Six People Only: The Stakes of The Walking Dead

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I’ve got my pick for my favorite game released this year, despite a few more titles trickling out in the next few weeks. It is, far and away, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead adaptation.

The thing that’s remarkable about The Walking Dead is how well it tells its story. There’s the zombie plague, of course, but much more frightening are the lengths to which the remaining humans must go to survive. Sometimes they save and help one another. Sometimes they form unbreakable, close bonds. Often, they’re forced to be incredibly hurtful to one another, and undergo some incredible tragedies.

I wrote in my review of Episode 5 (caution: spoilers) that The Walking Dead isn’t so much about zombies and survival, as it is about the way people hurt one another. It’s really in this that the story becomes something much more than the sum of its parts. It’s built on a series of decisions players have to make — choices on how to deal with one another, what courses of action to take, and so on, often with life-or-death consequences — but many of the choices don’t change things to a degree that the story shakes out differently. What changes through the course of the story isn’t the plot, it’s you. You are what is being shaped by each decision, and by the end of the game, you’re asked if you like what you’ve become.

There’s also a heavy emphasis on personal relationships, a redemptive side to all that “hurting one another to survive” stuff. Protagonist Lee and his relationship with his adopted ward, Clementine, is something that’s really incredible in the world of gaming — it’d be remarkable in the world of literature, really. They’re relationship instills within the player a real sense of caring what happens to Clementine, and a need to protect her. The Walking Dead is filled with great moments of Lee teaching Clementine, giving her strength, helping her to grow up. The game ends with some incredible moments to this effect.

Given Lee’s background — he was on his way to prison for murder in the opening of the game, way back in June — Clementine offers him a chance at redemption. More than that, she offers a chance for him to find something in the world that’s worth fighting for, maybe even dying for, and certainly living for.

I’m a pretty big fan of zombie fiction in general, and The Walking Dead is one of the better stories out there. Now that the ending has hit, I’ve found myself entirely satisfied with the experience in a way that few games and even a few books never really achieve. I’ve written (in an unpublished feature) that The Walking Dead manages to convey all the power of a larger story with potentially lower, or at least more concentrated and localized, stakes. It doesn’t need world-ending peril to be incredibly engaging.

The story doesn’t have to be about saving the world. It’s only about saving your friends and people close to you, and yet it’s more effective than any game that hit this year. If you have a chance to play it, you should.

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