A WALKING DEADRETROSPECTIVE:
Making choices that don't matter, matter
I beat The Walking Deadvideogame yesterday. It wasn't a triumphant victory, like the onesI'd been conditioned to expect from audacious action-adventures wherethe big hero saves not just the day, but all the days. Probably thewhole month to be honest. No, it was a much more sombre and harrowingvictory, one that felt narrowly earned and bittersweet but somewhathopeful. Like actual life I suppose.
I sat there and stared atthe rolling credits, taking in the fitting country-esque music thatabsolutely nailed the duality of being incredibly uplifting, whilstmaking me want to kill myself. I stared not just at the black borders ofthe screen but through them, into the abyss behind, dead pixelsreflecting a dark image of my own face; one that I'd been forced toconfront more than once before in the last hour-or-so of gameplay. I waited for the inevitable post-credits scene, taking the opportunityto roll a cigarette, a rarity these days that normally only occursafter some bullshit masturbatory indie film I overly relate to or aparticular hard-hitting episode of Mad Men. The cigarette was anecessary tool for the 3:30 AM excursion to the parish green acrossthe road where I would sit on a park bench and contemplate thebottomless depths of reality, albeit this time after a videogame andnot a sexually-charged spat/drunken kebab (the only valid type ofkebab in England).
In retrospect, the thingthat shocks me the most about this series of games isn't how muchthey affected me; I've been affected in similar ways by good examplesof media from every medium... rather it's in how these gamesengrossed me in the experience, made me feel like my choicesmattered, when none of them actually mattered. The game itself isessentially a linear series: you move from sphere to sphere,one-by-one in succession, solving puzzles and making hard-hittingdecisions that ultimately never change the path you're on. No matterwhat dialogue options I selected throughout the game, I wasinevitably drawn along a path that would always, ultimately andforever, lead to that final room. It was a force more powerful than I: the voice and hand of a God, not a religious one, but thekind that coordinates development and gives direction.Not an omnipotent or omnipresent individual, but certainly one whocould shine a light on my life to better reveal who and what Iam.
In some ways "non-linear" linearly-modelledexperiences like that of The Walking Dead are an apt and powerfulmetaphor for life. Whilst our lives give us the illusion of absolutenon-linearity, they ultimately have fairly strict criteria: they endup being a series of scenarios on which we have little influence,and no matter who we are or how well we do we are all going to end upin the same place in the same way. We are always going to end upin that room. It was destiny. There was no escape.
And thatright there's the ticket. That's the nail-head hit. That's the zombie bite in the apocalypse. In a world wherewe all end up in the same place via the same basic route, the journeymatters so much more. The decisions I make might not affect theprogression of my story but they certainly affect who I am, and thepeople around me. The fear of being seen differently whilst walkingthis straight path drove me to invest myself further than any othergame in recent history. When I reached that final confrontation, asinevitable as it were, I could stand tall and openly back the choicesI'd made. The journey was my journey, even if the actual steps I tookwere the exact same steps everyone else took. I could learn about andsubsequently lose friends over their treatment of Clementine, such is the power of those immaterial decisions.
Ultimately the games are a working proof that just givingplayers the ability to impact their world, however small andultimately insignificant those impacts might prove to be, creates anexperience of immersion that just raises the bar in terms ofdeliverance of a story. If you haven't played them, play them, and ifyou have played them but mistreated Clementine, give me your name andaddress so we can settle this like men.