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Ruminations on The Walking Dead

  So, I spent the last several days playing through the video game version... um... side story... thing of The Walking Dead. It was on sale during Steam’s routine “bore a hole in Jonathan’s wallet” event and despite the zombie market being over-saturated and boring as shit these days, I dropped the change on it and dove in head first. After all, diving in head first into this game is what so many people recommend. I emerged on the other side satisfied with my investment but determined to scrub the game from my hard drive.

  Before we go any further, I am fairly familiar with Robert Kirkman and the other guys’s comic series and the television series. Of course, by “familiar” what I mean to say is that I’ve read a few of the earlier books but lost track of the series after awhile. As for the television show, I slogged through the first season and a half before calling it quits. Right before (shocker) a main character dies - an anomaly for a series where human life is about as valuable as cardboard underpants.

  The main focus of this little diatribe is just how The Walking Dead failed to capture me as a television show but did so as what amounts to an interactive comic book. Yes, I only slogged through the first half of the show’s three season run, and at least one person has verbally pleaded with me to give it another chance while another one has insisted the show has gotten better, but I could not take it anymore. Every character that wasn’t Darryl or Glenn made me want to punch them in the face. Darryl and Glenn, on the other hand, were annoying in and of the fact that they weren’t the central focus of the show. The action sequences were tense and exciting, but ultimately I didn’t give a shit when people died.

  See, most zombie flicks/stories/whatever have very little to do with the zombies themselves. They’re not interesting creatures, as they are just shambling husks of meh. They’re the Wal-Mart of the supernatural: there’s way too many, they’re shoddily made, and they constantly remind us of our mortality (thanks, octogenarian greeters!). A good zombie story, then, focuses on what makes us human in the face of humanity’s extinction. Kind of like how a story of generosity in the middle of a Christmas rush would be a highlight in the middle of customers trampling each other. Or not.

  Otherwise, there’s the“are we really so much better than them” type deals – corrupt military, fascist societies arising from the aftermath, etc. I guess these would be stories of... I don’t know... the corrupt management of a Target blowing up a Wal-Mart or... something. In any case, one of those links takes you to 28 Days Later, a film which effortlessly includes both kinds of these narratives in one film. The worst ones are just stupid attempts to recapture old magic (seriously, 28 Weeks Later was such a goddamn disgrace I refuse to link any examples of its uselessness) or forget what the hell it is they’re trying to do. Like... um... K-Mart?

  That was a shit analogy. I apologize.

  Anyway, The Walking Dead is indeed a character drama. The action is tense and spaced out because our protagonists aren’t unstoppable killing machines. Supplies are in short supply, there’s the constant danger of both the living and the dead to contend with. Interpersonal issues fester and boil over into violence. Even the first season and a half had clear, logical goals – there were no tremendous leaps in logic which disconnected me from what happened. All the elements are in place to make a fantastic television show.

  So, what went wrong?

  The characters, that’s what. Now, keep in mind I’m not ripping on the actors here. Or the writing. This is fundamentally about how the characters fail to engage me as an audience member.

  Rick Grimes started off as an awesome character. After waking from a coma, he had a family to find, a world gone to hell around him to catch up on, and had the survival skills necessary to make him believable. But the second he found his family he became generic lantern-jawed Mr. Dystopia 2010. His best friend Shane could have been an interesting character – after all, he took care of Lori Grimes (Rick’s wife) and their son Idiot Grimes while Rick was in the hospital. But he then started “taking care” of Lori in the most primal of senses so there should be tension between everyone, right? Well... kind of. Mostly, Lori is belligerent and useless which causes Shane to become a creepy weirdo.

  Apparently, adults in the show tend to handle the apocalypse in two different ways: by being archetypes or insane. Rick is such a goody-goody standup guy that he functions more like a parent in a Saturday morning cartoon than a weary veteran of undead slaughter. Lori and Shane – and others, mind you – love to argue. After all, people shouting is drama of the highest caliber. With those two, the arguments are especially insipid – they behave like a couple of trailer trash teenagers breaking up.

  And I get it, I do. When the world has gone to shit, you get used to it. Eventually, you get used to the dead eating the living and the living being miserable fuckwits. At that point, it’s the minor things which drive you mad. But the constant pettiness of it all is wearing. It gets to the point that, when a character dies, what does it matter? They pissed you off five minutes ago, or they were colossal failures. One less mouth to feed, right? And, if I really want to, I can rationalize the shit out of it for the other characters. If I could offer any service to this universe it would be Jonathan’s patented Guilt-be-Gone – scrubs free the stain on your soul, guaranteed!

  As I said before, the only characters who don’t routinely piss me off were Darryl and Glenn. I liked Shane for awhile – like when he tried to do the right thing and play second fiddle to Rick or beat the shit out of a wife-beater – but then he got all rape-y and unpleasant. That shit doesn’t fly in my club house, so it’s just me and Darryl and Glenn now. We meet on Wednesdays.

  Anyway, Idiot is one of a handful of children who are supposed to make me care about them by nature of being children. Instead, I typically found myself relatively indifferent to their fate. And these are all (at the time) living children in a world where most kids weren’t so lucky. In fact, one of the first memories I have of the show is Rick finding a little girl who has been zombified. Heartbroken at the discovery, he puts it out of its misery. That dead girl is infinitely more interesting than any of the living children. Why?

  Because the living kids are goddamn props, that’s why. Oh, the little boy loves his dad? Neat, I guess. Now he’s in danger? Oh. Okay. They aren’t real people because they aren’t treated like real people. They’re things to be argued about or fought over. It’s the same reason why you wouldn’t call old-school Disney princesses role models: they may as well be paintings or a box of antique coins for all they contribute to the plot. When little Idiot gets shot in season two, I didn’t feel nearly as awful as when Rick had to put down the little undead flesh-eater twelve or so episodes earlier.

  Before we get back to the discussion (or my harangue, depending on how you want to interpret this), I would like to bring in the argument that “It’s realistic human behavior! It’s about what makes us human breaking down!” Further, I would like to counter it with this: so? It doesn’t make it entertaining to watch people bicker unless it is done in a way that doesn’t make you want to smother the entire cast. This is the problem with The Walking Dead: the show exhausts me. Just as a child who witnesses her parents fighting every night will grow to insulate herself from it, the constant arguing and pettiness and bullshit is just too much to process without glazing over.

  Which is why I find The Walking Dead game so unusual. Like To the Moon, it’s a “game” in the loosest possible definition, although at least it does manage to have a few “lose” scenarios. The game is played out by guiding your ponderous avatar through various locations, finding items and clues, and having conversations with a bunch of survivors. But the game itself isn’t important – the story is.

  The story follows convicted-murderer-but-otherwise-a-pretty-swell-guy Lee as he finds himself ass-first in the zombie apocalypse. He’s on his way to a prison when the cruiser he’s being transported in hits a walking corpse and swerves off the road. He’s out for... awhile... and soon stumbles upon a little girl named Clementine (or Clem, if you’re a lazy communist who hates syllables) hiding in a tree-house from the undead. Specifically, she’s hiding from her babysitter who apparently partially exploded inside the house (judging by the silly amount of blood on the floor). In any case, she saves Lee and he decides to take care of her. They hook up with other characters, some of whom are quite insufferable, and they journey toward Savannah in the hope of finding a boat. Or her parents, as the poor child seems to think they are still alive.

  Now, the game’s plot dives into some goofy territory – cannibalism and a dodgy and out-of-fucking-nowhere major villain being the two main points of concern – but it’s very well written and thought out. Even though (from what I can tell) the story ends the same way regardless of your decisions, the player has numerous choices through each episode, many of which boil down to snap decisions regarding whether or not a character lives or dies. These decisions are largely cosmetic and will do nothing to alter the fate of Lee and Clementine – a tragedy and hugely wasted potential, really. Why give me the choice when, canonically speaking, everyone typically ends up just as dead as if I had made the other decision?

  Anyway, the game follows some of the conventions set forth by both the comics and the show. There’s a lot of arguing, zombies in improbable/outright impossible places, pissing matches between potential leaders, general dipshittery, stupid children, fucking stealth zombies, and bandits with awful accents. So how does a game that takes all the annoying aspects of the show and shoves it in my face work?

  Because it makes me a part of it.

  You see, The Walking Dead, for all of its flaws, works because I’m an agent in the story. Now, it’s a linear story and I’m choosing between two and three canned responses, but it means I can try to be the level-headed leader or Captain Punchenstein. And then there’s the life-or-death moments. At one moment in Episode Four, Lee is holding a character (Ben) above a pretty substantial fall. He has been a perpetual fuckup up to this point, constantly putting others in danger. Most importantly to me, however, he left Clementine – an unarmed nine year old – to fend for herself against the undead twice that day alone. He asked to let Lee drop him so that Lee could escape. His voice was cracking as the zombies were climbing the steps, pleading to let him atone.

  I didn’t let him finish his sentence before I selected to let him fall.

  I watched him fall and break his legs on the ground below.

  I heard him plead before the zombies started eating him.

  And I felt like shit for killing a fictional character in a video game.

  If that had been a character in the show, I would have shrugged it off. He was an annoying, cowardly wiener who couldn’t do a single job correctly. I didn’t make a tough choice – the choice was already made the moment he ran off and left Clementine surrounded by vicious walking corpses. And that rationale, that painful moment that I realized that I could let someone (albeit fictional) die for a base motive for revenge was pretty gut wrenching.

  I know it sounds silly, but it was a simple binary choice – no one else was in danger. I purposely chose to drop someone I didn’t like. Needless to say, whatever rag-tag group of survivors I team up with post-apocalypse had better stay away from this blog if they’re ever going to trust me... although that may be in their best interest.

  No matter what happens, though, I have Clementine. Her character development is fairly minimal, but she is a constant motivation behind everything I have Lee do. She’s the first I talk to, the first I give food to, and the first one to receive praise. When a decision I made had her witness me kill a (living) cannibal, I shut off the game, reloaded it, and spared the freakshow’s life so she didn’t have to see the evil hillbilly get his face pierced by a pitchfork. It was a pain in the ass to do, but I didn’t want to be responsible for yet another nightmare.

  I cut her hair so she wouldn’t be grabbed. I was honest with her when her friend was bitten and had to be euthanized because I didn’t want to lie to her. I taught her how to fire a gun (because I am a terrible father-figure). And while it could be argued that she is similar to a Disney princess, she was my goddamn princess, and no one was going to take her away from me.

  In the very end, the final moments with Clementine are tearful and horrible, leading up to a final decision between the selfless or selfish. It’s kind of cliched, in a way, but being there, being able to say “my” goodbyes to her, was anything but. I chose to leave Clementine with her humanity, despite the horrors of the world around her. If she becomes a monster, I wouldn’t allow Lee to be the first step on that path. My biggest regret is that I couldn’t tell this adopted girl that her foster father loved her more than anything.

  Honestly, it’s that kind of interactivity which The Walking Dead television series can never have. It’s a bunch of people I hate or have no interest in bickering with each other endlessly over crap I don’t care about. If I were in that situation, however, able to experience it and alter it – however minutely – it would be something else entirely. I would be planted in front of my television every week, waiting for the next installment.

  As it is, I hope they will take my idea and make a Glenn/Darryl spin-off. They can even drive the General Lee.

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