This post was longer than I expected but the game affected me that much and the writing just flowed. Despite playing and loving Chrono Trigger and Life Signs: Hospital Affairs, this title won me over. I played the final episode just before seeing Skyfall at a cinema and on the way I was writing a review for the game…
The Walking Dead was easily my game of 2012! MASSIVE SPOILERS
I cried at the end. Even before the end, in the sequences leading up to it. So far, everybody I know who plays this ends up crying.
I had not expected to cry playing this game. As much as I like the graphic novel and the television series I had gone into this, rather foolishly, expecting it to be something of a zombie survival simulator where I could test my mettle and all of the knowledge I have accrued watching Dawn of the Dead and other zombie films.
What I got was a well-scripted and brilliantly acted drama which exposed what it truly means to be a survivor of a zombie apocalypse. It was tough, bloody and brutal and it put characters through hell.
The Walking Dead is a five-episode adventure from Telltale Games released a month at a time and each episode gives about two hours’ worth of gameplay. The player takes control of a man named Lee, a troubled soul on his way to prison somewhere in Atlanta who finds himself caught up in the midst of a wave of ravenous flesh eating walkers who want nothing more than to have a taste of his intestines. And kidneys. And brain. Whilst escaping he encounters a young girl named Clementine, home alone because the baby sitter is dead and her parents are a couple of states away at a medical conference. This meeting initiates some dormant father-daughter dynamics as Lee does his best to shield Clementine from the horrors of the world. Soon they encounter other survivors but can they find safety?
Of course not! There are zombies and demented people everywhere!
Moving through the five episodes you realise that the game gives the player the choice of choosing one of two options, bad or worse. The result from either option was always a severe beating by an absolutely horrible outcome for all involved. Adding to the pressure was the fact that characters would judge you by your actions and reactions, their loyalty and friendship fluctuating as a result. Every decision was a test of morality, strength and mental fortitude that had the player making life or death decisions, sometimes with little time to weigh up the consequences.
“Ha!” I cried, “I know how to deal with zombies! Failure will not be an option for my character! The others can fall.”
Of course this is a zombie apocalypse. It can always get worse. As the game progressed the drama increased, it always seemed like failure was the only result programmed into the game and every character lost was tough.
At least I can survive, I reasoned. Normally a video game might have me reaching for the option that makes the game easier, the cynical option. Getting a gun over food and using my FPS skills to blast people away or just plain running over a roof to get through to the end of the level and closer to victory and the ending credits. Not The Walking Dead. This one forced me to think and explore how my actions affected the cast of characters and thanks to this I played the game in the spirit intended, how I thought Lee should react. This meant I played peacemaker and tried to keep the group together, be nice to everyone and go out of my way to do the tough tasks but sometimes taking this tack just made things worse which made me dread making decisions and the drama more compelling. It was thanks to characters who acted like real people, bored, hungry, angry, scared, and devastated. These characters were survivors and, despite my best efforts it seemed like some were destined to fail like real people put through hell. This might have been too much to bear and make me question why I would bother playing but there was one character in particular and what she represented that made me struggle to the very end.
Clementine became my motivation. It was her innocence that drove me. I was surrounded by opinionated bickering adults, violent raiders and feral zombies but she was a sea of innocence, the figure that made me tone down the video gamer bad-ass and empathise on a human level with the characters. It does not help that she looks a lot like my sister and my older brother instincts kicked in. Amidst all the misery and horror, I did my best to protect her innocence and shield her from the corruption around us, holding her hand to guide her through all obstacles, talking to her to see that she was okay mentally and physically and having to do the adult thing and supervise, scold and instruct which was tough but rewarding as our relationship built up.
Because she was with me and I felt that my actions would shape her life I weighed each option and decision extremely carefully, making sure I provided an example of humanity and survival in this new world of chaos.
That the developer, Telltale Games had turned a point-and-click game with QTE’s into a brilliant way of showing a zombie apocalypse is a minor miracle but it was thanks to the characters and atmosphere. Indeed, unlike the television series in which you could get stuck in the human drama and forget that zombies were all around here they are an ever-present threat. Few scenes are without sight or sound of them and they shape the way that the characters perceive the world. Never has fear stabbed my heart so much as being face to face with a zombie or human, frantically hammering away at buttons and trying to prevent death from taking a bite out of me. Wait… let me rephrase, never has fear stabbed my heart so much as seeing Clementine in danger because she represented hope for the future and the game paid that hope off magnificently.
When I was fighting for my life, about to die at the hands of a villain she rescued me, repaying every moment I threw myself into the fray on her behalf. When she supported my failing body, a shoulder to lean on as we staggered through an ungodly situation, I felt that every time I had held her hand had been repaid a million times over. When I told her she would have to fend for herself and she said “But I’m little” I burst into tears (I am getting emotional just writing this and remembering her voice) because I didn’t want to see her alone and did what an older sibling/parent does and gave her advice and confidence in her abilities. Those moments we spent together, where I taught her how to survive and just bonding meant a lot for me. It was designed to be like this and it worked.
And so we come back to the end… I knew I would cry at the end. I can remember the few times a video game made me emotional and tears spring to me eyes (Skies of Arcadia – goodbye crew, Shenmue – goodbye Nozomi, I wish I could forget about revenge and had the option to kiss you instead of chasing after sailors) but I actually cried with this one. Tears and everything. I cry at films. Rarely with video games. It was the realisation that here every action and dialogue choice had mattered in building a relationship with my ward and that she trusted me. That, by not being a monster and by being a caring human being, I had won the devotion of someone. It felt meaningful in a way interacting with computer games rarely are.
My final words for Clementine were, “I’ll miss you.” I really meant them.