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Blood on My Hands: THE WALKING DEAD, Ep. 2

February 25, 2013

Last Sunday was my introduction to Telltale’s story-driven zombie adventure, The Walking Dead, and it seems that this is going to become a Sunday tradition for the next few weeks. Today I’ve played through the second episode, Starved for Help. Taking a hint from the game, I’d like to dump my thoughts now before they wither and die, then come back to life a festering mess.

In this post I’ll only be talking about my impressions of the game, without regard to its place in the wider world of gaming, but sometime soon I hope to discuss the “notgame” debate regarding the definition of what makes something a video game. And especially relevant to The Walking Dead is the problem of making a good adventure game, an article about which Polygon recently published, which you can read here. But these topics are much too broad to slip casually into this post, and I want to give them due consideration, and maybe do some more research beforehand. For now, I’ll keep the blinders on: let’s get back to the zombies.

Trying to help

This episode starts off with a really horrific dilemma. While out hunting for food with Kenny and a newcomer, Mark, you hear a scream: nearby, a school teacher has gotten his leg stuck in a bear trap that’s been chained to a tree, and the two teenagers with him can’t get him out. Then, surprise, surprise, the zombies show up. Mark and Kenny hold them at bay with their rifles while you try to find a way to free the teacher. But the trap’s release has been removed, so it’s not coming off. But you have an axe. Maybe you can cut through the chain? No luck, and the zombies are getting closer. The camera centres on the teachers leg, and then comes the question: do you hack his leg free, or leave him for dead? There isn’t time to carefully consider the options. I wish to myself that I didn’t have to do this, but I click on his leg, and raise my axe—the teacher cries out, his eyes wide as he realizes what I’m about to do. He yells for me to stop, but I’ve made my decision. The axes cracks into his leg, splintering bone, but it doesn’t go all the way through. I’ve started this—I can’t stop now. He’s screaming in pain and horror. I move my mouse over his leg and click. Crack. I click once more, freeing his leg—he passes out, we pick him up, and hurry back to camp.

This situation is terrible all on its own, but there’s something that this game does that makes it all the more difficult to handle: you have to click on his leg each time you bring down the axe. There isn’t a single, quick decision to cut off his leg, followed by a cutscene as you watch Lee do as you command. No, instead you have to make the same decisions three times. Maybe you’d like to stop after the first hit, but then what have you done? Cut a man with an axe, then left him to be eaten by zombies? No. So you keep hacking.

It’s that physical connection—between my hand on the mouse and the axe in Lee’s hand—that makes it feel more real, makes me understand the gravity of the situation and how difficult it is to make a decision like that. I wrote on this topic before, speaking on Ico and how pressing a button to hold Yorda’s hand made me feel responsible for her, made me feel like I was holding her hand. Likewise, the axe incident in The Walking Dead made me feel like I cut the man’s leg off. It’s hard not to feel that weight of responsibility when there’s such a clear connection between my actions in the real world and what played out on screen.

I didn’t have a choice…did I?

In addition to speaking about the power of this physical connection, I want to reiterate from last week the power of consequence. Without far-reaching, significant consequences to my decisions and actions, their weight would not last beyond the moment; instead, I calculate my moves with great care, and am distraught when I choose to do something difficult.

Saying this, I have in mind one particular moment in this episode, when I (Lee), Clem, Kenny, Lilly, and her father Larry are trapped in a meat locker, having discovered that the family that took us in are cannibals. The power struggle between the emotional, family man Kenny and the pragmatic, cold Lilly has always had me (IRL), a man who prefers to avoid conflicts and extremes (I think they’re each right on different occasions), on edge. I long to find a way to help them come to peace, but they invariably butt heads. And Larry, an angry, hotheaded man, only ever makes things worse. Yet earlier on, I spoke with Lilly about Larry, and I learned that he had a tough life, that it hardened him, that she’s the only thing he has left and he wants to protect her at all costs. She asked me not to hold that against him, nor hold it against her that she loves him. So I don’t. I understand that life can do that to people, and I wish I could be of help there (frankly, I’ve love to tell them both about Jesus, but that never comes up in the dialogue options; ha). What’s more, I understand that Lilly has to make tough decisions: earlier she asked me to divide the rations among the group, with only 4 food items for 10 people—whom should I feed, whom should I let go hungry?

What happened in the meat locker, then?

Larry has a heart condition. So you know where this is going. He pounds at the door, he gets angry, then suddenly—a heart attack. He falls, Lilly runs to him, and he isn’t breathing. In normal circumstances, we would have tried to resuscitate him—as long as it took. But earlier that day we had learned from one of the teens that it isn’t just a zombie bite that brings you back from the dead: anyone who dies comes back as a walker. There we were, then, with a 300-lb, muscled man lying dead, all of us locked inside a small room. Kenny hates to suggest it, but he says we need to destroy his brain, that we can’t afford to risk his coming back; Lilly is hysterical, and she wants help with the CPR. What can I do? I want to help Lilly, I want to support her leadership…but I can’t do it if we’re dead. So I hold her back (furiously pressing ‘q’) while Kenny picks up a heavy salt lick and smashes it down on Larry’s head.

Honestly, I probably would have made the same decision if I had to do it again. But now I’m worried that I’ve forever ruined any chance of gaining Lilly’s trust: I just helped smash her father’s head in. I wish it could have been different.

It’s the moments like these ones—the agency in cutting a man’s leg off, the emotional pain from killing (or preventing the rescue of) someone’s loved one—that makes The Walking Dead so compelling. I’m glad that I have Lee as my avatar in these situations, because it were actually me, I’d be going nuts every time something like this happened. You should see me play this game—or, on second thought, no you shouldn’t—gasping and shaking my head with great frequency. I feel responsible, I feel like the blood is on my hands in some way, because not only do I have to do these things, but I have to deal with the aftermath, too. I have to see the pain of loss in their eyes, feel the anger directed toward me. It’s hard to handle.

Not quite perfect (but I’ll forgive you)

Yet may I add a few criticisms? I’ll be brief.

I liked this episode for the tension it created: I knew early on that these people would turn out to be cannibals. I could sense something was up, but I couldn’t do anything about it quite yet. The story needed to develop. That tension, though, was resolved kind of clumsily. I’m no expert on storytelling, but the final chapter after escaping the meat locker and confronting each of the family members—either killing them or leaving for dead—did not wrap up quite as cleanly as I would have liked. I wish I had some suggestions for how it could be improved, but as I said: I’m no expert. I guess the resolution and denouement was not so much an issue in the last episode, which ended with the tough death-or-death choice between Carley and the guy I didn’t pick. Doug. His name was Doug.

The only other criticism that comes to mind is that there are some quick-act moments that are tough to do properly on the first try, leading to your death and returning you to the last autosave. This really disrupts the gameplay, takes you out of the moment. I understand that some things just can’t happen, that you need to go back and retry sometimes, but it can’t be really easy to fail, or else you risk ruining the flow and pace of the story.

Final thoughts

There isn’t much left for me to say, I don’t think. In future posts I expect that I’ll have to talk about something other than how so very affecting this game is for me, but for now it’s still too incredible to not expound on my reactions. This sort of thing is what makes video games so unique among other artistic media, this opportunity to interact, to change things in the game, and have the results turn back and change you. It would be much more difficult to make a film that enables people to explore the fragility of relationships and the great challenges of leadership in so personal a way.

Where will this game take me next? I’m not sure. But as I continue this conversation, my opinions will be complemented by those of some friends of mine, with whom I have already been discussing the game. I look forward to some fruitful explorations of morality, agency, and whatever else might spawn from playing the next three episodes. Until next week, then.

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