Better Off Dead
Watching The Walking Dead on TV is brutal enough, but playing the video game is a gut-wrenching, soul-crushing exercise in survivor’s guilt.
By Virginia Heffernan
Illustration by Victor Kerlow
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is a solemn, sepia affair, heavy on let’s-win-that-R-rating dialogue. Favorite exclamatory pops and pows include: “What the fuck!?” “Let’s just fucking go!” and “Are you fucking kidding me?!”
So what makes this game so fucking good, even for a console-phobic gamer like me who prefers Scrabble to Call of Duty? Prima facie, not much. Through the first episode of its first season (a five-episode arc concluded in 2012; the second season wrapped up in August) — as I tried to chart a course for Lee Everett, my black, bearded, broad-shouldered avatar — I wondered: This “narrative game” is supposed to rival a novel!? The goofy obscenities pad a monotone script. What’s worse, many of the “what the fucks” are directed at — of course — murderous zombies, who lurch around like Ents and fall like rotting trees.
If only these zombies were up to something new, like planting community gardens. But they’re just working their usual zombie shtick, marauding a post-apocalyptic landscape. The scorched earth in The Walking Dead is what used to be Macon, Georgia: a world now filled with near-dead plants, scant meat, no kindness, and only a few dozen humans, deranged by hunger, violence, and grief.
Nonetheless The Walking Dead is a peculiar beauty. Working off Robert Kirkman’s comic book of the same name, the game shares its name and its origin with the long-running AMC television show, though the game’s characters and trajectory differ dramatically. The entire mesmerizing franchise, however, is defined by that solemnity, a Dust Bowl mood and a tenacious commitment to moral seriousness. After a single episode, my skepticism subsided, and I got it. The Walking Dead game, Seasons One and, especially, Two made me believe for the first time that a video game — even one featuring the undead— might be a deeply philosophical experience.
“Philosophical” is not a word many associate with video games. Like the infection that creates zombies, video games are widely believed to wreak havoc on our brain’s higher functioning. If anything, the prolonged contemplation of deep questions is pitched as the antidote to the damage done by the psychic catastrophe that is digital culture. But if moral introspection works best in context, the fate of a band of mortals in end times makes as fertile context as any. Who hasn’t wondered, at least in passing, what she would do if the sun vanished — or nuclear winter came to pass — or if the Mayan predictions for 2012 had materialized?
Let me confess: Any high-minded ambitions I might have had about what I’d do come the rapture or the revolution (be practical! be altruistic! be a leader!) evaporated among the maddeningly specific, tightly tailored Kantian dilemmas of The Walking Dead. Stomping around among the zombies in the desolate landscape — in the first season as Lee, a supremely competent onetime professor with a felonious past; and then as Clementine, the resourceful girl for whom Lee served as a father figure — I was ashamed to find that, in extremis, I mostly… equivocate.
You make choices in The Walking Dead: where to go, whom to talk to, what to investigate, what to say, when to pounce, when to kill. With limited cheese-and-cracker packs to ration, or three gruesome-looking bathroom stalls to explore, I found I tended to back and fill like an anxious squirrel. I nervously placated the people whom I denied crackers. I looked helplessly around the hideous stalls, not trusting my own disgust. I noticed this tendency as I was learning the ropes; initially I blamed it on my unfamiliarity with the keystrokes (I played on a Mac). But then, aiming to correct my oscillations with decisive action led me to some aggro moves and senseless killings I’m not prepared to disclose.
I also died and died and died. In The Walking Dead, the screen is stained by translucent blood every time the playable protagonist bites the dust. I got used to this effect. Extra lives are legion, fortunately: You click to resume play and, ideally, make a better choice (kick the shit out of that zombie, for instance, instead of flounder foolishly) next time.
When my Lee or my Clementine was asked questions—What should we name our baby? Who should lead our group? — I deflected, over and over. If “I don’t know” was among the things I could choose as a reply, I was all over it. Evidently in the apocalypse I will fervently wish not to piss anyone off, least of all someone who might kill me. Often that’s almost everybody. Periodically when I evaded answering, or refused to take sides, I was alerted that another character had noticed my waffling. Sometimes, later, when weapons were drawn, their distrust of me came back to haunt the proceedings.
As the TV series makes clear, a morally serious landscape with mortally serious threats brings out first principles in the viewer. It makes her question her beliefs, her habits, her needs, her skills. The surviving pack in the fifth season of the AMC show are disfigured by their cumulative misdeeds. By now, even the most principled among the survivors has shoved someone down an elevator shaft, cut off someone’s head with a katana, or stabbed someone with a pair of scissors. Fallen in this way, seemingly irredeemable, they are profoundly vulnerable to existential inquiry. They are not just terrified of zombies. They are terrified of themselves. They long to be forgiven.
This postlapsarian view of humans — we’re all deeply in a moral hole — plays out in the ambiance of the game: the anguished expressions, the gallows humor, and the relentless piling up of disgraceful acts that only engender more shame and guilt. And even if you know just which friend to sacrifice to prevent greater loss of life, The Walking Dead makes sure that there are children in the picture. These children, whether witnesses or protagonists, serve as an external conscience: You pay, in a soul-deep way, for exposing them to your hubris or violent fantasies or hair-trigger rage.
Killing in the game — and there’s plenty, committed with guns, electric fences, pitchforks, axes — is not done with whoops and high-fives. It’s all more in end-times sorrow than in anger — or the bloodlusty glee associated with single-shooter games. Though the game is set in the South, the bruisey, cloudy weather brings to mind the Pacific Northwest. Sure enough, the gorgeous and aching ballad “Take Us Back,” by Portland favorite Alela Diane, plays over the closing credits of the final episode of the second season.
Tears are a common response to that episode. Tears of release, aesthetic appreciation, actual grief. The truth is, I did want to become a part of the world of The Walking Dead, the brilliant television show, through this game. For a few days, I longed to throw in with a world where no thought, act, or teaspoon of foodstuff is disposable — a world of consequences upon consequences that forced me to dig deep into my reserves of charity, imagination, compassion, and wisdom.
And just as eagerly I wanted to leave that world. It’s ultimately melancholic. Everything is too significant. I’m absolutely in awe of The Walking Dead. And it’s time for Super Smash Bros.