On the fourth day of the ascension of Horace to his state of holy infinity, we like to celebrate by considering those less fortunate than us. It doesn't matter who they are, just so long as their plight causes an ember to spark in our cog-powered cockles. But what poor souls claw at this window of the advent calendar and does their suffering suit the season?
It's... The Walking Dead!
“I'm only little.”
With those words, The Walking Dead ceased to be ‘that game that makes people cry’ and became ‘*SNIFFLE* I…just need *SOB* a moment to gather my thoughts *BAWL*’. Apart from the fact that I cried quite a bit and that some characters die (I don't say which ones), I've avoided explicit spoilers but I do refer to minor events, and talk about the overall mood and movement of the series.
With the release of each episode, my Twitter feed filled with exclamations of shock and digital tears. It was as if everybody I knew had been locked in a kitchen with Gordon Ramsay and forced to chop onions. “FUCK”, they would say. And then, “I seem to have something in my eye.”
Invariably, what they had in their eye was the dust of empathy, having become invested in the doom of a cast of cartoons, at the heart of which lay the father-daughter relationship between a melancholy man and his accidental ward. It’s a game about caring for someone and striving to protect them no matter how much horror life coughs up onto the road ahead.
Telltale's Walking Dead isn't about zombies, which is about as blatantly obvious a statement as ‘Taxi Driver isn't about vehicles for hire’. Thankfully, despite a second episode that almost manages to avoid the walkers altogether, the series as a whole doesn't make the mistake of assuming that not being about zombies means the flesh-munchers can be conveniently forgotten whenever it suits the writers’ goals. The zombies here do insist on eating, infecting and otherwise bothering people, even when those people are trying to have emotional moments.
Unlike the drab first season of the television series, this Walking Dead never lets its audience forget that there is a constant, unstoppable and absolutely horrifying threat. The survivors have lived through a terrible trauma and every day they attempt to come to terms with that, all the while tensed for the next danger or deplorable sight.
‘Survivors’ is the key word. In your average post-disaster story du jour, the people crawling out of the wreckage are ‘survivors’ in the sense that they managed to survive, but they don’t tend to demonstrate any of the traits associated with people who have experienced tragedy, terror and helplessness. The Walking Dead, at the very least, attempts to explore those scars and at its bleakest it's far closer to the tone of The Road than I Am Alive ever was. The latter's resemblance was superficial and its hero was far more Teflon-coated than Telltale's cast, who suffer, struggle and fail far more often than they climb skyscrapers.
If it weren't for Clementine, the whole series could be nothing more than a catalogue of miseries. She represents hope, care and a somehow tender fear. Whenever she is present, Lee must choose his actions and words more carefully because she is looking to him for guidance. He isn't only responsible for her survival, he is responsible for the manner of her survival and setting the limits by which she might live.
I've complained before that the choices the player makes are unimportant and there are entire scenes in which interactivity distracts from events rather than adding to them. The series contains too many instances of pushing forward to go forward when no other option is available, and the choices that significantly alter events, even for a short while, could be counted on one partially decayed hand.
But my decisions did matter at the last, because I doubt I would have been quite as devastated if some of the final dialogue options hadn't resonated all the more strongly because of what had gone before. Those who have played the game will understand the importance of a haircut – a moment of bonding that particularly moved me not only because it was achingly bittersweet but because it was built on Lee’s willingness to learn from others and to trust in the possibility that kindness still exists in strangers, despite everything.
As the world grew dim, given the choice to recall that ritual, so steeped in meaning, I had to, even though it broke me a little to pull at that thread. Who could have imagined at the time that the tragedies of Episode Three would ever seem like the good old days?
It’s worth noting that The Walking Dead is a surprise turnaround for Telltale and, despite some save game issues and minor delays, a triumph for episodic gaming. The gaps between the episodes seem sensible, although the delay between the first and the second did make me do an angry dance and I had to dabble in magic to rescue a save game after the third.
A few friends have been waiting for the complete set before buying, which is almost always my tactic with television shows, but I'm glad to have experienced the built-in breaks here. The time that passes in the game world between episodes is one reason for that; having a pause imposed made the unwritten occurrences less jarring.
Given that boredom and bickering are enemies, it’d feel odd to have all the heightened action and emotion packed into one evening. The opening of an episode tends to suggest a period of inactivity, which fits nicely with the form. To those who have waited for the full package, I’d suggest acknowledging those breaks with at least a night’s sleep.
From the opening moments, my concern was that despite its insistence on choice and change, The Walking Dead was telling Lee’s story, not mine. I wasn't wrong to think that, but Lee is a superb central character and his story is well-written, well-performed and packs more than its share of emotional uppercuts.
I could sulk and complain about the lack of puzzles or story branches but I reckon I’d be missing the point somewhat. Besides, this isn't the time for that. This is the time to remember Clementine and the dead, whether they’re still walking or not.