This weekend, something weird happened to me, and for the first time, I believe: I felt vertigo in a video game. There I was, running around the apocalyptic sandbox city of Harran in a zombie action game called Dying Light. A few hundred metres away was a radio tower – and as I’ve been conditioned over the last few years, towers are there to be climbed. There may be goodies at the top, or you get a better overview of the area and, more often than not, your map reveals points of interest that previously were invisible to you. So there I go, climbing the tower slowly and carefully, since no tower in video games has ever just had a single ladder taking you more or less safely from the bottom to the very top: it’s always a broken, rusty ladder here, some outside scaffolding there, and always at the risk of plummeting to your death and momentary rebirth at a safe place previously unlocked.
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.
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.
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…