Flash fiction of the dead

Telltale’s The Walking Dead was a surprise to most critics. While many of their earlier adventure games received moderately positive reviews, no one expected them to deliver one of the critical successes of 2012, and they definitely didn’t expect anything as emotionally engaging and harrowing as what we got. I was just as surprised myself; I’d read the comics and seen some of the TV series, but to my mind the game was by far the most effective of the three incarnations of The Walking Dead. The TV series delivered on the action, but it meandered and had too many characters it didn’t know what to do with, whereas the comics to my mind decided that the most effective way to get to the readers is to shock them.

Myself, I quickly got bored with the escalating brutality and gruesomeness of the comics. It very much felt like they were telling variations of the same story, turning up the volume as the story progressed. The underlying emotional arcs, though, remained the same – and progressively got drowned out by the visceral cruelty.

The Wlaking Dead

Telltale’s game series didn’t skimp on bitey walker-on-human action, but it didn’t rely on shock to carry most of the weight. It mainly worked on the strength of the central relationships that developed slowly, decision by decision. Would you have the protagonist side with this character or that one? In a split-second decision, who would they save? In the long run, your decisions didn’t change what happened, but they changed how you felt about things. They made the story personal, and this was reinforced by the quiet moments. Similarly to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the story was less about “Will you be butchered horribly by cannibals and your flesh devoured by crazed survivors?” than about feeling responsible for another person succumbing to despair or clinging to hope. Yes, there were crazed cannibal survivors, but they were the background to a story that was relatably human.

Time was an essential factor in the game, however. The Walking Dead got players to care about its characters over several storylines, developing relationships slowly. You didn’t feel the same way about little Clementine at the end of the first episode as you did when the final credits rolled when you finish episode 5. When Telltale published the extra episode “400 Days”, with few direct links to the game’s first season, they decided to do away with what had worked so well: “400 Days” tells five stories, in chunks of no more than 15 minutes, starring five different sets of characters. By the time you’ve got to know one of them, you’re whisked away to play a different character. It’s zombie flash fiction, basically, and it’s a strange choice, coming from a developer whose most successful game depended on slow, gradual character development.

“400 Days” is not an unconditional success. Not all of the storylines are equally engaging, and as with all zombie fiction, there’s a risk of diminishing returns – there are a handful of tropes that stories of the undead keep returning to – but I was surprised by how effective the extra episode was nevertheless. The game ends with another survivor trying to recruit the protagonists of the individual episodes for a settlement up north, and they accepted or declined based on the decisions I’d made a few hours earlier. It didn’t feel like winning or losing the game: and when several of the characters decided to decline the offer and set off on their own, it felt like I’d failed them. I’d failed to show them that even in a world of the dead trust was something worth pursuing.

Both players and reviewers, while largely intrigued by “400 Days”, noted that whatever emotional resonance the game had was less strong by its end than the ones developed in the original five episodes of the first season. This is undoubtedly true – but as developers experiment with different story formats and different ways of engaging the player, we only benefit. Not all such experiments work, and few work 100%, but there are many as yet untried methods of telling stories with the medium. Doesn’t mean that every game has to tell a story in the first place, or that every game must be a formal experiment – but games are a literal playground for storytellers, from the likes of Braid and Journey to Dear Esther and The Walking Dead. Personally I’m excited to see where they’ll take us next.

The Walking Dead: 400 Days

The discreet charm of the post-apocalypse

Is The Road a depressing movie? Do cannibalistic chickens have lips? Good question, actually – does a beak count as lips? Anyway, I’m ambivalent on the matter… not of poultry and their facial appendages, but of The Road‘s overall outlook on life. It is a powerful piece of cinema, though – perhaps almost too powerful. I wouldn’t be too surprised if a number of audience members found the grim, sad plot and atmosphere of the film so overbearing they resisted its effects and perhaps even resented its relentlessness.

And relentless the film is, which probably doesn’t come as a surprise to those who have read Cormac McCarthy’s novel – yet it’s not the relentlessness of so many post-apocalyptic films. There are moments that in other films might be thrilling, scenes where the film’s wandering father and son are pursued by cannibalistic survivors (no chickens, though), but in the end it’s not these fleeting moments of jeopardy that are the greatest threat to survival in the world of The Road. It’s finding the strength each morning to go on. The father played by an increasingly Giacomettian Viggo Mortensen has his son to keep him going, but most of the survivors we see don’t even have that. They seem to be alive simply because they haven’t died yet.

Nevertheless, The Road is about survival, not only physical survival but that of the soul, of the part that makes us more than glorified animals. As the son puts it in his childish words, “Are we still the good guys?” You’d think that good and bad would become relative in a world where you avoid other survivors because it’s more than likely that they only survived by preying on others, and the father’s reluctance to show compassion for others makes perfect sense. The son’s insistence on doing the right thing is naive and borders on the suicidal – yet survival, to the son and eventually the father, should not simply be about delaying the inevitable. And it is in this insistence that there is more to living than simply not having died yet, even in a world that seems to be all about death, that The Road, for all its horrors and sadness, is an idealistic story.

This may be the point where The Road loses some: it is difficult to accept the hopeful notes scattered throughout for the sheer weight of all the horrors we’re presented with. Does a single surviving beetle, a dog that’s alive against all hope (and hasn’t been eaten by its famished keepers) constitute a convincing ray of sunshine against the billions dead, the destroyed wildlife and decaying forests (by the way: this is the first film where I had to switch off the subwoofer – because the trees crashing to the ground were simply more than we wanted to inflict on our neighbours!). I bought both the despair and the glimmer of hope, but the former may overpower the latter for many.

Through it all, though, the one thing that’s stuck most in my mind is the desolate, grim beauty of the world Hillcoat depicts in his adaptation. There’s dark poetry in McCarthy’s prose, and the visuals of the film capture this poetry impressively well.

The Grim Brothers Coen

There are many things in No Country for Old Men that recall the Coens’ earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Fargo; yet it feels notably different in many ways from those films. Intolerable Cruelty (and, from what I hear, Ladykillers) also felt unlike the earlier movies the brothers had made – in some ways, they felt more like someone was trying to imitate their style and succeeded in isolated scenes but, on the whole, failed… Failed, that is, to make a good Coen movie as well as a good film in general.

No Country for Old Men is a good movie. It may even be the best Coen film to date. Chances are I’ll never love it as much as Fargo, but that’s also for nostalgic reasons. Fargo is by no means anything less than a fantastic film, but it doesn’t have the sheer compactness and focus of No Country for Old Men.

And it doesn’t have Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem, is one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy novels, and for all I know he was already frightening in the book, but what Bardem and the Coens make of him is chilling.

However, the film has plenty more going for it than Bardem’s psychotic Prince Valiant and his pneumatic slaughterhouse device. It works so well because the three main characters – Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – complement each other so well. The story and the protagonists are balanced to perfection; you’ll rarely see a film that is as intricately structured. Bell and Chigurh are like two poles, balanced on the axle that is Moss: not a bad guy, but deeply flawed and too sure of himself, even after he’s seen the force of nature that is the killer following him. Moss commits several stupid acts in the film, as well as some brilliant on-his-feet thinking, but his greatest stupidity lies in thinking that he has a chance against his opponent. Bell, on the other hand, seems to understand (and accept, in the very end) that there is some evil that is beyond comprehension and that cannot be tricked or beaten.

No Country for Old Men

If you’re like me, and an Academy Award is more likely to put you off a film, do yourself a favour. If you enjoy great acting and don’t mind bleakness that makes Sweeney Todd look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (okay, that’s not quite fair – like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps), do go and see this film. And see it at a cinema rather than on TV. Roger Deakins’ work, which once again is quite magnificent, deserves the big screen. I just say The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and, once again, Fargo.