The Zombie Standard: Storytelling vs. Gore

This comes quick on the heels of Replay Values, but a discussion/argument I had with someone last night on XBL has prompted it. We were discussing The Walking Dead XBL Arcade game, as well as the upcoming The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct title currently in development over at Terminal Reality (and being published by Activision).

Know what, before I get into this, let me just say that I enjoy the Call of Duty and Red Dead Redemption Zombie extensions just as much as the next blood-thirsty gamer, but I think the progress the industry has made in recent years is something to be continued. And that progress is this: that storytelling is just, if not equally as important, as the gore. Okay, so back to the XBL argument.

The individual in question stated that he hoped they didn’t ruin TWD: Survival Instinct with “all the talking and puzzle-solving they had in the arcade game and the show.” I was staring at my headset with an expression not unlike this one here:

I am not amused.

I am not amused.

For me, and many other players I know (even amongst the CoD shoot ’em up now/talk later crowd), the dialogue and puzzle-solving segments in The Walking Dead arcade game were the highlight of the experience. That’s what won it the GotY award at Spike TV’s VGAs. It beat out Mass Effect 3, a game with probably the most epic writing team ever assembled…except not even they could overcome the scribes over at Telltale Games and their story of the two most unlikely people ever thrown together at the end of days.

But then, I shouldn’t be surprised. Fans of the comic consistently criticize the show for having too much dialogue and story-time and not enough zombie killing. If I were Robert Kirkman, I’d be insulted. Here’s why: the point of the walking dead IS the story-time. Before the comic came around, before AMC scooped it up and started punting out episodes that kept our hearts beating like a drum band, our zombie entertainment was relegated to the following steps:

1. Woman/man wakes up. World has ended. People are not people anymore.

2. ZOMG. Zombies.

3. Denial.

4. Seriously. Zombies.

5. Get guns. Shoot EVERYTHING.

There was no careful consideration of the consequences of shooting everything. No concept of a “herd” following the sound of a gunshot heard four days prior to its arrival at your idyllic farmhouse. No real focus on the slowly-worsening psychological effects of the constant adrenaline pumping through your system. No attention paid to how humanity regresses to its primitive beginnings, because really the only thing keeping the majority of us in check (mass murderers and psychopaths not included) are government-imposed laws and societal regulation as to what is right and wrong. These are oversights that are easily forgiven for zombie movies because there’s a limited amount of time in which a great many things have to  happen. So writers with a real story to tell flock to the mediums that give them an entire season or interactive experience to tell their tale. And thus…The Walking Dead on AMC and The Walking Dead in the XBox Live Arcade.

Yessiree!

Yessiree! (Courtesy of assassinrejecht.tumblr.com)

Both the show and the game (which gave me heart palpitations serious enough to make me stop playing for a bit after Episode 3) have provided an arena where writers, directors and just sheer geniuses have the ability to map out everything they’ve always wanted to say in a movie, but never had the running time to do so. Why begrudge them that? Just because one person has, to quote the eloquent Hermione Granger, “the emotional range of a teaspoon” doesn’t mean that the vast majority of gamers suffer from the same affliction. TWD: Survival Instinct is meant to tell the story of Daryl and Merle Dixon, two characters that do not appear in the original comic. Like Telltale’s arcade game, Terminal Reality have revealed that Survival Instinct will continue on with the choice/consequence gameplay that’s become increasingly popular (see Grand Wizard Peter Molyneux and Fable) in the last few years. Adding strangers on the road to your group? Rationing supplies and assigning responsibilities to those traveling with you? No barging in, guns blazing, knife-wielding, frag-popping action?! Is Activision publishing this or what?!

Storytelling. That’s what it all boils down to, and it irks so many fans of The Walking Dead that I’m fascinated they even manage to grasp the deeper message behind the simple title. When the USA wins a World Cup and Hell freezes over and the dead pour forth from their graves (or wherever), the precious few of us still maintaining a certain level of cognizance will be the actual walking dead. The zombies are a secondary concern, but you’d never guess that with the way zombie movies usually progress (Romero, I’m looking at you, kid). And there’s nothing wrong with that way, when it happens in that particular arena. Two hours of run-time? By all means, Call of Duty the HECK out of that thing!

An entire game, whether one-shot or episodic? Take your time. Tell me the tale of how a little girl and a convict cobble together some kind of existence when the dead shuffle around them and the living actively try to destroy them. I’ve got the time.

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