I’ve been floating around in an achy, coughy flu-induced fog over the past couple of days, so while I’ve been mostly immobile on the couch and unable to play MMOs, at least I had the time to pick up my iPad and knock off the final episode of The Walking Dead. I had been putting that last episode off for days and days because of a foreboding sense of dread, but ultimately I just needed to know how it all played out.
I recently spoke of the emphasis of choice and consequence on the game. It turns out that while The Walking Dead is really superb at giving you the illusion that your choices have weight, the overall storyline will more or less progress through the same plot points. The game tells you that your decisions tailor your experience, which is quite true in the sense that how you get to that end will vary in small and big ways depending on your choices. But it is a shame that there wasn’t more of an effort/resources to provide truly branching, choose-your-own-adventure paths that would result in a vastly different story.
What I feel that The Walking Dead did surprisingly well was to create deep characters that acted like real folks, made you care about them, and then agonized over what would happen to them due to your actions and words. A lot of important character background points are hinted at or revealed much later in the game, sometimes absolutely changing how you feel toward that person. While there’s an overall sense of gloom (it is the zombie apocalypse, after all), TWD gives you enough sympathetic characters, humorous moments, and survivalist fantasies to keep it from becoming completely macabre.
So I want to share five moments in the game that had a huge impact on me and why, but it’s going to be extremely SPOILERY and SHOULD NOT BE READ by those who haven’t finished the game or are planning to play it at some point.
1. Kenny murdering Larry
Kenny is one of the most important characters in the game and one of the very few that go with you from the first episode to the last (the other being Clem). He’s initially quite likable: a family man, good sense of humor, fixes stuff. You totally have the option to establish and grow a bromance with him over the course of the game.
But here’s the thing: I really couldn’t forgive him for murdering Larry in the second episode. I’m in the middle of performing CPR which may or may not have worked, and he just up and decides that it’s time to cave this dude’s skull in in front of his daughter. Maybe he was right to do so, maybe not, but the point is that we never know if Larry was revivable or not. In my book, that makes him a straight-up murderer.
Of course, my character is a murderer too. He begins the game going off to prison for a murder he did commit, but I feel that that’s a bit of a cheat because I (as a player) did not decide to perform that action. Lee wasn’t a murderer on my watch, is what I’m saying.
So our relationship got a lot more strained. I stopped being his biggest fan and always taking his side, and found myself increasingly irritated at his temper. Yet toward the end of the game he started to redeem himself to me, if only for the way he went out (protecting Ben in my story).
2. Leaving Lilly behind
In my game, I saved Carly only to have an increasingly paranoid Lilly shoot her dead in episode 3. There’s no proof that Carly did anything wrong (and in fact, she didn’t as the game later tells you), but Lilly acts all judge, jury and executioner on her.
And then the game makes me decide on the spot whether to bring Lilly along or not. Lilly tries to appeal to the fact that you are a murderer and she forgave you, but I didn’t see that as the same thing. For one thing, Lilly killed one of our group and became a clear and present danger to that dynamic. It would’ve been foolish to keep her along and put others at risk because of it. For another thing, my past transgression did not affect her in the least, but she killed a good friend and potential love interest of mine for no good reason.
Forgiveness is important, but she did not ask for it and she had to live with the consequences for her actions. I did not regret leaving her.
3. The zombie boy in the attic
Ugh, was there anything more heartbreaking that that little boy you find in the mansion attic who starved to death and became a frail zombie? It was a perfect way for the game to make you — and Kenny — reflect on the recent death of Duck (which was heartbreaking enough), and I got goosebumps when the game made me pick up the zombie’s lifeless corpse, go into the back yard, and bury it in the same hole as that kid’s dead dog. It’s slow, it’s really sad, and it contains a HOLY CRAP moment at the end.
I liked it because it was one of many moments where TWD went out of its way to remind us that the zombies are tragic figures to be pitied as much as feared and reviled — they were us, after all, and they didn’t have a choice in their horrible fate.
4. Saving Ben
Ben’s an interesting character. He is almost invisible as a person early on, just a nebbish high school teen who tags along with your group everywhere. It’s quite easy to overlook him in the early drama, although he becomes a pivotal character in the game due to his cowardice. Ben causes the indirect deaths of several characters — Katjaa, Duck, Chuck, Kenny, Carly/Doug — because he acts out of stupidity and fear. Several times, you see him leaving the little girl behind to save his own skin.
So over time, it’s quite easy to grow to resent Ben. He’s just not as useful or funny as the others. He’s a liability. He can’t be depended upon. And then that’s when the game throws you into a situation to save him or not in the bell tower. The game all but makes it a painless decision to let him drop, as Ben knows what a screw-up he is and the pain he has caused — and he lets go of you. But I couldn’t drop him. I just couldn’t.
Maybe it’s the fact that Ben is still just a kid, albeit an older one. He doesn’t have the maturity or life experience that the adults have, and can’t entirely be blamed for that. And after I saved him, he had a great fight with Kenny where he — for the first time — pours out how broken up he is over not knowing his family’s fate and becoming an orphan overnight. It would have been so easy for us and the game to have not remembered that, but it was great that it was there. Ben needed a shot at redemption, and I’m happy I gave him the extra hours of life.
5. The bite
Oof. This is why I stopped playing for so long between episode 4 and 5. There’s no way to avoid it — you get a zombie bite. You’ve spent all this time building up an adopted father-daughter relationship with Clementine, and in an instant the game tells you that you’re going to lose her and soon. It sent me into a spiral of despair, to tell you the truth.To make it more cruel, the game gives you some false hope. It was a small bite, the game tells you. Maybe if you cut off your arm you can get rid of the infection (which I did… ouch). Maybe I can find some antibiotics or whatnot.Instead, the final episode is a deathmarch as you race against time to save Clem while knowing that the best outcome is her safety and your death. It doesn’t seem fair at all, and when the inevitable happens, it’s swift and kind of anti-climactic. Still, we’re given hope in the knowledge that Clem can shoot her gun now, that she is a little more savvy about taking care of herself, and that she does get out of the city. Tough stuff but good stuff. The Walking Dead is a game that I won’t soon forget, and I am looking forward to seeing what Telltale will churn out for the second season. Clem forever!