of the end.
We are obsessed with this scenario: how can we deny it? We read book after book, watch shows and films. Standing around our water coolers, we discuss the best places to hole up, the supplies we’d need, the most effective improvised weapons. Some dream of fighting these monsters for so long that they become monsters themselves, joining zombie flash mobs and bringing a little glimpse of apocalypse into the real world. Some part of us must be longing for it despite – or perhaps because of – its torments and privations.
How else can I explain my anticipation for the next installment of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, the adventure game born of Kirkman’s influence? The game’s first ‘season’ was released last year, in five self-contained ‘episodes’ which combine to tell the story of Lee Everett, a professor of American History, as he struggles to retain his humanity (in more ways than one) in a world where the ravenous dead outnumber the beleaguered living. Lee is a Georgia boy himself, born and raised in Macon; he also has the distinction of being one of the few black protagonists in the history of video games.
Lee is no cardboard cut-out caricature; his is a compelling and well-rendered depiction, one which benefits from the game’s top-notch script and high quality voice-acting. The adventure game genre, with its emphasis on narrative, is an ideal format for Kirkman’s brand of gut-wrenching personal drama, and while I’ve enjoyed Telltale’s previous work, The Walking Dead justly qualifies as their break-out hit. It is by no means the only zombie-themed video game, nor even the only game adapted from Kirkman’s brainchild (the other, Terminal Reality’s The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, was neither a break-out nor a hit), but it is one of the few to depart from the quotidian realm of the shooter. Re-killing innumerable zombies is not the central purpose of the game, as it is in almost every other instance – Left4Dead 1 and 2, Dead Island, Dead Rising… the list goes on. Rather, Telltale’s game is concerned with the experience of human beings surviving in a world radically changed by disaster, a world where hope is a commodity both rare and perilous.
As it happens, things already look grim for Lee right from the outset. The opening scene of the game finds him handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser, jail-bound out of Atlanta. His crime becomes clear only as the story progresses, a troubled part of a past that grows ever more distant as the apocalypse unfolds; the story is already hinting at the wish fulfillment at work in the zombie scenario: the end of the world means a clean slate for everyone involved. Who you were before everything went down, what you’ve done – none of that seems to matter quite so much, next to the everyday difficulties of survival. And nothing matters at all if you’re one of the walkers yourself. ‘Walker’, by the way, is the elegant substitute for the Haitian loan-word ‘zombie’; in fact, the ‘z-word’ is rarely if ever used in the game, a nod – perhaps – to the aforementioned ubiquity of the premise.
One of the game’s selling points is its accessibility. As an adventure game, its mechanics are extremely simple, consisting primarily of object-based puzzles, a conceit that thrives within the context of the survival scenario. The impulse to scavenge and employ every found object, while it might appear borderline pathological in other settings, seems only sensible when the simplest of improvised bludgeons can mean the difference between life and unlife. There are also a number of reflex-based challenges, often involving life-and-death struggles with walkers, in which fright and startlement are augmented by not-always-fluid controls. At their worst, these tasks can lead to confusion and frustration, but the game is rarely truly punishing. The Walking Dead is by no means ‘hardcore’ – it requires none of the hand-eye coordination of a Halo nor the multi-tasking of a Starcraft. Indeed, almost anyone can (and, in my opinion, should) play this game – assuming they’ve the stomach for R-rated fare.
As might be expected given its premise, The Walking Dead is grisly, though its comic-book style – drawing on the source text – gives a touch of artistry even to the more gruesome scenes. The walkers are hungry for flesh and even a single bite will lead to lethal infection, meaning the fatality rate of characters is frighteningly high. Yet for all this, the game does not chiefly rely on cheap frights and horror movie gross outs. Its real power is emotional – driven by empathy for the characters and emerging from high-pressure decisions freighted with consequence. For all its frequency, the death of a character never loses its impact, and often the player’s own actions contribute to the time and manner of their companions’ demise.
Lee does not survive for his own sake. After limping from the wreckage of the crashed police cruiser, narrowly escaping a roaming pack of walkers, he stumbles into a suburban backyard. While investigating the adjoining house, a bloody tableaux haunted by unsettling voicemail messages, Lee is accosted by an undead babysitter. In the nick of time, an eight year old girl emerges from her treehouse fortress and hands Lee the weapon that saves his life – a claw hammer – and from that moment on they are inseparable, bound by mutual debt. This ward of circumstance is Clementine – a girl who’s very name means ‘mercy’ – and she becomes the game’s central ‘for-the-sake-of’. She is adorable, intelligent and all too vulnerable in a world which has no regard for cuteness or precocity, and the ethical imperative to protect her is forceful, propelling the narrative forward and making each of Lee’s decisions about more than just saving his own skin.
Indeed, every word he speaks may pertain, ultimately, to this responsibility, and the game leverages this sense of ethical urgency to great effect. The game’s dialogue choices are, by and large, subject to a time limit. What Lee says and, as a consequence, who Lee is, must be determined by the player before a timer runs out, adding pressure and tension to even the most trivial-seeming of conversations. Sometimes the choice is strictly aesthetic, the difference between shouting ‘Watch out!’ or ‘Oh shit!’ as your car hurtles towards a zombie. But your decisions have direct consequences, ones ominously listed at the top of the screen: ‘she will remember that’ or ‘he noticed that’ – ‘you chose to be honest’ or ‘you chose to change the subject’ and the game will remember each of your decisions, just as your companions will. Their trust in you, their loyalties and their willingness to help when the situation inevitably becomes dire, depend entirely upon decisions made in the heat of the moment.
More even than this, the presence of Clementine – who is a symbol both of futurity (if she survives, she will grow up in this grim new world) and the lost past (child-like innocence is a rarity, almost a relic, and by no means amenable to survival) – causes each of Lee’s decisions to appear as an investment in whatever future society may come into being, and which – if any – of the old world’s values will persist. Your influence on her is pervasive, even from the start. After battering the undead babysitter’s head with a hammer, Lee must reply to Clem’s question: ‘Did you kill it?’ Your answer is the first thing Clem ‘remembers’, an answer that will color her future attitude towards walkers. When asked, I told her that something else had killed her – the thing Lee put down was not a ‘her’ any longer. We must save our mercy for the living, I reasoned, because the dead have no use for it.
Even comparatively innocuous actions, such as cursing in her presence, are remembered and revisited. The effect is profound, though not uniform. The choices in The Walking Dead serve as litmus tests of a sort, discerning the player’s priorities and perspectives. When hungry, do you steal or starve? When threatened, do you fight or reason? When questioned, do you tell the truth or hide your intentions? The game is always keeping score and after each chapter it displays the total distribution of decisions across all play-throughs – your own along with that of all other players – letting you know what percentage of people share your attitude.
While practical considerations dominate most of the choices Lee and the player must make, the overarching question can be posed thus: in such a world can Clementine, and by extension mercy itself, survive, and at what cost? I found myself constantly torn between doing what was right – upholding the minimum standards of civilized behavior, ensuring Clementine’s innocence and happiness, working, in short, to make Lee a better man – and doing what was necessary to ensure that Clementine survives to enjoy what little happiness you’ve managed to secure for her, necessities that all too often entail mercilessness and brutality towards fellow survivors.
Because the greatest evils are not the undead themselves. Again and again the game points out a simple, grim fact: while the dead may be dangerous, it’s the living you have to look out for. Even the ceaseless hunger of the walkers is simply a distillation of human desire, a reductio ad finem which plays out numerous times over the course of the story. As early as Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, with its shopping mall setting, zombies have been used to critique consumer culture; what, after all, does a horde of zombies more resemble than a mob of consumers inundating Toys ‘R’ Us, clawing mindlessly at each other as they scrabble to acquire the last ‘Tickle Me Elmo’ in stock? It’s not without good reason that the rapacious bandits Lee faces in The Walking Dead originate in the big box outlet store ‘ShopMore’ – its consumer kitsch and service industry trappings serving to frame primal human tragedies.
I wish now to propose a larger thesis regarding our contemporary preoccupation with the zombie apocalypse, but it is one that will necessitate spoilers, and I can’t but encourage you to play the game and see what I mean firsthand.
I’d assert that The Walking Dead is far from merely nostalgic about the ‘beforetimes’. Instead the game displays a profound ambivalence towards pre-apocalyptic civilization. On the one hand there is lawlessness and banditry, a far from desirable state of social disintegration. Yet, when placed next to the ‘functional’ communities we find, this state of anarchy can often appear preferable. The nearest thing to ‘how things were before’ can be found at the St. John’s Dairy, a seemingly-idyllic farmstead ringed by electrified fence and operated by cannibals. The safest, most sustainable settlement in the ruins of Savannah is Crawford, a community of survivalists with strong fascist tendencies. These are microcosms of civilization’s darker side, not freak responses to the crisis at hand; these evils are already at work in our own society. The cost of the ‘good life’ in the old world is already a kind of cannibalism, peace and privilege founded in large part upon oppression and exclusion, all driven by the apparently limitless need to consume, and unlike Lee and Clementine we are given little choice in whether or not to participate. We are already the walking dead, already slaves to our hunger.
The power of the story, then, comes from the seemingly paradoxical juxtaposition between the existential meaninglessness of the characters’ efforts – with the dead thoroughly outnumbering the living, the chances of re-establishing civilization seem almost nil – and the profound importance of individual action for, with so few humans left, the very definition of humanity becomes determined by the choices of individuals and the small communities they form. To live in the world of The Walking Dead is to live a life of consequence, however short that life may be, and it serves as a stark contrast to the pervasive powerlessness the modern subject cannot but feel, trapped in an ossified political-economic system that already renders us ever-hungry, ever-grasping for the next morsel, as if this time it might fill the gnawing emptiness within. Only it doesn’t, and it never will, yet what else are we offered in the wasteland of the present? We know it cannot keep going on like this, that the true catastrophe is precisely that heedless continuance, an apocalypse always, an apocalypse now.
Who, then, can blame us for fantasizing about The End?
Phillip Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.