|Lee and Clementine|
I don’t play a lot of video games, so I claim no expertise, but recently started playing ‘The Walking Dead’ from Telltale Games and thought I’d write about it. I don’t know if this video game represents state of the art or not — I’ve played a bit of games like ‘Fallout’ and ‘Oblivion’ (video games that I guess would be called ‘RPGs’). ‘The Walking Dead’ seems to be a kind of interactive story game (like Fallout) but is much more like a TV show that looks like a comic book than what I think of when I think of a computer RPG. And I don’t know if this ‘story’ type of game is common or not; it’s the first one I have played. I’m still reserving judgement until I play further, but so far there are both things that I like and dislike about ‘The Walking Dead’ game.
‘The Walking Dead’ game seems to be based heavily on the TV show (which I guess was based on the comic, er, excuse me, graphic novel, ahem — but I haven’t read the comic yet). You start the game and you are ‘Lee’ (who looks and sounds like a young Richard Roundtree, but with circa 2013 clothes, haircut and language). ‘Lee’ is sitting, handcuffed, in the back of a police cruiser and is being driven to prison by a chatty sheriff’s deputy. From the dialogue, we learn that ‘Lee’ (who is us) has been convicted of murdering a man who slept with his wife. We are given a choice of responses to the driver’s questions, and the responses we pick (which range from polite to hostile) seem to determine what the people we are conversing with will say next and how they might consider us in the future. I’m only part way through chapter one (out of five) and haven’t managed to get all the way through without getting eaten fairly early. Eventually, Lee teams up with an eight year old girl named Clementine.
Some events seem ‘hard coded’ into the story. In the first scene, the police cruiser we are riding in crashes and we are hurled head first into the zombie apocalypse. As far as I can tell, there is no way to avoid the crash or the encounter with the first zombies that follow it. In other cases, as players we can influence the course of events a little more. We can direct ‘Lee’ around the room or wilderness area he and the others are in and there are various objects (like weapons, tools, etc.), that Lee can pick up and use. Sometimes the game is frustrating since it will sometimes not allow you to use an object in a manner that the game designers did not predict or intend — a common problem for me with most computer RPGs. Also, the gameplay alternates between phases where you control Lee’s actions and other parts where he just seems to go on autopilot. In scene 1, Lee picks up a shotgun and uses it to defend himself from a zombified deputy. He then drops the shotgun and runs away — keeping the shotgun to use as a crutch to help Lee hobble along on his injured leg or using it as a club to beat the other zombies are not options, a limitation of computer games which I find frustrating.*
Other ‘characters’ in the game seem have their own personalities — I suspect that if, as Lee, I chose to be polite and deferential to everyone in the game, that the ‘nice’ characters would respond positively and the ‘mean’ (or hostile) characters would take advantage. Similarly, if I make ‘Lee’ act like a dick in every interaction with every other character, they will probably soon all lose patience with me and I will fail to succeed in going forward in the game. The essence of this ‘Telltale’ game, in addition to solving puzzles (i.e.: you gotta find the keys to unlock the handcuffs on Lee’s wrist before he can defend himself from zombies), is to choose the right approach with all of the different characters in the game. This makes it more like a TV show in which you can take part some of the time; other times the game just takes over and you just watch… which is taking some getting used to and I can’t decide if this is OK or lame. Probably a combination of both.
Decades ago I remember reading a very enthusiastic article about programs like ‘Hypercard Player.’ ‘Hypercard’ allowed the Mac user to create groups of files that could be linked or sorted in whatever way the user wanted. The files could be words, pictures, sound files, etc., that could be linked to one another. Hypercard Player had the author of this article very excited because people had started to use it to write ‘interactive fiction’ (this was before the internet). Rather than a work of fiction proceeding as the author intended, the reader could decide where they wanted the story to go. People were sharing their ‘Hypercard Stack’ novels and the author of this rather gushing article felt the novel of the future had been born. To me, it sounds a lot like one of those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books. ‘The Walking Dead’ video game seems a lot like a more sophisticated ‘choose your own adventure’ book with better graphics and sound. According to my friend Kevin, choices you make in chapter 1 will effect play in later chapters, so, once I figure the game out, maybe I’ll play it again and see how making different choices makes the game proceed in different directions.
I’m going to say a bit about the art since I care about such things. The characters and animation look pretty good in a clean, storyboard/graphic novel style. The faces look pretty expressive and they have kept settings and lighting fairly simple; I think to help the player concentrate on the expressions and reactions of his fellow survivors (since that is what you are supposed to be using to make your in-game choices). Everything is outlined in black, giving it the appearance of a graphic novel; the whole thing looks like an animated film. It’s not flashy or elaborate, but they do a lot with a little; gore is usually more suggested than outright.
I had a lot of problems with getting the cursor where I wanted it when I first started playing — just trying to make Lee pick a shotgun shell up off the ground and load it into a shotgun would send the cursor skittering all over the damn place — but experiements with the mouse sensitivity helped solve that problem. I also don’t understand what the keyboard commands are supposed to be — while Lee is wrestling with a zombified babysitter, I’m pressing Tab, shift, q, w, e, r, t or y, trying to get him to push the zombie away or kick it in the head. I did a little unsuccessful online hunting, but there is a lot of assumed knowledge in the video game community — perhaps most or all of these games use the same keyboard commands and everyone assumes that anyone with half a brain knows the commands, because my search turned up a lot of spoilers, but not specific help as in what key to press when in order to get it so that Lee can run away from the zombie and grab something to bash it’s head in rather than just standing there saying ‘No! Get away!’ while I desperately press keys at random, hoping one of them will make Lee do some Kung-Fu move that will save his bacon. I bought it via Steam, so there is no instruction booklet. I’m think I’m close to figuring it out, but I don’t know if figuring it out is worth my time. Damn; I suck at these video games.
* I accept that you can’t have a computer game where it is possible to do ‘anything’ simply because everything that happens has to be provided for in the game itself; I’m just saying that this is a limitation of the medium I find frustrating.
“I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.”
The above quote is from a Sam Lipsyte short story called ‘The Dungeon Master’ about kids who play D&D. I predict that most of the online D&D community would hate it but I liked it. Sort of like a slightly less pessimistic Flannery O’Conner writes about kids playing D&D — or something like that.
It’s less about D&D and more about being a teenager and how teenagers can be really shitty to one another yet still think of these people who they are shitty to (or who are shitty to them) as ‘friends.’ Perhaps the turning point between ‘teenagerism’ and ‘adulthood’ is when we say, “Why do I still want to hang out with X? X always acts like a douchebag! I’m going to stop spending time with him.”
I know some people are going to bitch up a storm about some detail or another that was ‘wrong’ in the story (“Can of strawberry milk? Strawberry milk doesn’t come in cans! Totally badwrong writing! The author completely destoyed my sense of immersion with that strawberry milk in cans bullshit!“). Mostly they are going to hate the story because the characters in it are misfits. I kind of think they will be missing the point of the story, but, well, whatever.
Please try to enjoy.
The collective members of the ‘OSR’ (whatever or whomever they might be) have frequently been pilloried and mocked for promoting themselves through mutual admiration societies and you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours reviews of whatever it is that they may be churning out this or that week. Often, that criticism is on the mark. Most of the reviews written by the OSR about the OSR are softballs. The important question to me is why anyone is surprised or angry or outraged at this.
When I was a teenager I remember reading music reviews that told me whatever was featured was ‘unbeleiveably good’ and I would save up my money and run out and buy it and 90% of it was utter shit. This was before the Internet — or at least before I had access to any Internet — when in order to read ‘reviews’ of stuff, I had to buy the newspaper or the magazine or fanzine in which the review was written — so teenage me was getting fucked twice… the first time when I bought ‘Trouser Press’ or ‘Thrasher’ or whatever else I was buying at the time in order to read useless ‘reviews’ that were hyping whatever they were told to hype and the second time when I bought the shitty music that the ‘journalist’ in the magazine was promising would change my life for the better. As a result, I ended up with a large record collection, only a small percentage of which got listened to more than once or twice. When I got to be around sixteen or so I wised up and started swapping tapes with friends and going to independently owned used record stores that were half way across town because they would let you preview a record if the sleeve was already open and they weren’t listening to something else at the time… these stores were like that store in that John Cusack movie. Many of the shit records that I had bought under the recommendation of the ‘professional’ journalists were sold for pennies in store credit to the used record shops — the most ill-advised purchases were dumped in the ‘free for the taking’ box that sat beside the exit in one of those filthy but beloved record stores. I’m not bitter about this — I consider it a part of my transition to adulthood.
OK, so recently we were in Miami and we went to a coffee shop/restaurant for lunch.* This was a tiny place with tables and a counter with baristas, a stove, espresso machine and a cook all packed in tight behind it, everyone working ass-to-elbows. It was clean and the food was good, but Miami is full of good restaurants so competition has got to be fierce and margins are probably pretty thin. It was lunchtime but the place was half empty. Hopefully they do better on a week day when the people who work in the area want a bite for lunch.