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Death and Meaning in 'The Walking Dead'

Deciding who dies has far less meaning than deciding how we move forward with those left behind.

Warning: The post contains spoilers for Episode 3, “Long Road Ahead”, of The Walking Dead.

Over on the massive The Walking Dead Wiki, a poll asks visitors whether they liked the three character deaths in the recently released third Episode of The Walking Dead video game. The overwhelming majority of respondents selected “No! I wasn’t given the choice of letting them live or die.” While I traditionally side with players who want to see game stories affected by their decisions, this negative response completely misses a crucial theme in the series: death and the construction of meaning are processes, not singular events.

Telltale raises the stakes with "Long Road Ahead”, the latest entry into the zombie-themed episodic game series. Nothing is sacred and Telltale makes it abundantly clear -- they will kill everyone you love. Of course, in a world infested with those hungry for human flesh, death is to be expected. In the very first episode, Lee, the game’s protagonist, watches Shawn, a farm-hand, get devoured by zombies breaking through a wooden fence. In Episode 2, one character gets his head smashed in with a cinder-block.

Episode 3 separates itself in that Lee, and therefore the player, has no direct influence on whether these characters live or die. Carly’s death in the latest episode happens suddenly and with very little warning and is completely unavoidable. Similarly, Duck is bitten by a zombie and becomes infected while Lee is distracted by an invading zombie horde. Perhaps most offensive to players with expectations of choice, Katja commits suicide off-screen, too distraught over Duck’s fate to keep living.

Would these deaths have been better if Lee could have stopped them somehow? To be fair, Shawn’s death in the first episode is also pre-determined, but players still make a crucial choice about who to attempt to save, which affects how surrounding characters behave with Lee. Maybe a quick-time-event in which players try to grab the gun away from Lilly (and inevitably fail) would have satiated players more demanding of choice in “Long Road Ahead”. At least it would have mirrored the same dichotomy in the first episode.

Whether or not Lee is able to intervene, the reasons for these characters' deaths are complex. Lilly acts irrationally because she was already in an agitated state, a state enhanced by the death of her father and in all likelihood extreme sleep deprivation. The seeds of Duck’s death were planted long before a merciful bullet takes his life. His death comes as a result of betrayal and team in-fighting. All of the deaths in the game exist within a larger system of cause and effect, all wrapped up in complex relationships.

Indeed, the most important aspect of the deaths in Episode 3 concern their relationship to their repercussions. Will players decide to abandon Lilly on the road? I did. And I am still not sure if it was the right thing to do. With Katjaa and Duck gone, will Kenny’s resentments boil over or vanish in grief? If players chose to end Duck’s life themselves, will this gain Kenny’s favor or brew even more hostility?

Conversations, which make up the majority of player interaction in The Walking Dead, theoretically contribute to long-term relationships between characters. The deaths in Episode 3 convey the importance of human systems over singular events. Meaning is not found in the singular act of deciding another character’s fate, but the process by which Lee relates to these other human beings as the story progresses. In an apocalyptic scenario like this one, Tell Tale expresses that how one lives is far more important than how one dies. Player choice should never spoil this message.

The team almost certainly shifted player expectations intentionally with this latest entry in the series. To cap off these sudden and unavoidable deaths, near the end of the episode players have to decide who to help on board a moving train -- the injured Omid who is running ahead, or the healthy Christa who is falling behind. The decision mirrors the same one players make in Episode 3 between Duck and Shawn.

After a brief tease, both characters make it onboard. Despite the trappings, The Walking Dead has never been about player choice and dichotomies -- at least not in the classical sense. This is a game about systems of human relationships. It is about managing to keep one’s humanity in a world overrun by the dead and maneuvering through a landscape of immense suffering. Deciding who dies has far less meaning than deciding how we move forward with those left behind.

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