A friend recently asked me why people seem to be so obsessed with zombies lately. We live in Atlanta, the place that much of The Walking Dead mythology (as well as shooting of the television show) revolves around, so it is a media property that is in the ATL consciousness. Assuming that there are zombie fans outside of the ATL (Pittsburgh?), there are deeper reasons people are obsessed with zombies, and The Walking Dead addresses these quite often.
One of those reasons is that what a zombie outbreak presages is the opportunity for everything in a culture to be “reset,” Fight Club style. In Episode 1 of The Walking Dead video game, Lee Malcolm, the protagonist of the game, is on the way to prison when the zombie apocalypse hits Georgia. Even though he has committed an atrocious act pre-zombie-apocalypse, he is mostly portrayed as an inherently good person, regardless of the player’s actions.
My friend thought that people who are obsessed with zombies fantasize about becoming them. As Shawn of the Dead suggests, many of us may already be zombies and seeing our lives going in directions that we don’t expect. The concept of the zombie apocalypse, then, is a chance to simplify our lives and start again. This is especially true for Lee. Though, as Robert Kirkman’s series has shown us, this reset may initially sound exciting but turns awful and scary quickly. While the resetting of the world may be good for someone who was on his way to jail for life, it is awful for what often serves as the symbol of hope in times of tragedy: the children.
At the end of The Walking Dead Episode 2, our survivors had stumbled across some supplies and Clementine, a little girl that has pretty much become the adopted daughter of Lee at this point, had refused to partake in the looting. With the world falling apart, Clem, representing the hope and innocence of the group, tries to hold on her old ways of living, i.e. following the golden rule. This gets at another reason why people may be obsessed with zombies. A zombie apocalypse provides the opportunity to get in touch with the id. Clem has been Lee’s superego throughout the episodes. While Clem has needed Lee to protect her, Lee (and us, the players) needs Clem to keep him hopeful and and also to keep a grip on what modern Western society has deemed it means to be human.
To return then to my first point, zombies provide an “other” for us to compare ourselves against. If a zombie apocalypse were to occur, we could show that we aren’t zombies by having control over ourselves, by making choices. The major component of The Walking Dead games is choice. One choice in a zombie apocalypse , the concept of which is being played around with more and more as we get to the limits of zombie stories, is to just become one. Let ourselves get bitten or whatever and join the hordes.
Too bad that isn’t an option in this game, as the choices and actions that the player has to make as a living human being are terrifying. A smart decision that the developers made is to enforce a time limit on the choices the player has to make, both in conversations and in actions. This turns the conversations into quick-time events of a sort but shows how we are developing Lee as a character more than the traditional see-button-press response would.
At the beginning of Episode 3, the player has to make a huge decision that dictates which direction towards of the attitudes of the id or the superego that we are allowing Lee to move toward. The episode begins in the style of Resident Evil 2 with Lee and Kenny scavenging the streets and stores of Macon for supplies. I like how the scavenging here isn’t considered a moment about “choice,” even though what is being done isn’t far removed from the looting of the car in the previous episode. Anyway, this event, which concerns whether or not to choose to mercifully kill a victim of the zombies or to to allow her suffering to serve as a distraction for Lee and Kenny, makes clear point how a character like Kenny has become The Walking Dead game’s id. He tries to convince Lee to make the choice that a pure survivor would make, but I chose to do something that would leave Lee’s former humanity (prior to the actions leading up his arrest jail term) intact.
I see this story as the redemption of Lee, so I have been trying to make decisions based on that idea. At the end of Episode 3 when viewing the stats concerning how others had decided to deal with the major choices during this episode, I saw that this choice was one of the more lopsided decisions and that I had made the unpopular choice. If that is the choice that most people would make in real life, I would definitely just let myself get bitten by a zombie.
While the player can affect how the other characters react, it seems like the story moves along the same path regardless. For instance, thanks to a choice in the first game over who lives and who dies, rather than Carly performing an action in a later episode, Doug might be there instead, etc. The opening and closing cut scenes seem to present teasers that indicate the most “customizable” elements of the experience, as they seem to be related directly to the major choices that a player has made. However, there is a darkly humorous instance in the middle of Episode 3 where the HUD informs the player that a character is going to remember your actions and then that character dies right away. I am assuming my decisions will all pay off some in way in the end, but, perhaps, the inability to make choices that really matter at times suggests a more linear path, since Lee and the player can’t always control the outcome. As previously noted, at the end of each episode there is a chart that indicates the percentage of players that made a particular choice. They often don’t indicate clear majorities of opinion, which could indicate that there really is no right answer. Just as in the TV show (I haven’t read the comic books), the survivors situation goes from bad to worse and that is the point.
The strength of this game is that it really gets us thinking about what we would do or say in these situations allowed for by the “reset” granted by a zombie apocalypse that we normally only get to witness in television and movies. It is easy to say that you would just kill the person who was bitten or in an insurmountable position, but it is still hard to press the button that pulls the trigger, at least for me. Rather than thinking, “Whoa, that was awesome how I just killed that zombie,” The Walking Dead makes you think, “I do not want to be the one to kill this zombie.” The game can be played even without knowing anything else about the rest of the universe of The Walking Dead, but being somewhat in control of the situation gets at the themes better (well, or at least more quickly) than the television show.
The more that I get into the world of The Walking Dead, the more I am convinced that becoming a zombie wouldn’t be such a bad option. I don’t think that I could commit suicide, but there is no point of living just to be alive. The actions of Lee, Kenny, and the others are supposedly taken for the sake of surviving, but what are they becoming as a result? I have chosen to partake in Kirkman’s world and use it as a way to appreciate all that we have in Middle America. For Lee, I have chosen the path of redemption and of trying to keep Clem alive as a way of restoring and keeping his humanity. It might be futile, but I have chosen to believe in hope rather than pure survival instincts and the id. If I were approaching this game from purely the gamer’s point of view, I would have made choices based solely on improving my chances for survival. What will you choose when you play The Walking Dead?