I wanted to share some (heavily spoilery!) thoughts about The Walking Dead, and I also felt like putting together a video for the site. So I totally did both! Check it out!
Full transcript under the cut.
The Walking Dead avoids the obvious choices in a really smart way. Let’s face it, almost every permutation of the zombie apocalypse has been covered at this point. Zombies aren’t shocking or outlandish, they’re a foundation upon which stories are built, especially in the video game medium. Zombies and Nazis are the two foes it’s considered universally acceptable to mow down by the thousands, and there are hundreds of examples of games which do that in ways ranging from scary to dull to exciting to repulsive.
Telltale’s approach, however, taps into the heart of what makes certain zombie films – especially the Romero classics – compelling, and that’s the human drama which surrounds the apocalypse. You only really kill a handful of zombies in the game, especially in comparison to the 150-in-five-minutes set pieces of games such as Left 4 Dead. There’s more drama in your minute-to-minute decisions about how to try and coach Clementine through the end of the world than in most of the kills; this is a game which will make your heart hurt when terrible things happen, because it actually makes you feel the cost of them.
The presentation of Crawford, the post-apocalypse society of objectivist ethics and fascist hegemony, is a particular example of Telltale’s ability to engage with zombie fiction in an innovative and interesting way. I’ve talked in the past about how the infinite enemy paradigm – specifically in regards to modern military shooters, but also obviously at play in zombie fiction – lends itself dangerously well to pro-fascist imagery and symbolism. The idea of having to sacrifice ethics and behave in exclusionary, discriminatory ways out of a twisted sense of ‘rational self-interest’ – the ‘greater good’ aesthetic, if you will – is central to the presentation of a lot of survivor communities in zombie games.
The Walking Dead, however, problematises that as a valid response to extreme situations through the presentation of Crawford. You’re set up to expect a violent but successful community of survivors, whose extremism has, up to this point, succeeded in repelling the invading hordes. A more conventional piece of fiction would then have your group come in, cause a little chaos, and then (most likely) cause the place to be overrun, subtextually implying two things: one, fascism is justified & successful in extreme circumstances, and two, outsider groups eventually lead to the downfall of such states, and are not to be trusted.
Instead, when you arrive, the place has already been overrun. You’re left to pick up the pieces, and what you find is that it was this attempt to institute complete control over people’s lives – and specifically, women’s bodies – that led to the downfall of the state. The ideological message is not that fascism works and that interlopers are evil, it’s that the tools repressive states use to maintain control sow the seeds of their own downfall. It’s a genius move.
The Walking Dead is one of the smartest and most moving titles of the past year. I could talk about how thoroughly protective I felt of Clementine, and how Chuck’s advice to teach her how to shoot and cut her hair is an amazing subversion of the patriarchal idea that you’re her protector; I could talk about how Molly is one of the most awesome characters in the game, and how the presentation of her sexual abuse at the hands of her doctor is smart and unnerving; I could talk about Kenny’s maturely realised emotional difficulties, and how it manages to be tragic without being overwrought. Heck, at some point I probably will. This is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and it’s definitely an important milestone and a watershed moment in the tackling of mature themes in mainstream gaming.