The Walking Dead: Return to Zombie Monkey Island
Filmmaker George A. Romero is credited with, while not the first zombie film, the creation of the zombie survival and horror genre with his initial work Night of the Living Dead. This has been followed up with five sequels, each featuring another stage in society’s collapse under the onslaught of zombie plague, the standards of which he established as what is now widely accepted fact. Unlike other popular horror series, the zombie genre stands out as being deep and shallow in equal measure, relying less on a sense of fear in the viewer and more on a sense of despair in the face of shambling hordes. It works to drive home the notion that fighting death is futile, and those few survivors left on this wreck of a planet are on borrowed time. There’s also brain smashing.
Perhaps then it is surprising that all this subtext is incidental in the face of Romero’s original intention. He’s gone on record multiple times stating that zombies are just another way of expressing the consumerist mindset. Having worked retail and watched as shoppers shuffle from one rack to the next, wall-eyed, pawing at shit they don’t need, soiling themselves without batting an eyelid, and attacking others who aren’t like them with the intent of bringing them down to their subhuman level, I can only add that the difference is that you’re much more inclined to crush a shopper’s skull and leave a zombie to rot in peace.
You’ll find the same in The Walking Dead Episodes 1-5.
“But, Chrysophase,” the more contradictory forum FAQtards among you might say, “zombies have gone beyond the horror genre to become a trope standard in all forms of fiction. They don’t personify horror, nor do they conform to the notion that zombies are solely extant as allegorical commentary on consumerist society. The Walking Dead is just another post-apocalyptic series, but one that’s moved on from its roots. So STFU!”
“Oh, you shortsighted yet remarkably well-spoken little noobs,” is my response. “Seeing beyond the premise originally posited by Romero, zombie stories still have at their core the commonality which unites all reactive fiction: Stupidity.”
The Walking Dead franchise, and indeed most fiction, is reliant upon stupidity for its story’s continuation. Fiction thrives on stupidity. There’s nothing more anticlimactic than scientists who take appropriate precautions when dealing with their newest Frankenstein project or horny teenagers who decide not to go down to neck at the old campsite by the lake where all those murders happened. Human error, emotion, and a failure to think are necessary if bad things are going to occur which drive the story forward.
And that’s the dichotomy of the human condition. We strive to be intelligent. We strive for order. We strive for progress. But there’s nothing more entertaining than the absolute chaos-causing stupidity that our conflict-loving baser selves yearn for.
Therefore, in a world given to chaos, stupidity abounds in epic proportions. I make no bones about it when I say that The Walking Dead Episodes 1-5 are a monument to man’s stupidity. Those of you who understand my meaning, have a cookie. Those of you who don’t, I anticipate your inflamed comments and will enjoy mocking them presently.
Since a review by definition requires some modicum of detail regarding gameplay before diving into the infinitely more profound emotional and sociological implications, allow me to set the scene. You play as Lee Everett, a University of Georgia professor who’s been convicted of murder and is currently being transported to the state pen when your jailer’s police car hits a zombie. Cue horrific accident in which you somehow survive, have harrowing zombie encounters, and escape to the suburbs somewhere in Georgia. You soon run across Clementine, a clear metaphor for your humanity in a world beset by a zombie menace. She’s alone, and you can’t bring yourself to simply leave a scared 8 year old girl. So you take her along with you, trying to survive one increasingly perilous encounter after another involving but not limited to bandits, the criminally insane, zombies, rednecks, and your own groupmembers as they turn on one another.
Gameplay is similar to the point-and-click adventures we both loved and hated in the early 90s. There are some shooting elements and it does require a quick reaction at times, but it’s your decision-making and diplomacy skills that will be tested to their limit here. Every decision you make has an effect on your group as the story progresses, which is why I was so very disappointed to learn that there’s only one ending, making all your sterling effort throughout the grueling trials before you moot. But this is one of those games where it’s the journey rather than the achievements or ending that matters most. And as far as the journey goes, it is exquisitely told. The only complaint is that console ports weren’t coded as cleanly as they could’ve been, resulting in jerky segues and cuts between animated scenes. And in a game which is primarily animated scenes and conversations, that can seriously detract from the entertainment value here.
A point that seems to plague the series as ubiquitously as the zombies is that there’s no tie in with social Darwinism. Logically, a survivor or groups of survivors would be more likely to last longer thanks to teamwork, specialized skills, and a level-headed approach to problem-solving. Thus do those most unfit physically and mentally die first. But in The Walking Dead life and death are primarily dictated by a somewhat outdated sense of morality. An intelligent man who thinks for the group’s benefit that is forced to make draconian decisions is more likely to end up dead than a whining, idiotic waste of flesh whose antics are inclined to get others killed. This is shoehorned into the notion that survivors cannot allow a horrible world in which they find themselves to change who they are, even when refusing to change who they are is what ultimately gets them killed, making their principles pointless.
It presents a balancing act, in other words. You as Lee must act to protect Clementine while retaining your humanity. But the game refuses to acknowledge the context in which your actions occur. You wouldn’t stab a prone man in the chest, would you? If that prone man had just tried to feed your best friend to your family, and if he was allowed to get back up he would surely try to kill you, does that then justify killing him? I’d sure as hell say so, but the game disagrees and labels me as a baaaad man for doing the bad things a person needs to do to survive, and for that it can take its preachy attitude and see how long it lasts being a good person. Because in the game, and in real life, good person is usually a synonym for “victim.”
Graphics remind me of a subtle brown Borderlands. Voice-overs and general behavior is a mix between an episode of Jerry Springer and characters from Songs of the South and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The game attempts to give you autonomy, but since you’re railroaded toward just the one ending you often feel like a bear at the zoo, taunted and gawked at but never able to bust heads. So that then leaves me with impressions, questions for which I have no answer and can only present to allow you, the discerning gamer with a penchant for introspection verging on existentialism who read this far, to examine and draw your own conclusions from.
- Why has no one in this game seen a horror film? Actually, scratch that. Someone out and out says that this is like out of a horror film. That means there’s no excuse for this kind of hamfisted foreshadowing. I found myself shouting, “They’re cannibals, you idiots! Note the fresh kill room in a forest bereft of game!” so many times that when the characters finally caught on, the windows of my house exploded outward under the awesome might of the I TOLD YOU SO!! that had been building like lava under Mount St. Helens. Wouldn’t it be nice to feature characters versed in the art of not being a dumbshit? It’s a revolutionary concept.
- Why can no one be trusted to keep their mouths shut? Complicit guilt is a reason to stay quiet, not throw out your dirty laundry for a good airing the second you get into an argument.
- How can a game that ostensibly is a choose-your-own-adventure strike such a chord? I have never cared more about anyone EVER than I do this little girl, Clementine.
- Why, when The Walking Dead has thus far proven itself extremely able to modulate the emotions of the player, does it finish on such a sour note? (Spoiler alert). Clem’s impassioned pleas to her one and only protector not to shuffle off this mortal coil and leave her all alone are reminiscent of the death scenes in Bambi and the Lion King. They show a child’s magical thinking, and its inability to cope with the terrible tragedy we live in, and are more than sufficient to make even a stone shed tears. I cried. I cried like a little bitch, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The ending leaves you with a hollow ache where your heart used to be, tired and angry in the face of crimes for which God must stand trial.