The Walking Dead - Upending the Survivalist Fantasy (SPOILERS)

I got into The Walking Dead late (started the game around when episode 3 was released), but I approached it as I assume many did -- a game in which to play out the zombie survivalist fantasy. Many who are fans of zombie horror have probably thought about how well they'd survive at some point. (For the record, I don't think I'd do well. I'd maybe do well as someone who could diffuse group tensions, since I'm pretty patient and like to joke around a lot, but I definitely couldn't be a leader, and I doubt I'd be great at taking out the undead.) I'd heard a lot about the difficult choices the game presents you. Almost right away, the player receives a choice that is emblematic of pragmatism vs. emotion: the choice to save Shawn (an able-bodied young man) or Duck (a goofy boy, and the son of potential allies). Not gonna lie: I tried to save Shawn partly for pragmatic reasons, and partly because I found Duck annoying. My sole experience with the Walking Dead comics was many years ago, so I didn't remember Shawn is a zombie in the comics, and therefore, it's impossible to save him here.

As I went through the episodes, however, my focus shifted. The brilliance of the dialogue choices in the game is that they force you to see the humanity in each character, even those you dislike. For instance, I did not like Larry at all -- he's likely a racist, he punches Lee out during the escape from the general store, and he's generally a belligerent asshole. But he also has a fierce love for his daughter, Lilly, who is the only person Larry has left in this world. This doesn't justify his behavior, but it isn't meant to; rather, it shows Larry as a flawed human. It's the same for the other character I greatly dislike, Kenny. He has a hugely hypocritical moment in the latest episode, where he berates Lee for being selfish and looking for himself and his own the whole time, though this is really how Kenny has operated the whole time. Family is all that matters to Kenny -- everyone can go fuck themselves, unless they can help the family survive. But his love for his family is genuine, and he's trying his best to function in the face of awful circumstances (drinking binge after the boat plan initially fails aside). Again, he's a deeply flawed dude who has very human moments and moments of great assholery.

It's with Kenny where the game displays much of its best writing, and who is at the center of what seems to be the story's overarching point heading into the finale. Kenny is very much the traditional "survival at all costs" character. He says he is a "Christian man," but his actions don't speak to his beliefs: he leaves Lee to die on a few occasions (while also saving him at other points, to be fair), he doesn't bother trying to save Larry before killing him off, and he is eager to kick Ben to the curb not only for being mostly dead weight, but also for enabling the situation that led to the assault on the motel (though I think Ben is being too hard on himself there -- I bet the bandits would have attacked them at some point, anyway). Kenny's MO is to survive simply for the sake of surviving. Even when he has nothing left, he is determined to stay alive, and damn anyone who would drag him down.

I've tended more toward the emotional end of the spectrum. I want to stay alive, sure, but I want the others to survive with me. Many of my dialogue choices tend toward reasoning with the group and diffusing arguments. I tried to save Larry. I tried to reason with Lilly in her crusade to find the turncoat. Stuff like that. Survival for its own sake seemed meaningless if it meant actively standing on the backs of others to reach that goal. Then episode 4 pulls a clever trick when the interaction between Kenny and Ben comes to a head. I try to play peacemaker, but that doesn't mean there aren't characters I don't like. Similar to many, I'm sure, Ben got on my last nerve after his revelation in the third episode and his constant bumbling in the fourth. When he ran away from protecting Clementine near the beginning of the episode, I was furious. Did it matter that he was a scared kid who was not really built for this extreme scenario -- much like I could see myself being? No. He endangered the group -- endangered our lives!

Episode 4 introduces the Crawford group in Savannah. They're the survivalists taken to the extreme: they dispel anyone who could be considered even the slightest liability. Children and their parents are chucked from the group. Anyone who is sick or injured is gone -- even the mere possibility of disease (such as with the cancer survivors who are in remission) is enough for expulsion. Someone like Ben would no doubt find himself on his ass in seconds. That, right there, is the entire point of episode 4. Lee's interactions with Ben and his choices regarding Ben's place in the group mirror those of the Crawford group. Does Lee choose survival at all costs? I am almost ashamed to admit that I did not catch onto this larger point until it was almost too late. Kenny brings up the fact that the boat has room for only so many people before the mission to raid Crawford. That HAS to color the player's thoughts in some way, especially in light of Ben's ineptitude, and it worked brilliantly on me. The introduction of Molly works, too: suddenly the player has a useful person with whom to replace Ben when that decision needs to be made.

I brought Clementine with me to Crawford (in itself probably a dumb, horrific decision), and during the point where hatred directed at Ben is at its peak, she is the only one to appeal to common decency and stand up for Ben. But I was still blinded by binary choice: Ben or Molly? Who would give us a better chance to survive? And I told Ben to take a hike rather than abstaining -- and (rightly) felt like a HUGE piece of shit for it after Clem's reaction. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: this is how the player is SUPPOSED to feel! Choosing to ditch Ben is the Crawford way. It is the way of those who look at people and evaluate them based solely on how they can help the surveyor. It is the way of those who choose to survive without giving any human meaning to that survival. What is the point of being alive at the end of the world when you're the only person left?

Honestly, I had to pause the game and berate myself for a full five minutes before continuing. I can't think of a single game in recent memory -- not even the Mass Effect series, which I love -- that made me feel that way. I gave in -- however briefly -- to the macho survivalist fantasy and felt awful for it. Yes, it is a real (at the time) concern how many people will be able to fit on the boat. Yes, Ben is a total fuck up. Does that justify deciding his fate before we know for sure how everything plays out? The group goes out of its way to help Omid even though he hasn't done much to "justify" his place. Why? Because we're not monsters. Is Katjaa and Duck's blood on Ben's hands? I think it's too harsh to say that it is, given the nature of the bandits. Is he great at defending himself and others? No. Does that justify leaving him to the wolves?

I couldn't justify it. I saved Ben.

I imagine Telltale will continue its line of "there are no 'right' or 'wrong' choices in this game -- just equally shitty choices." However, I believe this episode makes it clear on which side of the coin these writers and creators fall: survival without humanity is worthless. Molly leaving says it all, I think. She's at first eager to get on the boat. She wants to stay alive as much as anyone else. Then she sees a group coming apart at the seams. She sees people who care more about No. 1 than anything else. She sees a group that reminds her of what she escaped in Crawford. She'd rather take her chances alone on the streets. That says it all.

The more I think about it, the more remarkable this chapter is to me, and the more it reveals a great heart at the center of this story. It's not interested in simply giving players terrible options in a crapsack world. It's interested in getting people to consider WHY they're making these choices, and in considering the consequences not just of the choices themselves, but also the decision making that goes into the choices. There's an actual emotional and moral weight and heft to these decisions that goes beyond what I've seen in most any video game I've played.

The Walking Dead is excellent. I cannot wait for episode 5.