Zombies. How’s that for unlikely media stars? I used to think it’s only geek culture that goes for zombies in a big way, with stuff like the Marvel Zombies series (seriously!) and with even the most unlikely games having to shoehorn in a mode where you battle the undead hordes.
But no, zombies have arrived in a big way, and they seem to be here to stay. Perhaps the biggest success in this respect has been Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, a comic series started in 2003 which by now has generated not only a TV series that is currently in its third season – and an adventure game series by Telltale Games that is one of the most unexpected gaming hits ever. Adventure games are a bit of a zombie genre themselves; back in the ’80s and ’90s there were many best-selling series, from the Monkey Island games to Sierra’s countless Quest titles, but these days there simply aren’t any triple-A graphic adventures. Telltale, too, have not always produced sterling games, often resorting to tired genre clichés in various series of games trying, with varying success, to revive old franchises, including video game follow-ups to the Back to the Future and Jurassic Park series of films.
To be honest, I didn’t expect much from The Walking Dead. I read the comics but quickly gave up; they start well and are admirably ruthless at depicting a world after the zombie apocalypse where no one is safe from being chowed on by shambling corpses, but the writing is often clumsy and the plotting increasingly became about little other than escalating worst-case scenarios with a touch of sadism towards the characters. (I don’t expect the scenario to be all sunshine and lollipops, but ceaseless grimness and brutality quickly become boring.) The TV series seems well made enough, but zombie fiction tends to rehearse two plots over and over again: 1) the zombies are coming! and 2) man is wolf to man (oh, and the zombies are coming!). How much story can you squeeze out of the overall setup?
Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead doesn’t tell a story that is fundamentally new, but it succeeds at taking the shopworn premise and giving it a spin. For anyone who’s ever despaired at people seriously discussing how they’d fare in the undead apocalypse (and listening to the kind of guys who’d seriously claim that they’ve got it all figured out: “Man, all I need is a sharp katana and 500 tins of baked beans…”), the game puts you in the shoes of a survivor and makes you take some hard decisions. Do you save the person who’s most likely to be of use but who hates your guts or do you throw him to the undead in favour of the woman you’re kinda sweet on? Do you distribute your limited food and water among the group or do you keep them for yourself and the eight-year old girl you’ve taken under your wing?
The game was advertised on the strength of the choices it gives the player, but admittedly the plot doesn’t change in any major ways based on what you do. What does change, though, is how the characters feel about you and how you feel about the characters. What Telltale does magnificently is engage you in the story of a small band of characters – none of which fit the typical video game template (no super heroes, space marines and busty female archaeologists in this one!) – and make you feel the escalating dread and weariness. Whatever you do, you don’t end up saving the world. You might not even save yourself. In The Walking Dead, winning may mean making sure that Clementine, the little girl that ends up in your care, survives another day, that she gets to eat, and that you’ll manage to keep her and the dwindling group of survivors from losing not only their lives but indeed the will to live.
In the end, Telltale’s take on the Walking Dead universe reminds me of nothing as much as of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It doesn’t have the same beautifully sparse prose, but it has the same trajectory – and it effectively puts me in the shoes of The Road‘s father, desperately wanting to make sure that the child I’m looking after is safe but at the same time knowing that I must not do so at the price of my own humanity. The relationship between Lee, the player character, and Clementine is one of the most successfully executed relationships in any game I’ve ever played, and it beats most similar relationships in films and TV. Hell (on earth), even Mr Ebert might appreciate this one when he isn’t yelling for those damn brain-eating kids to get off his laaaaarrrrgh-
P.S.: My apologies for the pun in the title – the only thing that’s funny about it is its smell…