I haven’t written anything about The Walking Dead, but I just finished season 2 of the Telltale Game, have watched all of the TV series, and swallowed up the comic series on comiXology. So I have a few thoughts. First I want to talk about the game, then make a few general comments about the world/franchise as a whole. As a warning, this will probably only make sense to people familiar with these things.
The Waking Dead Season 2 game
I just finished the final episode last night, so my emotions are a bit raw still. Overall, it’s an incredibly moving game, if flawed. The strength of the game relies almost entirely on the narrative, since it really isn’t much as a game. If you don’t know, the only real control that you get over the character is choosing what she says and how she moves at certain points. Mostly you just watch and listen. Still, the fact that you have to make decisions, and sometimes heartrending decisions, really pulls you into the narrative. I think the game creators did a great job with this at the end, creating a series of decisions that made sense for the narrative, but lead to very different results which nevertheless could be satisfying for the player since they were decisions the player made.
In Season 2 you play as Clementine, the child survivor of Season 1. She’s older now, but still a child. Yet she’s survived as long in the post-zombie world as any adult and has had to watch loved ones die and make tough decisions. So she’s not quite a child. And yet she is. I love how in the game she occasionally doesn’t understand the adult meanings behind discussions or is unable to lift something that a grown person could. Controlling her adds a whole level of unease to the gameplay. It’s one thing to play as a big strong man (like Lee in Season 1); it’s something else altogether to play as a little girl.
But as great as Clementine is and as much drama as it adds to play her, it’s not without it’s problems. As this article mentions, being the main character means you have to make decisions. The reality here is that you’re a young girl making decisions for a group of adults, which makes those adults look really immature and useless. It doesn’t happen right away, but by the second episode people defer to you as Clementine and make you do things a young girl shouldn’t have to do. This just makes all the other characters just a little too broken and pitiful at times.
The other problem I have with the game are these other characters. There are a lot of them, but they aren’t very well fleshed out. What is Sarah’s deal? Is she mentally deficient, innocent, or in shock? And what about Rebecca? I never understood her character. Maybe the best example is Luke, the young man you meet in episode one and who lasts the entire season. Who is he? Sometimes he just seems like another follower, but at other times the other group members refer to him as if he were the leader. He’s nice to Clementine, but he also lets her do things that maybe he should do instead. That could be because he’s a young man who doesn’t know much about kids, but we don’t really get his perspective. He’s definitely in over his head, which fits, but there just isn’t much to him beyond that. Learning he was an art history major, as we do in episode five, doesn’t tell us much. He’s just a bit vague.
This vagueness plagues the narrative at times, also. There are a lot of things not fully explained. That can be good. For instance, I like the fact that we never learn exactly what happens to Christa’s baby in episode one. But this lack of explanation is often just distracting. For instance, Christa and Clementine are attacked in episode one. Christa is taken and Clementine escapes. I guess we don’t have to know who these survivors are; they’re just desperate people. Still, what happens to Christa? We never know. And one of the attackers (who has Clementine’s backpack) is encountered later with a different group of people who have been killed. Why is this guy with a different group? Why have they been killed? Pete assumes Carver did it, but it’s never confirmed. Even if he did, why did he? Then in episode four we meet Arvo. Why is trying to stash a bag of drugs in a garbage can? Is it a payoff? Is he hiding it for himself or his sister? We never know. Then it turns out he’s with a group of Russian-speaking people. How did a bunch of people who only speak Russian find each other and last so long in the zombie-infected Unites States? Not all these questions need to be answered, but it does create a lot of loose ends. It’s a big contrast with the first season where an abandoned car encountered early on comes back to haunt you in the final episode. In comparison, season two just too often refuses to tie things together.
These comments (and a few others below) aside, this is a really great game. It’s incredibly engrossing. Yes, there’s a lot of listening to adults talk about how wounded they are and trying to keep them from attacking each other, but often the events are harrowing and the decisions you have to choose between equally bad. In the end, you don’t know whether or not you’ve won. All you can say is that you tried your best. A lot like life.
comments on The Waking Dead as a whole
And this brings me to the world of The Walking Dead as a whole. The focus of all of it– the comics, the tv show, and the games– is the emotional effects on people having to survive a zombie apocalypse. At times this can get very melodramatic. The governor in the comic is a little too evil. In the tv show he’s more believable, but still over-the-top by the end. Missteps aside, The Walking Dead overall demonstrates how the requirements of survival often mean the sacrifice of faith in one’s decency as a human being. It leaves you feeling like the luckiest ones are the ones who died early on.
But inherent in this is the question of what it takes to survive. This question is Shane’s mantra in season two of the TV show. His answer is an über-masculine toughness and willingness to do anything to protect the group. But Shane can’t live with his own decisions, even as he becomes more obsessed with justifying them. This way of survival is reflected in people like the governor, Neegan, and Carver. It’s also reflected in Rick Grimes himself. It’s probably his main internal conflict and what makes his character worth watching. But there is also the question of the necessity of a group. Going it alone can make you into a taciturn borderline sociopath, like Michonne when we first meet her, or Morgan in the tv show, or Jane in the game. So being in a community seems better. This is one of Rick’s big revelations– the power of community– in the comics. Yet almost every group in The Walking Dead world falls apart. Sometimes it is torn apart, but more often, especially in the game, it is destroyed from within. Again, this tension is one of the main conflicts and themes.
The weight of decision-making is also a big theme. It plagues Rick in both the comics and tv show. Season three of the show is basically about him losing confidence in his ability to be a leader and then learning to gain it again. In the game, this burden is placed upon the player and the player has to see the consequences of being harsh and also being too kind. And sometimes it’s not even that simple. Sometimes the player has to decide between the deaths of two of the group, save one and let another die. But who do you save? Who can you let die? You must live with the burden of your decision.
But there are some annoying problems in the world of The Walking Dead.
There are just too many naive people. This makes sense in the beginning, but where we are now in the comics, tv show, and games, the apocalypse is a few years old. People should be used to a few things. In many ways they are. In the comics, the zombies are hardly a threat any more at all (which is it’s own problem in a comic titled The Walking Dead). Still, a lot of characters stand stock still and scream when they see a bunch of zombies. Or they open doors without looking through the window first. Or they walk up to a fortified building out in the open with no cover. These problems probably plague the games the most, but just think of all the people who were with the governor in both the comics and tv show. How could they all not see how crazy he was? And in the tv show, the people around him act like they’d never heard of the zombie apocalypse. And why does everyone insist on walking everywhere? Especially through dense forest? I mean, if most people are dead there should be plenty of cars. Even a bike would be better.
I shouldn’t get into a discussion of how to survive a zombie apocalypse, but there’s one other thing I want to mention. Okay, so you’re in a world where the smallest bite or scratch can kill you, which then turns you into a zombie (which is how it works in The Walking Dead- everyone already has the virus, which is a great concept). So what do you wear? Cut-offs and t-shirts? According to the world of The Walking Dead, yes. This is probably the worst in the tv show, but it plagues the comics and games as well. I mean, c’mon. I don’t care how hot it is, everyone should be decked out in a leather jacket. Or a suit of armor. Something a zombie couldn’t bite through if it caught you unaware. But no. What’s odd, is that this sometimes gets commented on. In the game, Jane points out that Clementine’s jacket wouldn’t stop a walker bite. But then nothing’s done about it. In the comics and tv show, the group discovers that riot gear is a great way to keep the teeth of the undead at bay. And then they promptly forget about that fact. In the TV show, Milton gets made fun of for his duct tape jacket, but it proves its usefulness. Yet nobody seems to understand and they continue to roll up their sleeves and dive into the zombie horde unprotected. Maybe this fits under naiveté, but I just can’t get over how clueless these people are about how they dress.
I think both these problems plague the world because of the requirements of drama. The characters need to be in constant danger. And in order to make the undead more dangerous, the people need to be made more vulnerable. But sometimes it’s just too convenient, too much of a plot device and less an extension of the world itself.
After all this, I still love the world of The Walking Dead. It focuses on what made Night of Living Dead so great. The idea of zombies was new and Romero’s use of butchery cast-offs was grossly inspired, but the real strength of the movie was the realization that under stress the worst sides of human nature come out. Our polite facades fall away and all that we hide beneath comes screaming out. And The Walking Dead ruthlessly explores all the many ways that this can happen. It’s a pulp version of Heart of Darkness. And I love it.