Hi there, I’m Cian, he’s Noel, that’s Ger, and this is our group playthrough of Telltale Studio’s zombie adventure game, The Walking Dead.
Harried by the bandits from last episode, our poor group of survivors are driven out of their motel base and out onto the open road. Tensions brew between Kenny and Lilly over leadership, while suspicions grow that there may be a traitor in the group.
Today’s question: You’re home base is over-run by zombies or some unfriendly neighbours, and you’ve gotta slip off quickly. What’s your go-to method of zombie apocalypse transportation?
Noel: Back into the end of the world we go eh? Assuming I could get to it safely and she was topped off, my car. Not the most original option, but goddam I love that car. If we’re going more original and desperate, I guess you could do worse than finding the nearest manhole cover and slipping into the sewers. Not saying there wouldn’t be zombies down there, but it’s worth a shot!
Ger: Well, I’ve always wondered what would happen if I detached that plastic pontoon near the UL boathouse and tried to float down the Shannon on it. After that it’s a simple matter of learning to fish. (We are assuming they can’t swim, right?)
Cian: As long as zombies can’t float you’d be grand!
There are quite a few factories/logistics centres on the outskirts of the town I live (thanks, Industrialised East Germany!) so I shouldn’t have much trouble tracking down a working shipping lorry. A big heavy cab, high enough off the ground to stop any creepy-crawlies breaking the window to grab me, and a nice big storage trailer that can double as a living quarters/ supply store. Could be real sweet…
I’ll just have to either hope one of the drivers got dragged out of the cab by the undead with the keys still in the ignition, or maybe use the time between now and a hypothetical zombie outbreak to study up on hotwiring techniques…
So this is a section of the game that is bleak with a capital “b”. Stuff gets dark here. (And that’s even considering that the last episode involved a guy having his legs chopped off and cooked as dinner.) In an episode full of hard-hitting moments, which hit you the hardest?
Leaving the woman chased by the horde to die?
Lilly point blank shooting Carley in the middle of a paranoid rant?
Kenny and Katjaa’s reaction to Duck’s slow decline?
Kenny’s taking out his anger on Lee?
Or the scene where Lee takes the soon to be zombified Duck out into the woods to shoot him? (“No parent should have to do something like this.”)
Ger: It has to be Carley.
The woman Lee and Kenny see fleeing from the zombies at the beginning is little more than an extra, just another token in the latest of a string of moral dilemmas. The stakes can’t really be high – it’s too early in the episode. I didn’t find Duck’s fate all that affecting either – “one of the group is bitten” is hardly a shocking development for a work of apocalyptic zombie fiction, and the amount of time dedicated to the subplot robbed it of much of its final impact. (Sophia’s fate in the TV show is similar, but cleverly delays confirmation of her zombification, a move which increases tension early on and makes the climax sharper and more compact.)
Carley’s almost random death at Lilly’s hands is much more shocking. I can’t think of any parallels in the TV show off the top of my head. Pointless and cruel – good stuff. Of course it’s amplified by the responsibility Lee/the player feels for Carley, having chosen to save her back in the first episode. In this one, the developers even spend some time teasing a relationship between Lee and Carley (especially with that music kicking in each time he goes up the motel stairs to talk to her), but in retrospect it’s kind of clear they’re just setting up her doom.
Noel: While I do agree with Ger in that it was given a little bit too much focus which certainly did lessen the shock and impact of it, I still think Duck’s death was the hardest to watch happen. It was inevitable they were going to go for the kids at some point, but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch it happen.
Cian: You’re right Noel, I found the whole sequence with Duck and Katjaa out in the woods….hard to stomach.
There’s a line between “aw yeah this story is so dark and violent and gritty!” and “um, things are getting a little too real here for what’s ultimately a silly fantasy scenario.” For me that line is “child death” – that’s something that, I feel, can’t really be thrown into a story. It’s such a real and hard-hitting thing that if it’s in the story, then that’s on some level what the story has to be about, or else you’re cheapening people’s real-life pain.
The staging of the Duck scene eased my conscience a little, with the game designers taking great pains to present Lee’s choice to kill Duck as a mercy, both to Duck and to his parents. But still, Jaysus, I shot a child in this…like…like moved the target to his head and pulled the trigger. Fuck.
I know this is heavy stuff, but…um, why is this an experience we want to have?
Noel: I agree Cian, it’s very hard hitting and not t be taken lightly. And that’s one of the advantages of games as a medium – to put the blame on you. In other media, you’re an observer to the act and so free from guilt. Not so here. I do think it was misused here. On account of going too far just like you said. As for why this is an experience we want to have – I don’t think it is. Not for me at any rate. And I don’t think anyone would have wanted that there.
Cian: OK, then I kind of have to challenge you slightly on that: if the Duck scene is going to far, the why is “putting the blame on you” an advantage of games as a medium? In what context?
Noel: I know I probably shouldn’t be bringing another game into this, but Spec Ops: The Line is a great example. It’s a shooter worthy of it’s own piece on this blog which I’ll probably get around to seeing at some stage. But it thrives on allowing you to mindlessly slaughter several people to come back at the end and make you, the player, answer for your actions. It’s a great example of that mechanic used correctly.
For a smaller example, and a moment I’ve brought up in one of my top tens, take Zeke’s death at your hands in Infamous 2. I failed that but because I refused to shoot the first time. I didn’t enjoy it, but it remains to this day one of my most vivid and heartwrenching moments in games.
But honestly-I don’t have an answer for you as to when it’s allowed. Clearly the fact that Duck’s a child differentiates The Walking Dead’s scenario from these two, but I still shouldn’t want to feel that guilt. And yet, I was glad those two games did and was genuinely affected by it. But yeah…I don’t have an answer to that one guys. Time to bring in a psychology major methinks.
Cian: Well you know, as I think about it, Game of Thrones just did an episode that centered on a child’s violent death in a way just as gruesome as in this game. And while that sequence also shook me, it didn’t hit nearly as hard as the Duck sequence did. So I guess the problem I have isn’t exactly with the subject matter, but rather with the way its connected to me personally: the way I’m made complicit in it. That sense of responsibility, even if its obviously fictional and trivial, still feels kinda…icky to me.
Noel: I know exactly what you mean, and I agree. But you’re question of wanting it I think applies to all media. Nobody enjoys subject matter like this in any medium, yet there’s plenty of it and with a huge following. So why do we want it? I realise I have done nothing here except for reiterate the question so my apologies! But I still think its an interesting question.
Cian: Well woah woah, let’s back up from saying you can’t approach this subject matter in any medium, that severely limiting your art and walling off big areas of human experience from being discussed and communicated. I just think that these subjects , and a couple of other sensitive topics that you can probably fill in yourself, should be treated extremely seriously and be considered extremely deeply when depicted in fiction: especially a silly escapist fantasy like this one. The question isn’t “Should we be allowed depict child-death in fiction?” , its “Has the Walking Dead earned the right to use such a graphic and lingering depiction if child-death as a plot point?”
(I realise this is getting a bit morbid, but really what did we expect when we started a deep dive on a game literally called “The Walking Dead”?)
Noel: My mistake Cian! And to answer that question – no. It was completely gratuitous in this instance, only put in for the shock factor. If it does prove to be a pivotal point to the story and necessary to the story’s progression in a certain way, which remains to be seen, maybe it’s justified. But has it earned it up until now. I’m staying with a vehement no on that one.
Cian: Which begs the question: what’s, in your view, a narratively earned and justified death then?
Noel: As far as I’m concerned it’s a balancing act. All too often it’s used as a lazy writing mechanic-oh I need this character to go off on a shooting spree for two hours-kill a member of his family, that’ll do it.
But narratively earned ones are there. One that has been used before and I think it was absolutely earned, very very heartfelt, and a major turning point without being gratuitous was *SPOILER ALERT* Brom’s death in Eragon. His death was there to show us that Eragon was finished learning. That he was now a capable warrior in his won right and not a mere student. This is done in other works as well f course, but that’s an example I particularly like. And if it is necessary to drive the plot, I personally feel it can be justified – not that it necessarily always is. In this particular example, Eragon’s goal was already clear. The death did not sway him from his path. It was not thrown in as a simple motivational trick. I’m sorry to keep referring to absolutely everything except The Walking Dead here by the way!
Cian: OK, so its a balancing act. So what things are the storytellers writing a death scene balancing? And what’s an example (from outside The Walking Dead, cost two can play at that game!) where that balance wasn’t reached, or went too far in either direction?
Noel: I would say the gravitas of the subject matter and how necessary it is to the story. So an example where the balance wasn’t reached-I can’t yet say with certainty Duck’s death as it may yet prove importat to the story, but take the show Penny Dreadful. In Season 2 *GRAPHIC DESCRIPTION* a pregnant woman is killed and her child cut out of her, and subsequently it’s heart cut out, for a spell.* They show had already established this character was evil. The spell was of their own invention-why involve the need for a baby’s heart. This graphic and violent death added nothing to the story. The story would not have suffered for leaving it out. A perfect example of going way too far in one direction, to the point of just ignoring the other side of the scales.
Ger: Might have you take you up on the Penny Dreadful point, Noel – this is a bit more in my wheelhouse than The Walking Dead, truth be told! I think you’re mistaken in suggesting that all components of a work must justify their inclusion by contributing mechanically to the plot or characterisation – the scene you take issue with is rather intended to set a particular tone or mood for the show’s universe. As well as being just about the only way the show can match the shock its Hammer forebears induced in audiences over half a century ago, it pointedly raises the main storyline’s tension by demonstrating the writer’s willingness to transgress boundaries and venture into genuinely horrific territory.
Noel: Whilst I agree that’s true Ger, and it does set the tone, the tone has already been set. To venture into shock and gore for shock and gore’s sake alone achieves nothing and I would argue adds nothing to the show, nor any viewer’s enjoyment of the show.
Cian: Okay, so lets bring it back, and apply Noel’s criteria for a dramatically justified death scene to Duck:
A) Is it treated with appropriate gravitas? – Well, in fairness…yes. Duck’s deterioration after the bite is given time to narratively breathe, and because of this being a game with a dialogue system, we’re given a chance to see how every character reacts and is effected by it.
And the story does give special consideration to how this effects the boy’s parents: Kenny finds himself in the classic zombie-movie predicament of not wanting to admit his loved one has been bitten, while Katjaa is much more capable of seeing what needs to happen next, while her husband pleads “He can just drift off to sleep, right hon?” – (Jeesus fuck, this scene.) And then of course, at the actual moment when Lee pulls the trigger out in the woods, the camera cuts away.
B) Is it necessary for the story? So it seems like Duck’s (and also Katjaa’s) deaths are really all about Kenny, and part of his character arc. (In the same way that Game of Throne’s recent child death was an extension of the character arc of one of her parents. Now,okay “White guy bitter and shut off after the deaths of his family” isn’t the most original character brief I ever heard (or, frankly, one that video games need any more of – what if Katjaa had lived instead?), but it is well done here at least, and seems to be a driving force of next episode’s plot, as Kenny becomes more and more focused on finding a boat, possibly eventually leading to a split between the group? So yeah, it seems to contribute to the story going forward, and one character’s arc in particular (even if it’s not a very original one.)
And we can even add in Ger’s criteria:
C) Does it set a particular tone for the story? It definitely ups the threat, and the game demonstrating it’s willingness to kill off a child character could potentially put doubts in a player’s mind about the safety of the child we really care about: Clementine. (Though c’mon, there’s no way they’d kill her, there’d be rioting in the internet streets.)
It also contributes to the bleak “post-apocalyptic life is harsh and miserable and there is no joy anywhere” vibe of almost every non-Shaun of the Dead zombie story, or post-apocalyptic fiction i general (cough)The Road(cough).
Aaaand….I think I just talked myself around to accepting Duck’s death as good art, even if it made me personally feel really uncomfortable.
Noel: Yeah, you’ve talked me around and all. Well put!
Cian: To change tack slightly, we haven’t talked much about the game as a system, which is something I’m sure you two as students of game design will have a lot of insights on.
I’m pretty impressed with the varied uses the developers have found for the “cursor and four buttons” interaction system. It’s of course at its best in dialogue and when exploring an environment, but in a pinch the control system can make a fun little “grab as many supplies from the shelves as possible in a few seconds” minigame, a “sniping the invading bandits” sequence, a scene where you use dialogue prompts to guide Clem’s aim during some target practice, and a knock-down brawl with a grieving Kenny.
What do ye think?
Ger: In terms of controls, my experience hasn’t been great, as my laptop doesn’t handle the concurrent use of multiple inputs very well. It stubbornly refuses to process a mouse movement (I say “mouse”, but actually I’m using one of those square touchpad deals) at the same time as a key press, which makes controlling Lee a bit like wrangling a tricky marionette. I’ve certainly missed out on some supplies over this, but the game’s still broadly playable – only the sequence where Lee has to grab the spanner while backing away from those two zombies gave me any real trouble.
Setting aside my hardware complications, I’m quite liking the control scheme – particularly with regards to the in-game dialogue and its timed multiple answers, which creates a sense of interaction that’s a bit more nebulous and complex than you’d expect. I’m less keen on the “press this button now” challenges, which often feel like finishing off a minotaur in God of War.
Cian: Sure, I know what you mean with the dialogue system. I like it because A) There’s a timer running whenever you choose dialgoue options, so you don’t have time to carefully weigh up the pros and cons of each quote – sometimes you just have to make a snap decision and pick what sounds right to you – there’s no time to second guess. This makes it feel more like a real conversation: the other person won’t just wait around all day for you to answer their question.
And B) In every conversation, you have the option to just…say nothing….and stare blankly at the other person and let the silence hang between you….until the tension gets too much and they awkwardly change the subject to something else. Again, just like in real life!
How does this conversation system measure up/ compare with other dialogue-heavy games you’ve played?
Noel: I have to agree with you Cian, the timer in particular for me is a huge step up from other games. It gives the conversations a far more organic feel. That’s kind of a difficult question to answer, for the simple fact ta=hat the only other games I’ve personally played with dialogue systems are RPGs, where a lot of options give the player an opportunity to get backstory on the reasons behind a particular quest for example, whereas in The Walking Dead it’s meant to be a bit more grounded. The nuts and bolts stuff, sure , The Walking Dead has the upper hand. But I’m not sure it’s an equal comparison.
Ger: Yes Cian, the Walking Dead uncomfortable silence simulator (®) is one of my favourite features in the dialogue system. I scrambled for the nicest, most mutually beneficial dialogue option whenever I could, but it was always nice to know that the tense silence was there as backup. Waiting. I’ve actually never seen anything like it till now – characters in The Elder Scrolls and all those just wait patiently for an eternity while you contemplate your answers. It might not be a vast technological leap from the ordinary dialogue tree, but it is a neat touch.
Cian: Ok let’s wrap up talking about Ep.3 by talking about our choices:
I (and 59% of other player) chose not to shoot the girl in the street being chased by zombies: she was already bit, her cries were drawing the dead away from us, and we already had too many mouths to feed. Sorry, but it was more or less triage logic. (Still, afterwards you get a trophy/achievement called “Goodbye, she quietly says.” – Jeez, salt in the wound.)
I took Lilly with us even after she shot Carley, mostly because I could see her logic, even if she acted really extremely. Also, it turned out she was more or less right in the end, the spy was Ben.
I fought Kenny, mostly because I didn’t realise there was an option not to.
Knowing that 81% of other players also chose to shoot Duck before he turned eased my conscience a little, but still, jaysus.
And finally, I didn’t help newcomer Omid up onto the train first, even with his messed up leg. Cos, well…he had a badly wounded leg. I chose to boost his girlfriend Christa onto the train first, hoping that I’d have time to help them both. (Which I did. Kinda.)
So where’d your choices lead this time guys?
Ger: I shot the girl in the street. I mean, this dilemma reared its head about thirty seconds into the episode, so its consequences couldn’t be too dangerous. Plus my Lee is broadly nice to innocent people.
Ditched Lilly straight away. I wanted to make it clear to the others that I wasn’t going to have them randomly shooting each other without consulting me first. Not that it mattered much by this point, since Carley was my favourite. It was a question of principle. For feck’s sake Lilly.
I also knocked Kenny around a bit. It just seemed to be the way things were going, and he did need to cop on.
I remain curiously untroubled by having to shoot Duck. He was going to turn, people. We’ve been through this before.
I chose Christa over Omid. Not sure why – it was all very spur-of-the-moment. I might just be sexist.
Noel: I shot the girl as well. I like to think of myself as a moral player, but the logic of the decision was just way too heavily placed against her.
I also kept Lilly, but not so much because of her reasoning-it’s more of a “not-wanting-to-be-a-dictator” thing. The game calls for you to be a leader, but that doesn’t mean they’re not allowed to make choices either. No character considers themselves a secondary character right.
Kenny, fight, he had it coming, nuff said.
I chose to help Christa, not sure why.
Cian: You know, reading back over our chat-logs, we sure do start a lot of messages with “I shot the girl” or “Here’s why I killed Duck…”. I hope we’re not put on some kind of list over this. Oh well, see ya next week!
About the Authors:
Native to Costello’s Tavern, Gerard O’Mahony likes nothing more than discussing made-up stuff in the context of other made-up stuff.
A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Germany and thinks you look very nice today.
Rumored to have been born with a games controller in his hand, Noel Gleeson works as a Java Developer in Ireland and loves all things pop culture.