December 21st, 2012

Tea or poison?

The Dead That Walk

Zombies are the zeitgeist, and one of the major pieces of fiction that kicked off this trend is The Walking Dead, by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard (with Tony Moore on the first volume) (Goodreads reviews: Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Vol. 5, Vol. 6, Vol. 7, Vol. 8, Vol. 9, Vol. 10, Vol. 11, Vol. 12, Vol. 13, Vol. 14, Vol. 15, Vol. 16, Vol. 17). It is essentially the zombie comic against which all other zombie comics—and much zombie fiction in other media—are measured. While I don't know that it deserves the incredible praise and zealotry it's inspired, it has proved to be a very strong post-zombie apocalypse story.

The Walking Dead is the story of Rick Grimes, a Georgia police officer who, after being shot, wakes up to discover that the dead are walking the earth. He soon reunites with his wife, son, and best friend/partner, who have survived with a group of people. They try to continue surviving. That is basically the plot.

What this book truly excels at is examining how people would change in this setting. The world as you know it is over. How long do you go before accepting this fact and trying to adjust to this new world where civilization is gone and zombies are everywhere? What will you do to survive? How will you hold on to your humanity when forced to do inhuman things? If there is no more law, are you now ruled by your own morality?

While many of the characters have to ask themselves these questions and face the awful truths of living in a world of zombies, the man who shoulders the greatest burden is Rick Grimes, who, having been in a position of authority before, becomes the de factor leader of the group. While he does have a lot of the typical Reluctant Leader issues, he becomes more and more interesting and fascinating as the series progresses. Kirkman puts Rick through the wringer, and I loved every scene where Rick confided in someone about the toll everything was taking on him. Rick has to make a lot of tough choices, and while he wants to set a good example for his son, he also wants to protect the group from danger.

And danger is around every corner. Robert Kirkman deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin when it comes to writers who are merciless and brutal about killing off characters, even your favorites. There are quite a few scenes that are hard to read, scenes I read with growing dread as I tried to convince myself that somehow he or she would be saved in the nick of time. And the others that just punch you right in the face unexpectedly. The great thing about this book, though, is that the worst stuff that ever happens is done by other people. This may be a zombie book, but humans are the far greater threat.

While Kirkman does wave around a scythe menacingly, he also constantly introduces new characters to be reaped. Some you get attached to. Some don't make much of an impression. I will say that pretty much every character in the comic is better and more interesting than their television counterpart.

A word on the art: I'm not really a fan. The black-and-white suits the book, but I find it hard to distinguish characters' faces a lot of the time. That being said, Adlard does nail a lot of the key splash pages that focus completely on the emotional reactions of characters. He's good at conveying emotions in general when I can actually tell who the hell I'm looking at.

The Walking Dead passed issue #100 this year, and, to my surprise, it is still going strong and clearly has a lot more story to tell. Kirkman seems very self-conscious of how easy it would be to repeat himself (how many times can the group go somewhere, feel safe, and then OH NO IT'S NOT SAFE AFTER ALL), and he is able to try new things naturally: because of everything that has come before and all that the characters have been through, a similar plot element will turn out differently now. I'm impressed with how fresh it still feels, especially given that there was a point in the story where I thought that the book had nowhere left to go. I burned through nine years of comics in three months, and now I'm waiting to see what new horrors Kirkman has in store for me.

The immense popularity of The Walking Dead in its comic book and television forms has finally spawned a video game that may actually be superior to both of them. In Telltale Games' The Walking Dead, you play Lee Everett, who is already notable for being a black protagonist. Of course, he's also a convict, way to stereotype! Anyway, Lee is on his way to prison on the day of the zombie apocalypse, which is like the worst Get Out of Jail Free card imaginable. On the run from the walking dead, he comes across Clementine, an eight-year-old girl. According to the wiki, she's African-American, but I wasn't really clear on her race. Lee and Clementine meet up with other survivors (several of them non-white as well) and try not to die.

The gameplay is focused completely on the choices that you make. Throughout the game, you have multiple dialogue options, and what you say matters. The game—and characters—remembers everything you say. If you tell a character something, they will make reference to it later on. Maybe a long while later on. The dialogue is used to build your relationships with each character. Did you support his decision? He'll remember that. Did you lie to her? She'll remember that. You only get a short time to make your choice, so you frequently act on instinct, and I was pleasantly surprised that the game often had the exact thing I wanted to say as an option. At one point, I said, "Holy shit," out loud, and the game then let me have Lee say, "Holy shit." The way you interact with each character can make a huge difference in the way that they interact with you, especially when it comes time that you need their help.

And then there are key decisions that you make each episode that really define the way your character and story will go. You will literally be making life-or-death decisions on a regular basis, and you will only have a few seconds to make them. People's lives will be in your hands. This is not a game that asks you to choose the good path or the evil path. This is a game that asks you to make your own path. What kind of person will you be in this world? What will you do to survive? What will you do to protect Clementine? And what will she think of you? There are some decisions I made in the heat of the moment and regretted instantly. There are some decisions I agonized over and regretted instantly. There will never be a right or wrong decision. There will only be your choice and the consequences.

The absolute brilliance of this game is how much your choices affect the story. True, the main thrust of the story is not going to change, and you have to hit certain plot points. But the makeup of your group can be very different depending on what you've done, and that all changes the group dynamics. Don't forget, these characters remember everything you do. Don't think that just because a character didn't say anything about what you did in Episode 1 that he's not going to throw it back in your face in Episode 3. Because the effects of your choices feel so natural, you really feel like you are writing this story along with the game, in addition to living it. This is one of the most emotionally engaging and distressing gaming experiences I've ever had. I loved Heavy Rain, but I feel that this game delivers better on the interactive storytelling concept.

In addition to the interactive storytelling element, though, there is some old-school point-and-click adventure-game puzzle work as well as the occasional quick-time event, usually to keep a zombie from eating you. These bits do make it feel more like a game, and they also allow for an opportunity to breathe (in the case of the former) and heightened terror (the latter). Sure, the game could just have Lee do these things himself, but by making you do them, it puts you even more into his shoes.

Finally, I must praise the incredible writing and excellent voice acting that bring these characters to life. The graphics are not the greatest ever, and yet I felt more attached to some of these characters than to some of the ones on the television show. Clementine is a refreshingly non-annoying child character, very mature for her age. Each character is believable and well developed. There is one character who is just astoundingly well written (but to say who would imply that character lives past Episode 1, and, hey, spoiler, not everyone does).

Even if you are not a Walking Dead fan, if you are a fan of great storytelling, this is a gaming experience like none other. Season One was released as five episodes, each of which takes two to three hours to play (and I highly recommend playing each episode in one sitting for the greatest emotional impact). It's available on Steam (WARNING: The extremely spoilery trailer for Episode 5 will autoplay on that page, so stop it quickly!) as well as Xbox Marketplace and the like. Buy it now. Play it now.