Show don’t tell is an important rule in writing, especially in a visual medium like video games. However, it’s also a rule taken too literally by some writers, who think everything has to be action in order to show rather than tell. Taken literally, dialogue would seem to be telling instead of showing, but in reality good dialogue can show a story far better than any action ever could.
There’s a perfect example of this when comparing Mass Effect and Mass Effect: Andromeda, in how they introduce their Krogan companion.
This is how Drack is introduced to the player in Mass Effect: Andromeda. It’s a serviceable entrance, obviously throwing a wraith through a window showcases Drack’s strength and brutality.
“Who are you?” – Drack
Drack’s interrogative singles him out as a hostile, but commenting on his “cool” entrance makes him lower his guard. Then he immediately grabs Ryder by the collar and asks again, who Ryder is. So either he sees through the bullshit flattery of Ryder and is annoyed by it, or thinks it’s a method of subterfuge, because he seems really pissed that Ryder doesn’t announce himself.
You’ll excuse me if I didn’t just trust a stranger from the Nexus, they haven’t exactly treated us Krogan well. – Drack
Now this is expository dialogue, meaning that instead of the dialogue being there to characterize the person speaking it, it’s there to convey important plot information. As expository dialogue it works, it gets across the information Bioware wanted to convey, and yet it’s also so dry that it doesn’t do much else.
In fact, I’m not really going to tackle the rest of the dialogue, because it all serves to establish three things about Drack as a character:
He’s an effective warrior, as evidenced by throwing a wraith through what I imagine is not ordinary glass.
He enjoys battle, relishes in it, perhaps even driven by it.
Is suspicious of non-Krogan.
That’s a respectable amount of information to start with. As I said, this is a serviceable introduction. Not good, not bad. It does its job, but there’s no imagination to it. Showing a Krogan loves battle and violence by throwing something through a window is, well, a bit obvious. Even worse though, is that all of the character traits this dialogue reveals are just “no duh” moments, they’re all stereotypically Krogan. You could have safely assumed all this just by looking at him.
The absolute worst part of this whole exchange is that Drack’s dialogue isn’t true to his character. When you meet him, Drack is dismissive of the Pathfinder’s ability and hostile to humans in general. Yet the moment you bring him on board your ship, Drack is one of the friendliest Krogan you’ll ever meet and affectionately refers to the Pathfinder as “kid.”
Now Wrex’s introduction [0:20-0:40, a mere 20 seconds] conveys so much information about his character that it’s actually a brilliant piece of writing.
“Witnesses saw you making threats in Fist’s bar. Stay away from him.” – C-Sec Officer
“I don’t take orders from you.” – Wrex
Right off the bat we see Wrex needs to establish dominance in any conversation and immediately lashes out against authority figures hoping to control him. We later find out this is in keeping with Krogan cultural norms, where asserting dominance is often the difference between life and death. To submit to the demands of this squishy human would be an intolerable weakness.
“This is your only warning, Wrex.” – C-Sec Officer
“You should warn Fist: I will kill him.” – Wrex
This one line of dialogue conveys not only information about Wrex as a character, but also important world-building information. First of all, Wrex is comfortable with killing and is confident in his ability to do so. Secondly, he wants people to know that Fist is marked for death, which makes perfect sense and leads into the world-building.
The Shadow Broker hired Wrex to kill Fist for betraying him, but Fist won’t make an effective example if he just vanishes one day. The Shadow Broker sent Wrex because he wanted to send a message to everyone that you don’t betray the Shadow Broker. This establishes the Shadow Broker in the player’s mind as a powerful and dangerous entity. I love this line in particular because it shows you don’t need to resort to sloppy expository writing like Drack’s dialogue in order to convey important information to the player.
“You want me to arrest you, Wrex?” – C-Sec Officer
“Heheh, I want you to try.” – Wrex
That one line reveals so much about Wrex’s character it’s almost ridiculous, because the fact of the matter is, Wrex is bluffing.
Wrex knows he could easily kill the unarmed C-Sec officers surrounding him, but there’s no way he could fight his way out of C-Sec Headquarters and murder Fist, let alone escape the Citadel. Yet Wrex is also a consummate professional and he has a target to eliminate, so he can’t have C-Sec constantly harassing him. So he bluffs, go ahead and arrest me, Wrex is telling them, but I guarantee it won’t be worth the trouble. Wrex’s words here speak legions about his character.
Even though Wrex is capable of amazing feats of strength and brutality, he doesn’t use brute strength as a first resort. He thinks strategically, he plans his moves carefully, and sizes up his opponents. He’s a brutal warrior who knows when not to reach for his weapon.
This twenty seconds of dialogue establishes multiple facets of Wrex’s character:
He’s a warrior confident in his abilities and has no problem killing.
Though he’s comfortable killing, he takes no pleasure in it unless he has a personal motive. Otherwise, it’s just business.
He’s cunning, and will plan his strategies multiple moves in advance. Shooting his way through a problem is both a last step and last resort.
He’s able to quickly size up his opponents, both in courage and in strength, and will seek to bluff and intimidate before resorting to violence.
Wrex needs to establish his strength and dominance in a conversation.
Proud, cunning, dominant, violent yet not for it’s own sake, and even diplomatic in his own way. That’s a pretty respectable number of character traits for a twenty second conversation.
Even better, what we learn here in this scene does reflect the character we come to know. Through the course of the game we find out that Wrex is an old warrior, who has seen centuries of combat so it makes sense that he not only knows how to kill, but is completely comfortable with it. Yet we also learn that Wrex wants to reunite the Krogan and restore their once proud heritage of bravery, sacrifice, and strength. He hates the modern Krogan ideals of mindless bloodlust, so it makes sense that he would reject the glorification of pointless violence.
Wrex’s introduction is how a great example of how a light touch and subtlety can more effectively introduce a character than some flashy, yet empty action scene. Drack’s introduction is a microcosm of Andromeda‘s overall problem, it’s too obvious, unimaginative, and unpolished to successfully carry the story they were trying to tell.
In the end, there’s only two types of writing. There’s Wrex writing and then there’s Drack writing.
So after a long and unexpected delay, I’m back with another article on Bioshock Infinite, this time focusing on the philosophical and political messages in the city of Columbia, and contrasting those with Rapture’s themes and philosophies.
Rapture and Columbia
When I first saw the city of Rapture I knew the city was bad news, and it wasn’t just because I’d read the back of the box. While impressive to look at, it was also dark and forbidding, located in the black depths of the infamously unfriendly ocean. The twisting labyrinth of tunnels, the wrought-iron pressure domes, and even the glowing billboard advertisements all created a corrupt, and rotting atmosphere, foreshadowing the corruption we’d find inside Rapture’s walls (bulkheads?). When I stepped off the bathysphere I was immediately on edge, ready for anything, and if I remember correctly, the first thing you see when you step off is a splicer scuttling away into the darkness. Like a good magician though, Irrational never repeats a trick, and Columbia operates as the polar opposite of Rapture. Aside from the heinous crime scene we see inside the Lighthouse, my first visit to Columbia was actually a thoroughly enjoyable experience. I was awe struck by the beauty and wonder of this floating paradise, and for a split second I fooled myself into believing that the goal of the game would be to save this heavenly city from some outside threat. Surely saving this golden metropolis was the act that could cleanse the sins of a former Pinkerton like Booker DeWitt. Five minutes later I was ready to blow that city out of the sky.
Both Rapture and Columbia represent more than just a setting, they’re far more than the stage that the story is played out on. Instead they become part of the story itself, and are the physical representation of the philosophies and themes that the game is choosing to explore. In essence these cities are their own characters within the story. Not in the conventional sense, they don’t grow or evolve throughout the story like a normal character, but they both have their own personalities and dispositions. To better understand how this works, let’s look at Rapture:
In many ways I think Rapture was the superior setting, in that it was more visually interesting to play through. It’s dark, claustrophobic buildings created an oppressive atmosphere that haunted every action and consequence you made throughout the game. It was a labyrinth of cruelty, deception and fear that the player was forced to navigate while fighting off the splicers and big daddies that made their home within its twisted depths.
It also gave us a none too subtle look at Objectivism, the philosophy first put forth by Ayn Rand. Objectivism is a lot like Communism and Anarchism in that it’s one of those ideas that looks good on paper but turns into an utter nightmare the minute you ask fallible human beings to follow that philosophy. In a perfect world where everyone played by the rules, and there was no such thing as greed and cruelty, then objectivism wouldn’t be an inherently bad idea, but we don’t live in a perfect world.
Rapture shows us a pretty convincing picture of what would happen to a society built on the groundwork of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. For those of you who didn’t google objectivism or if it’s been a while since you played Bioshock, let’s take a look at objectivism and how the philosophy was embodied by the city of Rapture. Ayn Rand’s philosophy revolves around the idea that life should be lived in the pursuit of one’s own rational self-interest (basically happiness, but in a twisted and complicated sense of the word), and that the knowledge and values of mankind are objective rather than subjective, that the ethics that we hold onto are an objective reality. Initially I had all these quotes I was going to throw up here, but if you’re like me, you’d just have to look those quotes up in the original text because they make little sense outside of the massive essays she wrote. Instead I’m just going to boil this down to its simplest components. In essence, she wanted reason and logic to rule the world. She didn’t like the idea of having to support other people, or other people supporting her, and she felt that if everyone acted in their own logical self-interest we’d be a much happier race.
And undoubtedly we would, if that were humanly possible to achieve but Ayn Rand, as much as she claimed to be an objectivist, was really just an idealist. While she knew what she wanted the world to look like, she didn’t quite know how to get there. Her ethical outlines are vague and difficult to pin down at best, basically she felt that if everyone stuck to the “logical self-interest” thing everything would work out. Of course she neglects to mention what happens if two people’s logical self-interest conflict, because in her mind that’s just not possible. She also didn’t state how she expected community services like police, firefighters and doctors to function in her philosophy since she says that you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself for others which all those professions do on a regular basis.
She wanted to think away the problems of the world, but it’s never that simple. If it were, I’m pretty sure Stephen Hawking would have already created world peace and colonized Mars by now.
So how were these philosophies seen in the game itself? Let’s take the most obvious ones first:
The Plasmids: A beautifully simplistic metaphor that doubles as a gameplay mechanic. In Bioshock canon, plasmids were a scientific invention and Ayn Rand’s entire philosophy hinges on the idea of following scientific progress and evidence regardless of the consequences. If life gives you a DNA-altering superdrug, you don’t put regulations on it or anything silly like that, you put it on the free market and let everyone rationally choose how to use it.
Splicers: This is what happens when you put a DNA-altering superdrug on the market without any kind of supervision.
The Little Sisters: There’s a reason that things like minimum wage and child labor laws were invented. It’s because they were fucking needed. Prior to 1916 in the United States, there was no minimum age law and that coupled with a still forming public education system meant you had tons of kids working in mines, factories and other hellholes where their tiny bodies just couldn’t take the strain. You had kids getting Black Lung from the coal mines at the tender age of twelve, and kids coming home without their arms after a hard days work at the factory (and no worker’s comp for the loss of the arms either). The philosophy of Ayn Rand exemplifies Laizzez-Faire capitalism as the epitome of human civilization, as the one system that works and its the system that Rapture adopts. Unfortunately she wasn’t around to see this in action (she was suffering a different kind of horror in Russia at the time), but the early 20th century showed us child labor and shit pay are what you get when you tell corporations to go wild. The Little Sisters embodied this flaw in Objectivism, children used as both test subjects AND a sellable product.
The Big Daddy: The Big Daddy was the antithesis of the Objectivist philosophy, a lumbering simpleton that reacted on pure animal instinct, in this case the pheromones produced by Little Sisters. No logic, no self-determination. Worse yet, their entire existence was dedicated to the welfare of another, the Little Sisters.
There was also the moral choice system that took so much flak because, let’s face it, it was pretty basic. Where it failed to provide a compelling gameplay mechanic though, it succeeded in giving the player the ability to follow or discard Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Either you help yourself by sacrificing the Little Sisters and harvesting them for ADAM, or you make a sacrifice and let them escape with all their delicious ADAM and your future powers. Of course that was later undermined because the Little Sisters gave you stuff too, sometimes better stuff, but the idea was there.
You’ve all heard Ayn Rand philosophy if you’ve played Bioshock. That you heard it through awesome dialogue of Andrew Ryan (an anagram for Ayn Rand) is immaterial. They’re reworded or rearranged, probably to avoid any messy litigation that might result from direct quotes, but it was Ayn Rand’s ideas and philosophy you were hearing. Of course Armin Shimmerman’s amazing performance as Andrew Ryan helped disguise their origin too, because Ayn Rand was no orator. Still the most famous line in the game is undoubtedly “A Man Chooses; A Slave Obeys” is really just Ayn Rand’s philosophy in a nutshell, provided Man means selfish bastard looking out for himself and slave stands for altruistic individuals. If Ayn Rand had been that succinct in her writing, researching her philosophy would have been so much easier.
Of course here I am criticizing someone for being verbose when I’m nearly 2000 words in and we still haven’t gotten to Columbia!
Even though Rapture was the superior setting, and was more visually interesting to play through, I felt that Columbia was the superior character and was better at conveying the horrific effects of its society. Mainly for two reasons: we got to see the good as well as the bad of Columbia whereas in Rapture we only ever saw the city after its fall, and because there were actually people living in Columbia. While you ran across a few survivors in Rapture, they were usually just as deranged as the splicers and never gave you good look at what Rapture would have looked like in its prime. In Columbia we get to see people enjoying themselves, and provides a much needed foil for the traumatic events that follow. Horror loses its effect when all you’re exposed to is horror, by letting us see Columbia in a state of normalcy the impact of the racism and cruelty we latter experienced had much more impact than they would have otherwise.
My mouth actually hung open in shock when they rolled out the interracial couple, and not just because of the disgusting (and unfortunately, historically accurate) imagery employed, but because of the shock of seeing such a provocative and downright disturbing scene in a video game. Of course the idea that racism is horrible isn’t really a new idea, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it dealt with in a video game, at least to this extreme. There have been several criticisms of Bioshock Infinite relating to its depiction of racism, mainly that they don’t go far enough with it, but I think Bioshock showed the exact amount of violence necessary to get its point across. That one scene made me despise the people of Columbia for the rest of the game, and this is one of those occasions where less is definitely more. Constantly bombarding the player with violence against minorities would eventually become exhausting to watch. Finally, the racism of Columbia was a backdrop to the rest of the story, not the story itself. This isn’t a story about racism, and I’d argue that if Infinite had shown more violence, it would have overshadowed the sickening and downright traumatic torture of Elizabeth later in the game.
That said, I found the deifying of the founding fathers of America to be far more disturbing than the racism. That’s probably because of the overt racial hatred of Columbia is something that’s been largely eradicated in most of the world, we don’t have people being lynched for having interracial relations anymore and while racial discrimination is still a huge problem in parts of the world, I’d like to think the type of racial slavery and abuse depicted in Infinite will never be something I have to contend with. The deifying of America’s founding fathers though, that’s something that many people would do right now if they could. At its base, Columbia personifies American Exceptionalism, which is essentially the idea that America is unique in its greatness and free from the historical flaws of its European parents. Essentially its a slight variation on plain old nationalism, and isn’t inherently evil, but like so many things, when its taken to its furthest extreme it becomes a vehicle for incredible destruction and suffering.
Gay marriage. Religion in schools. Gun Control. Bank Regulations. Government Spending. You know what all of these have in common? A politician saying “this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the constitution!” and there isn’t one particular party that says this either, it’s all of them, they just use the line on different issues. The politicians, radio and TV pundits that spout this line would all love to see the founding fathers deified like in Columbia. Now don’t get me wrong, the original founders had some great ideas and wrote a damn good constitution. Are they deserving of respect? Absolutely. Should we make all of our decisions based on what they said in the constitution? Absolutely not. They wrote the damn thing nearly 250 years ago, they were born in an era when slavery was legal, women were still largely considered property and protestants and Catholics were still gutting each other in Europe. As much as I ragged on Ayn Rand’s philosophy up there, I did like a couple things she had to say and one of them was this: don’t let other people do your thinking for you. By constantly referring to the constitution every time we run into an issue, we’re basically asking 250-year old men for advice. It’s like asking your 100 year old grandpa for advice on how to fix your Ipod, there’s just no way he has any useful information.
Then after incorporating militant nationalism and overt racism into the framework of Columbia, Irrational decided to make the perfect trifecta by also making it a theocracy. Ruled over by one man’s very narrow and literal view of biblical script. You’ve probably heard of Iran, and you’ve probably seen the crazy ass president they have talk about nuclear power on the news, but the thing most people forget is that the crazy president that’s always jabbering on TV is actually just a mouthpiece. The real power lies in the hands of a theocracy, led by this man, Ali Khamenei:
Apparently if you want to become a Theocractic dictator, you need a white beard like Santa Claus. And yes that entire last paragraph exists solely to point out the similarities between the two.
And on top of all those, Columbia shares with Rapture it’s economic policy of laizzez-faire capitalism, making Columbia an absolutely miserable place to live unless your a white, blue-eyed protestant with absolutely no moral character. Then it’s a paradise.
So how were these themes seen in the game?
The Patriot: The patriot represents the ultimate display of deification possible. It’s a walking monument to one of the founding fathers and it epitomizes American Exceptionalism through its technology and arsenal. Really this one is self-explanatory.
Order of the Raven: A hybrid of the KKK and secret police, the Order of the Raven are dedicated to the racial purity of Columbia. Honestly I think these were the most interesting enemies in the game, but unfortunately aside from a brief section in their headquarters, they’re never really elaborated on. A pity.
Handy-Man: The tapes you can recover through the game reveal the Handy-men to be rather tragic characters. Usually they’re people that were critically ill from the toxins produced by Fink’s factories, or just straight out maimed by the machinery of the same. Again, a bit more focus on these enemies could have gone along way to furthering their examination of unrestrained industrialization.
You know I’m just going to stop there. In the end Columbia simply failed to explore the themes it set out to explore, at least to the extent that Rapture explored Ayn Rand’s objectivism. It touches briefly on all the above philosophies I mentioned but it never really stops for an in-depth look. And you know what?
I’m okay with that. It may have failed to deliver on the exploration of its philosophical themes, but like I said before, while I enjoyed Bioshock I never felt the emotional investment with that game that I did with Bioshock Infinite. If the exploration of its philosophies was the sacrifice they needed to make in order to create such a grand character-driven story, I’m glad they did it. Later this week I’ll be exploring Bioshock’s drowning and water metaphor, and taking a final look at the story and the flaws that I didn’t notice the first time around.
That’s the question on everyone’s mind. Or at least it was the question on my mind when I finally finished Bioshock Infinite, and if your mind doesn’t work like mine then frankly I don’t want to know you.
Since understanding what the hell is going on is integral to being able to understand the narrative and the wonderful nuances behind it, I’ve decided to make that the first article in this series. I’m going into this assuming you played through the game, it helps if you’ve played through it twice but isn’t obligatory. Since Bioshock: Infinite gives no definitive answers to anything, almost everything is open to interpretation, so the following includes a lot of speculation on my part but I’ve pieced together the story as accurately as I can.
Lutece and the Beginning
The first time I played through Bioshock Infinite the Lutece twins didn’t appear that important to the story, and in fact I thought they were a bit of a deus ex machina when they revealed the trick to controlling Songbird. Upon a second playthrough though, and after much reflection on the story, the Lutece twins are actually critical to the story. Much of the action that unfolds during the game is a direct result of their actions and there’s a reason they’re the first characters we meet in the game: they are the ones who began this story.
The beginning of Bioshock Infinite isn’t really the beginning of the story and part of the reason the game’s narrative is so hard to follow at first is because we’re only seeing a small piece of the story. The true beginning revolves entirely around Lutece and her discovery of quantum particles, the theoretical technology that allows Columbia to float and allows the interdimensional travel that dominates the game’s setting. From what I’ve been able to piece together, Lutece’s discovery and subsequent harnessing of the quantum particles is the inciting incident that sets off the entire story. After all, without a floating Columbia and the ability to see into future realities, Comstock would have been just another cult leader that would have faded into obscurity.
The actual sequence of events is more difficult to piece together, was this before or after the Wounded Knee massacre, did Comstock find her first or did she find him. There are countless questions, but regardless of the answers, it’s clear that eventually Lutece needed further funding in order to continue her work. Either Comstock or the US government grants her that funding, leading her to a practical application for her quantum particles and the creation of Columbia. Whether it’s Comstock that directs Lutece to begin research into opening interdimensional windows, or it was Lutece’s idea and Comstock just later found a way to corrupt it, I don’t know. Regardless, it’s while experimenting with this technology that Lutece meets her brother.
Except it’s not her brother in the traditional sense, but rather herself from a different reality where the sperm that impregnated her mother’s egg carried a Y chromosome instead another X.
Eventually Lutece succeeds in bringing her “brother” from the other universe and the two begin their strange love-affair with quantum physics, completely uncaring that they’re working for a monster so long as their scientific curiosity is sated. As we all know, this comes to bite them in the ass later down the road.
Comstock uses Lutece’s experiments to see “visions” of the future and cement his god-like position as The Prophet of Columbia. Much like Marie Curie when she discovered radium, though, neither Comstock nor the Luteces understand the dangers of the radiation being produced by their experiments. Comstock becomes sterilized and stricken with malignant cancer, spurning him on to find an heir to carry on his legacy.
Comstock turns his floating paradise into a floating war machine and destroys his political enemies while the Luteces are forced to frantically find a way to obtain Comstock an heir. That’s when they stumble onto our friend and protagonist Booker Dewitt, a Comstock who did not take the baptism and who never pursued research in theoretical physics, and who fathered a daughter. Even better, Booker is a broken man, an alcoholic gambler who is so bent on self-destruction that it seems there’s no end to the depth he’s willing to fall into. They offer a deal: Give us the girl and wash away the debt.
He does, and Comstock raises her as his own. The Lutece twins continue to do research on the girl, who has been given amazing powers since her transferal from one universe to another. As Lutece comments in one of her tapes, perhaps this is the universe’s way of correcting itself. I’ll touch on that later down the road, so keep it in mind. Comstock succeeds in raising Anna as his daughter, but in doing so he becomes more power hungry and more sadistic in his treatment of his enemies. Everyone who knows the truth about Anna is eventually killed in order to secure Comstock’s legacy, and ultimately the Luteces end up buried side by side after being executed by Comstock.
Anna becomes the Seed who Sits Upon the Throne, and Drowns in Fire the Cities of Men. New York burns and the world is left in a state of chaos.
Death is Only the Beginning
The Luteces, though dead, are alive. As they repeatedly tell us during the course of the game: Lived, Live, Will Live. Dead, Died, Will Die. Yes, they are dead, but they are also still alive in the past. The Luteces experiments have made them much more perceptive to the changes in time and history than the other characters, and knowing where their fate lies, endeavor to change it. Lutece speculates in one tape that continually moving through universes dilutes and eventually erases a persons individuality. Which is why, by the time we run across them, they act and speak almost identically.
Anyway, they need to stop Comstock from completely wrecking the timeline and the universe with their technology, but much like Booker they can’t change the choices they’ve already made. It has happened and it will happen. The only thing left to do is fling someone else into the equation, a variable that will allow them to change the events of their lives. Booker DeWitt is their variable. Their dialogue suggests that they’ve used Booker countless times already (you can collect audiologs from a universe where he failed), throwing him into different universes trying to find one where he succeeds and undoes the damage they unwittingly inflicted. In a way the Luteces are much like Anna at the end of the game, only far less powerful. Whereas Anna can move through every universe with ease, and see every strand of history and time as a single tapestry, the Luteces are far more limited. They can only see one string at a time, and they’ve been patiently pulling each one with Booker DeWitt, hoping to find the one that will unravel the whole mess. Obviously I can’t answer how exactly this works, and an explanation would likely just ruin the whole story, so in the end just accept that the Luteces have somehow learned to shift through dimensions and enjoy the story.
We finally arrive at the beginning of the game: Booker DeWitt being rowed to yet another lighthouse containing yet another universe. With this context you understand why the two Luteces are arguing during the opening moments, they’ve tried this experiment countless times before and it’s never worked, but like the male Lutece says “Just because an experiment has failed, doesn’t necessarily mean it will fail.”
They drop Booker off at his latest destination and Bioshock Infinite officially begins.
You still with me?
Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth and The Universe
I’ll be covering the events of the actual game in another article, but for the purposes of this article I’m assuming everyone has already played through the game, so I’ll be skipping to the ending that boggled everyone’s mind.
Comstock is dead, Songbird is a scrapheap at the bottom of the ocean, and the Siphon that was limiting Elizabeth’s power is gone. With her powers fully unlocked Elizabeth brings us to the Lighthouse Forest (hey shut up, you come up with a better name for it) representing the infinite entrances to infinite realities. So first of all, how the hell does Elizabeth know how to get here?
Well now we need to go back to one of Lutece’s audiologs, the one where she speculates that the origin of Elizabeth’s powers are the result of the universe attempting to correct itself. Comstock has royally pissed off time and space by fucking with things that were not meant to be fucked with. Perhaps the Luteces are also an attempt by the universe to repair the damage wrought by Comstock’s insanity, allowing them to pull DeWitt from his native universe and using him as a wildcard to try and repair everything. Regardless, something draws Elizabeth to a very specific point in time and space: the river where Booker DeWitt and Comstock both arrived to try and wash away their sins. Comstock went through with it while DeWitt refused. This is a focal point in history where Elizabeth has the chance to eliminate Comstock forever. As Comstock speculates in one of his audiologs:
“Who is the man under the water? Perhaps he is both Sinner and Saint.”
From this point history diverges: thousands of universes are created as Comstocks go on to create the nightmarish dystopias in countless Columbias and thousands of Dewitts go on to rescue thousands of Annas/Elizabeths. Our DeWitt succeeded but the other Elizabeths that appear here seem to indicate that countless others failed. Too many Annas to save, too many Comstocks to stop, and too much pain to erase. They can’t fix all of the infinite universes one at a time.
But here, in this river at this moment in time, they can stop this entire chain of events before they unfold.
And so DeWitt makes the ultimate sacrifice. He allows himself to drown.
Comstock is never reborn, he never crosses the barrier between worlds and Elizabeth is spared a life of pain and isolation.
So I’ve given you a comparison of the key differences between The Walking Dead Telltale Adventure game and The Walking Dead AMC TV Series. Now it’s time to take the game and examine it under the fine microscope of objectivity. Okay not really, no one can really objectively examine something as subjective as an entertainment and artistic medium, but let’s just look at the game on its own merits. Let’s pretend there is no comic series or TV show and see how the Walking Dead works as its own story. Like the zombies in the game, it’s time to tear our way into the juicy, wriggling guts of The Walking Dead’s body and feast upon its delicious storytelling elements.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead:
A Storyteller’s Review
Like most good stories, the characters are what really hold this game together and makes it such a compelling drama. Lee, Clementine, Kenny and his family, Carley, Lily; they all have their own personalities and history. They’re all incredibly well rounded, and just when you think you can put them into a specific character trope, they do something to surprise you. The characters feel real because they act real, their actions speak louder than their words.
Take Lee for instance, when we meet him he’s on his way to jail for an unknown crime and we barely get a chance to figure out who this person is before they go crashing into a zombie. Now here’s where the character’s reactions become key to my sympathizing with him; when Lee has to take the keys to his handcuffs off the now half-eaten sheriff, he is completely freaked out. In most zombie games and movies, it takes the main character a grand total of one minute to freak out before turning into a zombie-killing machine. Even in Exit Humanity, which I really enjoyed, the protagonist goes from mourning widower to an unstoppable harbinger of zombie-doom in a rather short amount of time. Lee getting panicky and short of breath while trying to take the keys off a dead man is exactly how I would react in that situation, okay maybe in my case there would be more crying and wet pants, but the fact that I can relate with Lee’s reaction makes me care about his character a lot more than someone who kills zombies for relaxation. Of course the real star of the game is Clementine, and her actions are ultimately what make us love her.
Her dialogue suggests that she’s much like any other girl her age; a bit shy around strangers, loves her parents, and doesn’t like it when people are fighting with each other. Yet it’s through her actions that she reveals her true character; an incredibly brave, resourceful and downright cunning girl that has more survival instincts than most of the group. When you first meet Clementine you don’t end up saving her from her zombified babysitter, she saves you.
Yeah, without that hammer Lee would be zombie food. Now look at Clementine, she’s clearly still afraid but she also sees someone else in danger and does her best to try and save him. Someone she doesn’t even know, she risks her life for some guy that just wandered into her house. We can add selfless to her list of character traits. Her actions throughout the game continue to demonstrate her abilities and her character. Whether through her sneaking through an air vent to unlock a door, saving a woman’s life by shooting a zombie right through the head, or simply finding an effective hiding place when shit hits the fan, every action reveals and reinforces facets of her personality.
Which isn’t to say that her dialogue doesn’t have a profound effect on our relationship with her. She speaks like a child, there’s no Cosby-kid dialogue here, and yet she never annoys us with her dialogue. I have got to take my hat off to the writers, because keeping her dialogue authentic while managing to keep her bearable (let’s face it, little kids are usually annoying) was an incredible balancing act they managed to pull off flawlessly. One of my favorite parts is when Lee joins Clementine in a barn where a pregnant cow is about to give birth.
If you didn’t laugh, or at least crack a smile at that, then I’m sorry but something has sucked all the joy out of your body and you have my sympathy. It’s a sweet, hilarious reminder that even amidst the carnage and destruction of a zombie apocalypse, kids will be kids. Clementine will still do stupid stuff because hell, that’s what kids are supposed to do! I fell in love with Clementine’s character, and that’s why I shared such a bond with Lee’s character, because we were both prepared to do anything to protect her.
When Lily went on a paranoid witchhunt to find a traitor in the group, shooting Carley through the head without any evidence or even a proper questioning performed, I ditched that woman on the road. She was a danger to the group, and more importantly, a danger to Clementine. Later when the group is trapped at the top of a bell tower by a horde of zombies and one of the group is dangling from the staircase, I chose to let him go, because the delay needed to rescue him was too great a risk. And when Lee gets bitten by a zombie, I chose for him to chop his own arm off to try and stem the infection, because damn it, Clementine needs us! That’s what made this game such an incredible experience, the attachment with Clementine was a powerful one.
Of course The Walking Dead, as incredible as it is, still has its problems. Episode 4 and 5 I felt suffered from a few problems that did detract from the overall greatness of the game. For episodes 1-3 I felt like all the situations were authentic, natural extensions of the story and the experiences of the group. Finding shelter at the motel, trying to find food at the farm, moving the camp and hopping on a train were all scenarios that were believable in the context of the story. Unfortunately at the end of episode 3 it’s revealed that someone has been secretly talking to Clementine through her walkie-talkie, and see this just brings up uncomfortable questions. How did he get the frequency? Where did he get his walkie? Why the hell is he following the group around? Better yet, how? Our group has been chased by several large herds at this point, how is this guy not zombie food already?
I’ll go into the suspension of disbelief in a different post, but here’s the gist of it; this works like a magic trick, to get us to suspend our disbelief, all you have to do is give us something else to look at and not call our attention to logical inconsistencies. The great characters and story are what made it so easy to suspend my disbelief, but having this sudden walkie-talkie villain appear calls my attention to the absolutely absurdity of his existence. It’s like watching a great action scene in a movie, only to have a scientist cut into the shot midway through and explain why every happening on screen could never occur in real life. His original appearance was bad enough, but when we see his parked car outside a hotel in zombie-infested Savannah we’re forced to question everything. How did he keep up with a moving train that’s being trailed by a horde of zombies? Why didn’t the zombies swarm the car when it arrived? How did he get from the car into the building without being eaten?
I’m willing to let a lot of ridiculous stuff slide for the sake of a good story, but the Walkie villain was just dangled in front of me and begged me to try and explain his existence. Still, in the grand scheme of things, this sudden appearance doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the game. It’s more of a mild hiccup, and the fourth and fifth episodes are filled with great moments and touching scenes.
In the end only one thing matters: Clementine, and her story concludes in a way that will reach into your tear ducts and rip the tears from your eyes. After escaping our inexplicable villain, Lee, now succumbing to the zombie bite’s infection is dragged into a jewelry store by Clementine. The main door is now jammed and the only way out is through a locked door, but Lee is out of time. He knows he could turn into one of the Walking Dead at any moment, he can’t help Clementine anymore. And that’s when you realize that the journey was never about Lee, it was never about saving Clementine.
It was about teaching Clementine to save herself, to give her the knowledge and wisdom to survive in a hostile new world.
With some help from Lee, who kicks her a weapon when the zombie is about ready to chew her legs open, Clementine completes her journey.
Then it’s time for Clementine to do something for us; she has to let us go. Lee is on his way out and in a few minutes he’ll be a clawing, undead monstrosity just like the ones outside. Lee is chained to a radiator by his remaining hand so he can’t do it himself.
I was given a choice, I could have let Clementine walk away and leave Lee to turn into a zombie. I could have spared her the pain of shooting the man who has become her surrogate father. I couldn’t. Lee deserved better, and in the end, so did Clementine. They both needed to say goodbye, and keep Clementine’s last image of Lee from being him as a walker.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead is an incredible experience and a prime example of how video games can not only craft incredible stories, but get the audience involved in those stories to an extent that no other medium can. I high recommend everyone pick this game up, because it’s a journey that you’ll never regret taking.