I’ve said before that each of us has several parallel lives that we switch between at various intervals. Maybe we have friends who we only see at school or university, but when we go back after the summer it seems as though we were never apart. Maybe we have family in faraway places, and every time we go to visit them we feel like children again; grown-up life seems worlds away, and it’s hard to believe it’s actually still going on somewhere out there beyond our little bubble.
On occasion, great works of fiction can transport you away from normal life in a similar way. They introduce you to people who stick in your mind, and when you encounter them again – by rewatching that film or picking up the new book in that series – you feel as though some part of you has been with them all along, just waiting to get back to the important business of having adventures with them. For the brief time you are immersed in their world, everything else seems unimportant. When you do emerge into the so-called real world again, you spend a while thinking you can hear them calling to you from some hidden place not too far away, like people from a dream that was secretly real but shhh don’t tell the dreamer.
Well, this blog post is off to a pretentious start, but I finished episode five of the Walking Dead game today, and that’s the effect it has had on me. I’ve been a fan of Telltale Games for as long as they’ve been making old style adventure games; I particularly enjoyed their revival of Monkey Island, which hinted at some of the potential of episodic games to get people invested in stories and characters. But The Walking Dead takes their approach to new extremes, and is not only their best game by far but one of the most gripping and emotionally affecting games I’ve ever played.
Of course, I can only assume that the real zombie apocalypse, when it happens, will be MORE gripping and emotionally affecting than this game. But this game, in my opinion, represents a rather disconcerting leap forward in terms of making entirely fictional stakes seem high. Telltale have clearly learned to trick some important part of my brain into thinking their game is real, even in the face of comic book style graphics, occasional glitches and punnily titled Steam achievements popping up in the corner. In doing so, they briefly provided another parallel life for me to switch into whenever I felt brave enough – although now the season is over I doubt I’ll have the stomach to replay it for a long time, if ever.
The Walking Dead hints at the amazing, though routinely squandered, potential which games might have to transport people in ways no film can. When you watch a film, you know that whatever you do – whether you tense your muscles or cover your eyes or drift off to sleep – the narrative will play out in the same way: those two attractive characters will fall in love, that guy in the red shirt will die, the world will ultimately be saved. Games, and this game in particular, add an extra element of urgency by requiring the player to stay actively involved, paying attention and making decisions if they don’t want everything to fall apart.
This, to me, makes it feel overwhelmingly more absorbing and personal than almost any film I’ve ever watched. The fact that it’s up to me to choose what the main character says and does – and that I have to live with the consequences when I say and do the wrong things – forces me to invest effort in getting to know these characters, and makes their relationships feel much truer and more meaningful than the unnaturally crafted relationships I observe from a distance in most films. This opens the door to experiences films – and real life – have never given me.
Most significantly, I’ve never felt fiercely protective of a child in real life, but this game gave me a worryingly late-in-life epiphany about why parents feel so protective of their children. I’m not saying I know what it’s like to be a parent now, but this game certainly made me feel more like one than anything else ever has. It helped me to know myself a little better, and it was nice to discover I may not be an entirely broken human being. If it seems silly for me to talk about a mere game in such lofty terms – well, I’ll say this: plenty of great symphonies, poems, films, novels and paintings have failed to make me see myself or the world in a new light, while the Walking Dead game has succeeded. And it’s got zombies.
You’ll notice I’ve been incredibly vague about the plot of the game; obviously I don’t want to spoil anything. All I’ll add is that if you’re okay with cartoony gore and the odd dollop of emotional trauma then I recommend it very much. It feels like a glimpse into a future where some games might more accurately be called experiences. Whether it’s “fun” or not, you go into this sort of experience as one person and emerge as someone ever-so-slightly different, with another dreamlike chorus of fake friends’ voices ringing in your ears. We’re undoubtedly far from the point where fantasy and reality are indistinguishable, but for me the line just got a tiny bit blurrier. And this excites and scares me to no end.