No video game I have played as an adult has affected me as profoundly and personally as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead has. I’ve already written about my technical admiration for Telltale’s interactive television dramas (whose titles have doubled in number between the date of that essay and just this week), but now I wish to get personal. This may take more than one post.
The rest of this post contains spoilers for seasons 1 and 2 of the “Walking Dead” video game.
I purchased all of Walking Dead season one during a half-price sale at the end of 2012, spurred by the raves of many trusted friends. I tried part of the first episode, approaching it like the point-and-click adventure game I had expected, and it didn’t really gel for me. (To my past self’s credit, and as I wrote before, the first few episodes of this then-new style for Telltale did hold over many inventory-focused, get-batteries, put-batteries-in-radio adventure-game elements that would become wholly vestigial once the series hit its stride.) I remained in this skeptical relationship with the when Matt Weise and I recorded the Play of the Light episode about zombies in video games.
I would pick up the game the following summer, playing it straight to the end over the course of a month or two. In part this was likely due to the passage of time letting me see the game from a fresh perspective, and play it the correct way: much more a choice-driven narrative than a series of puzzles. I discovered, to my surprise, that The Walking Dead does not wear the flimsy frame-excuse to destroy human bodies with impunity that the zombie trope typically brings to fiction, and to video games especially. Instead, it is a wholly human drama about people scrabbling for hope in an utterly hopeless world. Each episode brings fresh horrors for the characters — not merely decaying body-horrors, but new revelations that they’d been thrown into a world with literally no love left for them. I treated each chapter as an ampule of poison I injected willingly, at a pace of my own choosing: escape through recreational despair.
The especial reason this appealed to me on second viewing, I strongly suspect, had to do with my rapidly changing family situation of that time. That spring, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He succumbed within weeks, barely giving me time to secure power of attorney over both parents’ affairs without getting probate courts involved. And then things became truly difficult, as his death revealed that my mother had advanced Alzheimer’s disease, and that he’d been covering for her for years. But it took my brothers and I, as well as the framework of helpers and professionals I assembled from an initial position of zero knowledge or experience, months to realize that.
At first, I was assured, her confusion was due to grief and stress. So we moved her into a nice, loving retirement home in Bangor, Maine, not far from where she lived with dad; she could keep her cat, and room and board cost almost exactly her monthly pension. It was perfect. And within a week, the home asked that I please relocate her elsewhere.
Like a lot of elderly with Alzheimer’s Disease, my mother suffers from a condition called sundowning. As the day turns to afternoon, such a person’s grip on reality becomes weaker, and can disconnect completely once night falls. Mom would be in a great mood through lunch, then call me repeatedly to ask me to come fetch her from this weird hotel she was in, and take her back home to dad. The calls would stop by night because, in utter confusion, she’d disconnect her phone, then proceed to wander the halls. She’d sometimes bang on other residents’ doors, or just let herself in and proceed to violently accuse them of invading her home.
I have no pat answer for why The Walking Dead appealed so much to me at the same time I was daily negotiating with a series of assisted-living homes and elderly-care advice sources, all while sinking into financial ruin (spending upwards of $10,000 per month) to support a woman who would daily tell me that I must hate her to have abandoned her penniless among strangers in a ski lodge or wherever she was, stealing all her cars and emptying her bank accounts and whatever else I must have done so that she wasn’t even sure of her own identity any more. Maybe I just found myself possessing a deeper well of sympathy than before for Lee and Clementine’s unsolvable and ever-worsening plight. Maybe I felt relief to step directly into their situation in the unique way that Telltale’s dramas allow and experience how very much worse their lives were than mine (even if make-believe). With navigating my utterly unfamiliar situation as my full-time job, maybe it just felt good to chase another call with mom or with a social worker with the fantasy of having all my problems coalesce into something so easy to understand as shambling corpses, and a short-term solution as simple as an icepick.
Our luck changed as summer ended (and after I finished playing through the end of Lee’s story in season one). I finally connected with a particular elderly-care resource in Bangor able to give me direct assistance towards getting my mother an actual Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Soon after, I found her a place to live in a truly beautiful “memory care” facility in Brewer, full of staff who work exclusively with Alzheimer’s patients, willing to guide them with dignity through the variably lucid twilight of their lives. And at the same time, my mother’s lawyer succeeded in connecting her with Medicaid, staunching my own financial bleed-out. By the time 2013 ended, so had these tribulations with my mother. As I write this, she has lived in this home for more than a year, and remains safe there.
So, then. Season two.
Season two of the Walking Dead game memorably twists two survival-child tropes. In its first episode, Clem encounters a lonely dog right after she loses her whole family (for the third time in two years). As she and the dog travel through several scenes together, the game lets us believe that the animal will become Clem’s companion, a source of trust and comfort who will reflect Clem’s own relationship towards Lee in the previous season. And suddenly, the betrayed and bleeding Clem must choose between slicing open the formerly domesticated dog’s jugular or just leaving it, mad but paralyzed, to die of its wounds.
This encounter’s true purpose in the season’s narrative arc has it act as foreshadowing for Clem’s relationship with Sarah, a girl who evidently dwells somewhere in the autistic spectrum, and whom Clem meets in the lodge where she reunites with Kenny. Sarah has no ability to grasp the fact that the world has ended, and she makes an obstacle of herself in stressful situations. Her father, overworked as the group’s only medic, treats her with exasperation. Jane, a loner who accompanies the group for a time, warns Clem not to let herself be dragged down by people like Sarah who — she says — can’t fend for themselves.
Once again, the game lets us believe that Clem and Sarah can become friends, working together to overcome Sarah’s disability, or perhaps even allowing it to become her saving grace. Maybe her sunny optimism, borne of her inability to recognize that the world has died, will buoy the survivors’ sprits when they need it most. Plenty of narratives would take that tack, so comfortable in tales of kids helping each other through tough times, and do quite well with it.
This narrative demurs. In this story, contrary to every trope, Jane is exactly, inescapably right. Within the cruelly libertarian world of The Walking Dead, one with no time or pity for people who cannot function without community support, Sarah’s autism makes her dead weight. She doesn’t directly attack Clem like the dog did, but she endangers her just the same, over and over, while Clem — and the player — stubbornly refuse to just let her go.
My middle brother, whom here I shall call “Hank”, had a worse year than I did.
We shared the same parents, obviously, and he lives near the rest of my family in Bangor, but he did not help my eldest brother Ricky and I during our crisis with mom. He was too busy caring for his ailing wife, something he had made his full-time job since she became bedridden the previous year. They lived on her social-security income; Hank had quit his job, and had no savings or fallback of any kind. He supplemented their income with credit cards, at least until he found that he couldn’t open any more new credit-card accounts.
But I, too, was very busy navigating our mother’s dilemma, and so we didn’t talk much. He showed up for dad’s funeral and read from Dylan Thomas, which I honestly wouldn’t have expected of him, but didn’t have anything to say beyond that. I wouldn’t speak with him much for about a year thereafter.
His wife moved into hospice in April of 2014. This meant that Hank, who was neither elderly nor disabled, had to vacate the subsidized housing they shared under her name. He had no idea what he was going to do, other than vaguely planning to literally become a homeless person, and he watched TV while waiting for this to happen. The day before his forced eviction, I drove to Bangor, found him an inexpensive apartment on Craig’s List, put myself down as co-signer — I didn’t want his underwater credit rating to spoil my mission — rented a van, and helped him and his cat move into it. He expressed sincere gratitude, and promised that he would weather his situation and land on his feet.
His wife died a few weeks later. The funeral was on his birthday.
This past fall, after months of working with grief therapists and other counselors, he got a job at the Wendy’s fast-food restaurant by the Bangor Mall. The management hired him despite the two-year gap in his work history, as they had his social workers’ good word behind him. He phoned me right after the interview, ecstatic, and laughingly complaining that he only had one pair of decent pants, and he had already used them for the interview. I sent him some money for some more pants. He did not show up for his first day.
Ricky, a disabled veteran, has received social-security benefits for decades. He has also earned significant experience with America’s welfare system and the many sorts of people one meets within. He feels sadly confident that Hank has become the sort who has simply given up, and who will never muster the intent to re-enter the workforce. Ricky has been working his connections to try to get Hank declared disabled too, but without finding much success.
Hank thinks maybe he’ll next apply for a job at a nearby hotel, some months from now, after they’re done building it. In the meantime he told the city’s general-assistance board that I help pay his rent, so they cut off his monthly dole.
I saw a therapist myself a handful of times this year, the first time I did so since high school. We resolved the immediate impetus for my visits quite quickly, and spent the rest of the time talking about Hank.
At the climax of the fourth episode, the observation deck of the survivors’ temporary camp collapses, and Sarah and Jane both tumble down into the path of the advancing zombie herd. The game prompts the player to either give Jane a hand back up, or tell Jane to rescue Sarah, catatonic and screaming while the monsters approach.
At this moment I had an epiphany not unlike that upon my return to season one: since the last time I had played, something had changed on my side of the screen. I realized anew how the game wanted me to play it.
We recognized, finally, the locus of our problem, Clem and I. And we cut it away.
Clem looked on silently as the creatures swarmed Sarah, who in previous episodes had lost her father and the rest of her adoptive family, one by one, to various monsters. “I’m gonna die!” she cried. “That’s right,” I said to my television, as they tore into her.
Nobody would mention Sarah again. She left nobody to miss her.
I could ask Hank if the things other people believe about him are true. I haven’t, because I haven’t taken any of his calls since the one from the Wendy’s parking lot. I have my bank print and mail him checks every month, and I will continue to do so through April of next year, when his lease — and my legal obligation to pay his rent — ends.
Maybe I will pick up the phone, sometime before then. Maybe I’ll just write a letter. I don’t know yet. Perhaps this is related to the fact I haven’t spoken to my mother since she moved into the Alzheimer’s home, either. In any case, I don’t find myself moved to worry about it much.
His story is sad. All of our stories are sad.
Today, I do not talk to the dead.