Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Walking Dead - An open letter to everyone and follow-up on Becky Chambers

I don’t like zombies.

There, I said it. They just never managed to connect to me on any layer; they always seem boring with amazingly little variety and a pretty similar motivation across the board. They aren’t, as you might say, interesting. This statement is rather ironic, as in my upcoming book "Pandegnomium", zombies end up hogging a significant part of the antagonist-bench, which is likely a symptom that deep inside of me, somewhere there is a soft spot screaming for brains.

And then I stumbled on Becky Chambers’ essay over at The Mary Sue. An open letter to all of us who’ve never even considered the game ‘The Walking Dead’. If you have plenty of time, stop and read that before you go on. If you don’t, go on here, because this is as much my own opinion as a reply to said letter.
So, if you’re like me zombies never meant that much to you; perhaps not on anything else than a pure mainstream level. You might’ve giggled at Shaun of the Dead, splattered your share of them in various games (shooters, I’d imagine) or even back on the SNES where they ate your neighbors. Somehow, the pseudo-zombie-apocalypse has begun, because they’re darn hard to avoid in modern culture as it is.

The Walking Dead.

That’s different.

If you’re like me, you’ve only heard the name mentioned sporadically. Something with a comic. And gore. Is it even a game? Well, yeah. A zombie-adventure game; imagine that, huh? Developed by Telltale, the people who brought us those awesome Sam and Max along with Monkey Island 5. 

TWD runs over five episodes in which we follow our protagonist Lee Everett, teacher and convict, as he’s initially on his way to prison. Lee is of the old school of brooding heroes, but don’t let that fool you; you easily get a portrait of a tormented man. He’s remorseful for his sins and it’s hard not to take a liking for him during the first few minutes of the game.

Lee never makes it to prison, which suddenly seems like an appealing alternative to the sudden zombie-apocalypse. Like we’ve seen it in, say, Dead Space 2, the plot doesn’t hesitate to kick in with a violent explosion, but here it never feels forced; just claustrophobic as hell.

As Lee wakes up from the car crash, the world has established itself in a classic post-apocalypse-every-man-for-himself setting, not entirely unlike what we’ve seen in “The Road”. Just with legions of hungry, walking dead. And then it’s all up to you and Lee from there.

Sounds familiar? So what makes it different?

As a psychologist, I can’t even start on how many mechanisms and psychological notes this game plays on. And the notorious irony of it all, is that I can’t tell you most of it. You know; just like it was so insanely hard explaining to your friends why “The sixth sense” had such a brilliant ending.

Just like I mentioned “The Road” before, it provokes the essential question in us about how far we as humans would go when the world comes crashing down. When everyday Man suddenly walks a narrow line in a brutal survival-of-the-fittest-world. Do we attempt to remain true to our modern ideals of ethics, altruism, morals; or do we sooner or later succumb to the Fall of Man and degenerate more and more into selfish beasts. Which, in a zombie-apocalypse scenario bids the question; how far can we go and still distinguish ourselves from that which hunts us?

Just like I previously wrote about Deus Ex: HR provoking questions that kept me awake at nights; TWD will kickstart your thoughts through the sinister, wicked and disgusting choices you’ll be forced to make along the way. Be not fooled about its adventure game demeanor; this game has brutal decisions in stock for you. We’re way beyond “Pick up” “Use” and “Talk To”. 

While the initial dialogues are ran by the book, you often have a very limited amount of time to chose a reply, otherwise you do nothing (and inactivity in a zombie-game is never good thing). This is something I desperately hope to see in more games. These are child’s play, however, compared to the several decisions you eventually have to make; those I came to name the “Fuck you, game…”-decisions. If you thought Dragon Age was hard in this regard, it’s got nothing on TWD. In fact; I don’t hesitate to say that no game, whatsoever, has had such an emotional impact on me as TWD. Neither do I hesitate to say that a certain decision in Chapter 3 had me put down the iPad for a second and let some tears go. This is likely the first time since what happened to you-know-who in Final Fantasy 7.

In a psychological sense we all at least have an idea about our moral compass and where it points. We pretty much define our limits and opinions on certain topics, even on taboos. But I’m willing to bet you that TWD will shake up those beliefs to some extent. While I too thought I’d breeze through this, sticking to my own ethics, what this game does so well is how it says; “Sure, we’ll do it your way. Later, look how that ended with fucking up everyone.” Even when I wanted to remain true to the light, a paragon of virtue, the depravity which surrounds Lee on a constant basis is ever threatening and beckoning for you to go along with it. While you at first think that one break of your ethical principles might be an acceptable exception to your rules, you suddenly realize how the game is chipping away at your psyche. And that’s when the true terror of the zombie-apocalypse rears its hideous face.

Combine this with simple, gloomy, surroundings and a smashing cast of well-voiced actors and you’re set. Even the biggest assholes I ended up having a liking for and some of the characters will truly grow on you, which makes it all the harder to go against them whenever they do or say stupid stuff. And trust me, you will be forced to pick sides, eventually.

But of course there is Clementine. Dear, sweet Clementine…

A child Lee rescues very early on in the story. Becky Chambers describes her so well; she’s a child in a dangerous world. She’s not the conventional problem-solving oracle that kids usually end up as; but she’s bright and intuitively gifted. But she’s also a child coping with a world she doesn’t truly understand yet; leaving you with the decision of how honest you want to be with her. She’s forthright, she wants to know, and deep down inside you know that teaching her the virtues needed to survive in a zombie-apocalypse will also strip her of the childlike innocence. 

And the way she bonds with you is likely the most authentic portrayal of a child I’ve seen in a game. She’s perhaps the epitome of innocence; what is humane and benevolent in a depraved world, and then there’s you deciding how much of this you want to sacrifice in order to face the harsh truths of reality.
Clementine grew so much on me; I think it truly appealed to my father-gene in a sense. She tagged along initially, but it didn’t take long till I turned into her fierce protector. We could go along with most plans, yeah, but her safety came first.

Need I mention how the game had expected this and sure made… No, seriously;

Interface-wise there is little to say. Point and click. The game is more like an interactive story with the occasional “Push Button Not To Die”. Even if you screw up, you can try again. Some of the action sequences require you to think and click fast, but again, nothing serious. Despite what you might think, this never becomes a detriment but a force of accessibility. Pretty much everyone with hands can play this game, and as I’ve done so on both my PC and iPad, I can say you catch on very early.
Just don’t expect fast action, FPS, XP or anything like it. Just sit down and listen to this rollercoaster of a story. It’s horror, yes, there is some gore, yes. In general, it’s gruesome, but it will stay with you, make you think, keep you wake at night thinking about whether you really made the right call back there.
And then, when you’ve played it, come back and read mine and Becky Chamber’s letters. And I hope you will understand.

I can’t give a rating about this game, except say that it’s the best game I’ve played in 2012.

So, Becky Chambers; Thanks for making me see! And at the same time; curse you for such a ride of a story!

Nicolai Grunnet is a clinical psychologist and author of the “Heureka” fantasy novels. When not writing or diagnosing, he usually hangs out with hedgehogs and tries to be as nerdy as possible. /

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