If the first episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead was about the dangers of zombies and the second was about the the dangers of humans, the third is about the dangers of choices. Granted, the spectre of the wrong decision has loomed over the game ever since Lee Everett first crashed outside of Macon, but this episode brings with it the hardest set of choices yet. Compounding the severity of your decisions is the vague, unsettling feeling that the impact of these choices are not only unpredictable, but far reaching.
A proper discussion of this episode can not take place using the vague, shadowy language of a spoiler-free review, so I’m not going to try. If you haven’t played this episode yet, I would strongly suggest, beg even, that you stop reading this until you play it. The spoilers herein would rob the game of some very important moments, moments that are very much the point of this episode.
All of the episodes thus far have had a large component dealing with actions undertaken to ensure survival, but while the previous episodes seemed more focused on the physical aspects of survival, food, shelter, ammo, Long Road Ahead is the first episode where I felt the emotional survival of Lee and the group was at stake. That’s not to say that there isn’t action in this episode, because there is, but the action is more there just as a reminder of the world these people live in. The weight of the episode takes place away from bandit ambushes and zombie hordes.
Having read every issue of The Walking Dead, I’m somewhat used to shocking acts of violence that come out of nowhere, but even so, Lilly’s murder of Carly took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t firmly in Lilly’s camp or in Kenny’s camp, having pinballed between the two as the episodes progressed. While I was initially on Kenny’s side, in part due to his sweet RV, his murder of Larry in Episode 2 soured me towards our mustachioed friend. In the aftermath of that event, I had somewhat warmed to Lilly, seeing her more as a rudderless woman with no one to turn to, and less of a controlling megalomaniac. Unfortunately, her moral compass went missing along with her rudder and when the argument about the missing supplies got heated, Carly ultimately paid the price. Choosing to kill Carly (or Doug had he been chosen for survival in Episode One) is a somewhat cheap way for Telltale to avoid needing two different sets of assets from here on out, but at the same time, the payoff was a pretty surprising and emotional moment. At least for me it was.
Part of what makes these moments so impactful is not knowing the extent of the effect of your actions and conversations. There have been conversations that seemed benign, but ended with a notice that this person or that person will remember what was said. Conversely, there have been actions and talks that felt pretty important, but garnered no such mention. As a result, I have no idea when I’m going to say something that’s important, or do something that’s important. I have no idea what impact my words and deeds will have. I have no idea what could have been prevented and what was inevitable. In short, this game has turned into a simulation of real life, only with more zombies and badass train rides. This fear of making the wrong choice has replaced any fear of zombies and bandit attacks. I can’t help but feel that this has been the point all along.
I’ve also noticed a shift in who this game is about. It’s easy to think that the game is about Lee, what with him being the main character. As the player’s character, he’s knee deep in the killing, he’s the one who has to side with someone or try and remain neutral. He’s the one whose actions are somewhat determining the course of events. At the beginning, he felt like the most important person in the story. Now, not so much.
I hope to be proven wrong, but I’m 100% certain that Lee will not survive this journey. Maybe it’s all of those back issues of the comic, but it feels like Lee’s purpose at this point is not to save himself, but to save the soul of Clementine. As the episodes progressed, Lee’s relationship with Clementine moved on from one of a protector and the protected to that of a father and daughter. Taking care of a child, that is, providing the items necessary for survival, is relatively easy. If you make sure that they have food, water, clothes, shelter and somewhere to go to the bathroom, you’ve pretty much covered it all. Being a parent, on the other hand, is a much more complex thing.
Being a parent myself, ever since Lee first rescued Clementine from the tree house, I have always chosen the conversation option that best matches what I would use with my own kids, namely honesty tinged with hopefulness. I don’t lie to Clem about our situation, but I don’t try and scare her either. Clem knows about Lee’s past, about the crimes he committed and about the severity of the current situation. She also knows that Lee thinks everything will eventually work out. Ok, maybe that last one is a lie, but sometimes a little hope can go a long way.
So, when the time came to decide who should kill Duck, poor, goofy, zombie bitten Duck, I thought about what message I would be sending to Clementine, and by extension my own kids, if I let Duck’s parents do it. Was it hard to give peace to Duck? Jesus yes, even knowing that this was “just a game”, but I couldn’t think of a way I could explain that I made a parent kill their own child without coming off like a coward. Sometimes, being a parent means making difficult choices that ultimately benefit the entire family, even if the short term affects aren’t positive. Even if the game didn’t provide me with the opportunity to explain my actions to Clementine in that fashion, I’d still feel better knowing that I did the right thing. How this will affect things down the road is anyone’s guess, but in the absence of a time machine, I had to do what felt right. I’d put the odds at about 50/50 that it goes sideways on me.
Having gone past the halfway mark, I’d say that The Walking Dead is probably my favorite piece of “games as interactive fiction”. It’s a hard game to get excited about, due to all of the hand wringing and dead children, but at the same time, when I play it, I get completely sucked in and the hours fly by. The next episode’s foray into Savannah, one of my favorite towns, seems pretty dang creepy so I’m hoping that I can ditch this existential dread over the impact of poor decision making and focus instead on some good old fashioned monster scares. After this last episode, I’m gonna need it.