So I just finished Telltale’s sequence of adventure games based on The Walking Dead. I’m still writing a breakdown of the game’s narrative and characters, but I wanted to do a comparison of the show and the video game. And why one is a triumph of storytelling and the other is a dismal failure. Spoiler alert: the show sucks, the video game is awesome.
Spoilers Abound Below, Obviously.
Difference 1: The Situations
A big issue the show suffers from is the contrived and often insipid situations that the survivors find themselves in. For instance, toward the end of season two, three of the main characters find themselves stuck in a bar by some thugs and then later, zombies. So how did they end up in this mess? Were they desperately searching for food and supplies to survive the coming winter? Was it a desperate attempt to keep ahead of a group of walkers? No, it was because an old man got sad that he had to shoot his zombie neighbors. It’s the apocalypse and our main characters are sitting around discussing the morality of shooting zombies rather then you know, trying to survive a zombie apocalypse which is supposed to be the whole point of the show!
There’s a big difference between genuine peril to the characters and a contrived danger for the sake of action, and it’s a distinction the show can’t seem to make. Your characters should be facing dangers that are a natural evolution of the story, something that is a clear and present danger that makes sense in the context of the universe the characters live in. Despite that picture up there, I think the CDC story could have been a fine ending to the first season had they not focused on the insane scientist and exploding building. Heading for the one place in the world that would be ideally equipped to deal with a zombie apocalypse is a good idea, and that is a natural evolution of the story since the last communication the group heard from the world at large was that the CDC was a safe zone. It’s once they got to the CDC that the whole thing fell into a pile of stupid. There were a thousand ways to create a new conundrum or obstacle for the characters to overcome. Zombies could have besieged the place and they have to figure out how to escape. They could have gone inside and found that the entire staff of the CDC had been turned into walkers, providing a better explanation as to why there’s only one guy around other than “they got sad and killed themselves.” Hell, I would have been okay with finding a bunch of lunatic mad scientists desperately trying to find a cure by experimenting on Rick and his group, and that still would have been pretty stupid. But getting locked inside a CDC bunker that is rigged with a self-destruct button and some crazed scientist trying to pass off fantasy as legitimate science, while Shane and Lori argue about their former sex life, was the dumbest way to end the season.
That was not a natural evolution of the story, that was the writers suddenly saying “I know, let’s have there be a crazy guy in the CDC building!” and completely ignoring the logic of their own story. “Oh and while we’re at it, let’s take the opportunity to rehash the Shane-Lori-Rick love triangle that absolutely no one cares about.” Someone else added.
Now compare that to the video game. Your people, starving for food, try to find some at a nearby dairy farm. Now that’s a natural evolution of the situation, they’ve found shelter, they have weapons, and now food is their primary concern. That right there is a basic human need and fits in perfectly with the situation the characters are in, there’s no arguing over who gets to sleep with who or huge group discussions about the morality of gunning down a bunch of zombies in a barn. What’s even better is that this scene is tense because the scene feels so genuine rather than contrived, everyone is starving and tensions are high because of it. This also proves that you don’t need to come up with a contrived reason for trouble in order to do weird or cool things with your story because once you get to the farmhouse you realize the people living there are god damn cannibals!
The game does have one contrived danger near the end that didn’t sit well with me, and I’ll cover that in my main review, but for the most part the Walking Dead video game succeeded in creating genuine, organic dangers for their characters while the TV show relied on set-piece disasters that felt artificial and forced.
Difference 2: The Characters
In the same vein as the situations, the characters and the interpersonal conflicts they spawn, feel real. When the characters argue, it’s always a matter of survival. Should you throw a child out of the shelter because he’s bitten and might endanger the group? Do you finish off a man having a heart attack in order to make sure he doesn’t turn? Should you steal supplies for your starving group so they can survive a couple more weeks? This is what the characters in the game argue about, stuff that affects the characters chances of survival, stuff relevant to their immediate situation. This is how people in a life or death situation would react. Obviously I don’t think the differences would be quite thus divisive but it doesn’t break my suspension of disbelief because it creates compelling drama.
What doesn’t make compelling drama is an argument about the ethical ramifications of killing Zombies. Or finding out who’s wife is sleeping with the sherriff and his deputy. Or whether or not you should respect the Geneva Convention when it comes to capturing a bandit that tried to kill you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these questions as long as they’re kept as a subtext, questions that the audience should be asking itself, not for characters to stand around jawing about while zombies are trying to eat you.
The characters in the video game all have believable stories, motivations and personalities. Compare the main characters: Rick Grimes is a goody-two-shoes sheriff who hasn’t so much as told a lie in his entire life because of his strict adherence to his Dudley Do Right morality. Lee Everett is a good man that tries to do his best in a horrific situation. He’s also a man convicted of murder, a crime of passion that resulted in a horrible tragedy, his family disowned him, and he doesn’t have anything left in the world left to cling to.
Which brings me to my final comparison.
Difference 3: THE KID
The biggest and most important difference between the show and the game is the kid character that the audience is supposed to root for.
Carl has been a royal pain in the ass since the moment he appeared on screen. And let me just say this: I don’t blame the actor. I’ve seen people saying that if they’d gotten a better child actor his character would be more bearable, but it’s not so. He’s doing fine with the garbage he’s been given. The trouble is the script keeps putting him in artificial danger and making him look like a complete moron with absolutely no survival instincts. He manages to get shot in the woods by a hunter, despite being no where near the deer they were aiming for. He almost gets eaten by a zombie because he wanted to have fun poking it with a stick, which is sort of forgivable since at least it got Dale eaten and finally shut the old man up. Then when Shane goes completely off the rails, the kid gets all huffy and depressed because his besty Shane won’t let him participate in the incredibly dangerous situations he’s creating.
So no, it’s not the actor’s fault that the character is awful, it’s the writer’s fault. The character of Carl is a lemming and the writers of the Walking Dead are Disney shoving him off a cliff to make him look stupid and cute. This also has the unfortunate side-effect of making all the other characters look just as awful and stupid for letting a young boy wander around unsupervised in the middle of an apocalypse. Seriously my mom wouldn’t even let me out of sight of the house when I was Carl’s age and if there were any kind of emergency going on, let alone a zombie emergency, she would have chained me to a radiator. We don’t even have a radiator. She would have bought a radiator just so she could chain me to it.
Then of course we have dear Clementine, one of the finest examples of a believable and relatable child character in any medium, ever. She’s sympathetic without being whiny and she’s useful. She’s not just a drain on the entire group, or an anchor weighing down the narrative, she’s a useful member of the group. She acts like a child without being childish. For instance, we often see her coloring with crayons and chalk in the game and that’s perfectly understandable in a girl her age (and incredibly touching when you see what she’s drawn.) Yet when she loses her pink piece of chalk she doesn’t go running out into the wilderness to find it or complain to the group and demand someone goes and finds it. No, she realizes she’s in a very dangerous situation and just lets the matter drop. She only reveals she’s lost it after being directly questioned about it. If Carl had lost a piece of chalk he would have come back with a gunshot wound and a zombie bite, but only after three episodes spent searching for him.
We’re also given a chance to get to know Clementine as a character. If someone asked you to describe Carl to them, what would you say? He’s a kid who gets lost a lot and is a pain in the ass, neither of which are really character traits. Now how would you describe Clementine? She’s a shy and constantly terrified little girl but she keeps that terror behind a mask of calmness that she struggles to maintain. She tried to create a normal routine for herself and live her life as best she can, but when shit hits the fan she knows to either make herself useful or stay out of the way. She’s compassionate, shy, afraid, often confused, but always strong. I felt more attached to the character of Clementine than any other video game character I’ve seen, and that includes Garrus from Mass Effect. Saying goodbye to her was the hardest part of the game.
I bash on the Walking Dead TV show a lot, but the secret truth is I kind of enjoy watching it and if I’m overly harsh with it it’s because I can see the brilliant show it could be if someone just put a little effort into it. That’s why the game is so great, it’s exactly what the show should have been, an intense human drama punctuated by zombie horror. This Thursday will be the review of the game on its own merits, I pretended that there was no Walking Dead comic book or show just so I could avoid comparing it to something from another medium. Still, I felt it was important to compare these two in particular because it’s a great side-by-side illustration of great storytelling compared to just mediocre storytelling. I’m just about to start watching the 3rd season of the Walking Dead so hopefully at least some of the writers have played the video game and corrected their mistakes.
Until Thursday then, keep reading and keep writing everybody!