I wake up trapped in a meat locker with three fellow survivors. If the zombies weren’t a big enough burden, we’ve got a family of cannibals eagerly awaiting a chance to feast on us. And it wouldn’t be The Walking Dead if chaos theory didn’t come into effect. Larry, one of the more prickly survivors, suddenly collapses from an apparent heart attack—of course. His daughter Lilly begins CPR, but Kenny, one of my oldest companions, demands Larry be finished off before turning. Clementine, the little girl I’ve been guarding this whole time, watches and waits to see which side I will take in this argument.
“Come on, Lee. You can’t be in the middle on this one,” Kenny says.
The timer for my decision fades in as the two bitterly debate the fate of the dying survivor at our feet. For once while playing a decision-based game, I am completely at loss over what I want to do. Larry made great strides in painting himself as an irredeemable prick, but his daughter established herself as an integral member of this current group. On the other hand, the guy is most assuredly dead, and Kenny’s trust is a tool I hope not to lose.
And time keeps ticking away, practically laughing in my face as I attempt to unravel the various threads of this single choice.
Though I often thoroughly contemplate decisions in games such as Fallout, I generally know which path I’ll be headed down: the one that’s going to give me the most points in the Karma stat. Yes, they threaten of the consequences of your actions but then proceed to present predictably black and white choices. I mean if killing a child in BioShock doesn’t immediately scream immoral, then the positive rewards gained from saving them should hint at the “right” choice. Even the complexities of the Mass Effect universe are unfortunately strictly based on Paragon and Renegade decisions that tip off the eventual outcome of your choices.
While the ability to develop a role as you see fit is appreciated in some cases, a prime opportunity is squandered in the process: the ability to lift up a mirror to the person behind the controls in order to allow them to see an objective view of themselves. The choices presented in these games often serve to challenge the player’s apparent morality, but they generally take a back seat to just about everything else.
Telltale thankfully reversed this recursive process with the first season of The Walking Dead. Unlike a typically shallow good and bad morality system where the “right” answer is laughably obvious, The Walking Dead’s opaque choices offer little reassurance whether preferred paths are taken or not. Often tough decisions made during your journey don’t prop back up until they’ve all but faded from memory, and even if you’re confident in a choice, you may encounter unintended consequences that further tarnish your already muddied self-image.
The second episode alone was unflinchingly brutal as the portrait of a failure came into focus as each decision took its course. I felt like Walter White: I did everything in my power to help Clementine, but that doesn’t mean I was able to prevent her from eating human meat or divert her eyes as I brutally murdered a man. And even more laughably cruel: the final choice of raiding a car full of supplies doesn’t take shape until the tail-end of the final episode where you must explain to the owner of the vehicle why exactly you suck as Clementine’s guardian.
And even though the story has its moments of testing the lengths one would go to survive in the zombie apocalypse, it more often focuses on little personal interactions where you navigate social quagmires like a politician gleaning for votes on the campaign trail. Deciding to subject Lee to an amputation post zombie bite is all well and good, but a true challenge emerges when attempting to decipher the hidden meaning behind another survivor’s words.
Without knowing the “right” choice or the immediate reaction to a decision, I came to deal with these relationships as a student of Dale Carnegie would: staying completely neutral and offering validity to the various beliefs of my fellow survivors so no one could later burn me for picking a side. This seemed like a good plan until I was trapped in a meat locker with a dying man and two incensed survivors debating on what would be the proper recourse for this situation.
And the time continues to tick away as I contemplate the “right” choice; the one that doesn’t exist. I can’t please everyone, and I know that I should just get on my knees and join Lilly in attempting to revive Larry. To hell with the political stance; if I can save a man’s life, then that’s the choice I should be making.
I think this as the time finally runs out.
Kenny pushes me aside. “You’re fucking worthless, Lee.”
As he inevitably will do, Kenny grabs a salt brick and smashes Larry’s skull into oblivion. They likely view me as spineless and weak, but I of course find a way to justify the freeze up. A student of Dale Carnegie: the only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. I sacrificed a life for my own standing in this group. We’ll get out of this situation and back to our motel camp and bitter feelings will be held by both Kenny and Lilly, but at the very least, they won’t be directed at me so much as they will be at each other.
Telltale tricked me into filling out a personal survey and then called me an asshole for my answers with their The Walking Dead episodics—and in a surreal way, it was pretty awesome. And with the first episode of the second season finally out, I can only imagine the effects those decisions still hold during Clementine’s journey in the zombie apocalypse.