MAJOR SPOILERS for Episode 3 of The Walking Dead follow. If you haven't played it, please, stop reading and do so. Bookmark this page or something and go experience it yourself instead of letting me ruin it for you. If you haven't played any of the episodes, please do so. They're great. And yes, this is the only time I will ever tell you NOT to read something I wrote.
Like anybody who has played their share of videogames, I've sometimes doubted my ability to control an on-screen character with the agility, timing, or accuracy needed to beat a tough boss or make a difficult series of jumps. Still, I've never had the urge to just hand the controller over to somebody else because a task was too hard or too frustrating. I've never wished that a game would literally take control and go on auto-pilot for a minute or two...until recently. Even then, it wasn't because the game was too difficult- at least, not in the usual sense of the word.
Standing in the woods, Lee has already committed to taking care of the situation at hand. So far, Kenny has been the one with the reputation of handling the difficult decisions, which in the post-apocalyptic, zombie-infested world of The Walking Dead
generally means “killing people”. Never mind that I chopped a guy's leg off to get him out of a bear trap without even flinching, or that I offed the family of farmers who turned out to be cannibals.
He's even started to give me crap about not having what it takes to make the hard choices, and why? Because I thought we should try a little CPR before smashing a guy's head with a salt block? Sure, I admitted that Larry was a “racist asshole”, but bashing his brains in while his daughter was trying to revive him was a bit much. Still, I'm not trying to prove anything; that's not why I offered to fix the situation.
Even in a screwed up world like this one, no father should have to kill his own son.
Duck sits against a tree, staring off blankly. His breathing is labored. While Lee talks to Kenny (who is suddenly a widower) on my TV and assures him again that he will take care of Duck, I find myself surprisingly moved by the whole scene. It has all affected me more than I expected- the slowly building sense of dread and inevitability that has been mounting as we traveled on the train and the denial that Kenny was stuck in, thinking that even in this hopeless situation that there was no way
he was going to lose his son.
Even with a funny little glitch that momentarily ruined my suspension of disbelief as we got ready to board the train (Katjaa was suddenly holding empty air instead of Duck), the game has gotten to me. I'm closer to tears than I thought I could ever be from playing a game. Still, I take solace in the fact that while there are few lines that don't get crossed in videogames, killing kids is one of them. It's why you can't shoot children in Fallout 3
or Fallout: New Vegas
. It's why there are no kids at all in the Grand Theft Auto
“There's no way I'll actually have to shoot him,” I reassure myself. “They'll cut away and show Lee's or Kenny's face and it'll happen automatically or something.” Now, it's time. Duck's breathing is labored, and he's got to be put out of his misery. Wait a minute...there's the reticle, and I'm supposed to aim it at Duck's head. They're actually going to make me do it.
“You've gotta be fucking kidding me!”
I've done a lot of bad things with a controller in my hand.
I've murdered prostitutes in dark alleys, assassinated politicians, and run over innocent bystanders on sidewalks. I've ripped the heads off of fighters from exotic lands, destroyed buildings, and looted dead bodies. I've lied, cheated, and stolen. Even in cutesy all-ages games, I've kicked little keflings around for fun, made Sims pee themselves for my own amusement, and bred adorable pinatas only to rip them away from their parents and sell them for a profit.
What's worse is that I've done almost all of those things without any feelings of guilt whatsoever (except for maybe selling the pinatas- I felt a little badly about that). Since I generally don't go around killing hookers and blowing up post-nuclear war shanty towns in real life, I figure that the reason for my lack of empathy has more to do with the games in question not making me feel anything for my victims than with my being some kind of sociopath.
As I did all of those dirty deeds, I rarely felt bad at all. I never really thought that a videogame could make me feel bad about killing an in-game character, especially if it was something that I needed to do in order to fulfill a game's objectives or move the story forward.
Then, I played the third episode of The Walking Dead
I didn't realize that I gave a crap about Duck one way or another until I was tasked with figuring out what had been happening to the camp's food earlier in the third episode. I reluctantly allowed him to help, and his Batman reference made me smile. When we finished the investigation, he put his hand up for a high five, but I chose to investigate further before slapping hands with him. He put his hand down and the game informed me that I had left him hanging.
So, I reloaded from the last checkpoint and did a bunch of stuff over again just
so I could high-five Duck. That's when I first realized that the game was working its magic and actually making me care about the characters.
Watching Duck get worse and worse after he was infected wasn't easy. Still, I never thought twice about being the one who would eventually pull the trigger when his health eventually hit rock bottom. You can't let Kenny do that, right? To me, it wasn't even a matter of choice.
The Walking Dead
series so far has already been a triumph in many ways. It has successfully brought episodic gaming to consoles and used quick-time events to make a control scheme that blends adventure gaming with elements you'd find in regular action games and shooters. It has made player choices matter in a way that they rarely do in a videogame, all while making those choices more interesting than the usual binary moral choices of whether to throw the cute kitten off of a cliff or give it to the orphan boy after rescuing him from a blazing house fire.
The best thing it has done, though, is make players care about the characters. After I played the third episode, I read reviews and found that other people cared as much about Duck as I did. He wasn't even my favorite character in the game, but he was part of the group, he deserved a better life than what he got, and most importantly, he mattered.
Having the characters matter
has not only been the coolest thing about The Walking Dead
series, but has been absolutely essential to its success. Think about it: if you don't care about the characters, why would you care about the choices you make? If you don't care about the choices, why play the game? If killing Duck doesn't make you feel anything, how has the game succeeded?
Even in a zombie-infected dystopian wasteland, Duck was in many ways, a regular little boy. His big grin and freckles could have belonged to any number of kids I knew in elementary school or have seen playing around town now as an adult. Now, though, he sits there against the tree, looking pitiful as he struggles to complete every breath.
It would be one thing if he had already turned; I don't think I'd have a hard time shooting a monster that is essentially already dead. To shoot him when he's alive, though? That's a different matter entirely.
I sit there for about thirty seconds, doing nothing. I know I have to do it, but I'm dreading it. I get that feeling that I talked about earlier, wishing that the game would take over and do this one thing, just this one thing
for me. Even as the feeling comes over me, I'm surprised that it's happening- that the moment feels so significant. I know it has to be done, but moving the reticle toward him, and especially to his head, just feels wrong
You don't play videogames without learning to shoot a lot of things. Animals, monsters, bad guys, even innocent people. There's no telling how many times I've pulled the figurative trigger of an in-game gun or the literal trigger of my Xbox 360 controller. Thousands, for sure. Still, it's never felt like this before. It feels...heavy
People like to joke around about how we would survive in zombie apocalypses as if they'd be great; and so many movies and games make light of the situation. One of the reasons that The Walking Dead
comic, TV series, and now game have been so amazing is that they all remind you that a zombie apocalypse would actually be awful. There would be no place for such simple things as trust or innocence. Even mercy would usually exist only in the form of a bullet to the head, like it does for Duck right now.
I move the reticle over his head, and for the first time I can remember, I actually take a deep breath and hold it as I prepare to shoot.
I pull the trigger.