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The Walking Dead Eps 3/4 Review: A fate worse than death

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(This review contains spoilers)

I faced a fate worse than death in The Walking Dead (TWD), Episodes 3 and 4. I faced it over and over again: the horrific decisions you have to make, the violation of your emotions because of the situations you have to endure and then the final blow - the inexorable approach of your own zombification and Clems kidnapping. These hammer through your soul as you navigate through the hell that is The Walking Dead.

The Walking Dead series adapts to your choices and the resulting story is tailored to your gameplay. Rather than giving a straight forward review, I will allow you to peek into my soul by explaining the effect the game had on me. 

One of the more significant aspects of video gaming is the ability of a game to tap into a player’s inner dialogue. As with other art forms, a game possesses the quality to direct our thoughts, capture our imagination and take us on unexplored pathways. The Walking Dead masterfully and macabrely explores this potential.

The game tapped into my inner dialogue by tearing out my heart and forcing me to re-examine my innermost thoughts on many things including mercy killing, friendship, suicide, love, survival, parenting and violence: the list is almost endless. The Walking Dead grabs you by the throat from the get go and it doesn’t let up right until the end.

In TWD episodes 3 and 4, you face the most bizarre and emotionally draining situations as you try to navigate your dwindling group of survivors to the coast of Savannah. There you hope to find a boat and sail off into the sunset. Hope before you and loss behind you… or at least, that is what you say to convince yourself. The longer TWD’s drama unfolds, the more I feel the only constant in the game is the loss of my humanity and innocence. This and the increasing silent accusation I am incapable of leading this group of people. Yes, you read that correct, I am not even referring to the main protagonist of the series, Lee Everett anymore. I am talking about myself, Han Cilliers and the decisions I make.

Somewhere between Lilly shooting and murdering the wrong person, my most trusted survivor and me having to shoot little Duck because he becomes infected, I get rid of Lee and play the game as myself. I’ve been gaming for decades and this is the first time a game affected me this way. In all my video games I have played, I have always been able to distance myself from the character I’m playing. I always make decisions solely based on what is practical, logical and best suited to advance my own agenda. The Walking Dead strips the cold logic mechanisms turning the wheel of my mind and instead claws deep down into my soul. It draws out and lays bare the insecurities you face when confronted with so much emotional turmoil and loss.

In episodes 3 and 4 the situations you encounter and the decisions required desperately calls for the cold, rational mind, but I found myself time and again in conflict with feeling and emotion. The dilemma the game so vehemently throws in your face is, when it comes to survival there is no right or wrong. There is only life. As Chuck (a new character from episode 3) puts it to Lee, “You aint a girl or a boy, young or old anymore. You are only alive.”

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I finally have the justification and opportunity to get rid of Ben, drop or save?

How you choose to preserve life is the challenge of episodes 3 and 4. The voice acting, animation, music and story are done so masterfully it is easy to fall into character. I remember feeling proud when I, an escaped convict and murderer, earned the achievement “handle it”. I had talked Kenny into stopping the train, so we could face the situation with Duck. Taking care of Clem became my second chance at life, my atonement for past sins. Every conversation with her was an unconscious reminder I wanted to be a good parent, that I needed her to admire and trust me. With our closing dialogue in episode 4, I therefore chose the option not to lie about the search for her parents. But did this cost her kidnapping and cause my infection to happen? This is a dilemma the game frequently creates - it makes you question yourself.

The inhuman decisions you sometimes have to make start to take a toll on you. The tension can be felt throughout the group - everyone is becoming unhinged, and you have to somehow keep it all from falling apart. In the midst of this chaos, the game portrays each character’s loss in such a way that you cannot help but share in their pain. As I said in my review of episodes 1 and 2, “A lesson in empathy from the Walking Dead”, the series relies heavily on its ability to elicit empathy. What you learn in episodes 3 and 4, however, is your empathy can come at a great cost. My empathy for Lilly led to her being able to steal our only means of transport. This in turn led to an unhealthy suspicion setting like a dark cloud over the already sombre group. The message was clear, trust no one. In the words of Christa, a new addition to the group in episode 4, “At least the dead don’t play games with you.”

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In the midst of all this darkness the game mercifully allows moments of profound beauty. These moments mostly feature in conversations with Clementine. Her acceptance of me when she found out I murdered someone; when she allowed me to cut her hair and the joy of a loving look or hug. These moments mean so much more because of their rarity. 

When we finally reached Savannah, the game took us down a road of such madness and despair, to the point where it almost became too much to continue playing. I came face to face with the darkest side of human nature when confronted with the Crawford solution to the infection. I almost lost the last bit of my humanity when I shot the toddler zombie boy. In Savannah we all lost… so much.

The Walking Dead series sweeps you away on a tidal wave of emotions. Moment to moment experiences influenced by your decisions change this game from being just entertainment to a profound inner journey. The game leaves you with an almost delirious sense of anticipation to see how your accumulated choices from the first four games will come to a conclusion in the final, fifth, episode.

Will I have enough time to save Clem? Will the group be able to eliminate me before I turn into a zombie? God forbid I hurt anyone. TellTale, what have you done to us? See you in episode 5.

"Molly" fan art by Odobenus

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