She didn’t see the zombie coming.
Stumbling back through the kitchen, Nicole flails out frantically. The zombie inches closer, arms grabbing out, reaching for the warm, fresh prey that is my girlfriend. Nicole doesn’t react fast enough, and the zombie devours her.
Game over. Nicole throws the controller at me. “You do it.”
We’re playing The Walking Dead on Nicole’s sick day. This is how I’m nursing her back to health, after likely making her sick with chicken that wasn’t stir-fried long enough. She woke up in the morning looking a little green and went back to bed, taking my suggestion to call in sick. Nurse Cory prescribed plenty of rest, then went to his PC to work from home – a fancy term for “play games while on Instant Messenger.”
But when she woke up a few hours later and created a pillow nest out of what I used to call a couch, I noticed Nicole watching me as I tried to guide Lee though the hellish new world of a zombie apocalypse in Georgia. Then she said she wanted to play.
Hence, the story of Lee is not just my story. It’s our story.
Nicole is not a gamer. She doesn’t read Joystiq, doesn’t watch for Steam sales or follow Ken Levine on Twitter. Once, during a month-long recuperation from spraining her collarbone, she played New Super Mario Bros. to completion. But Mario is universal – like jazz – and a far cry from the undead.
The weekend Skyrim came out, Nicole expressed enough interest that I leapt onto my bike, pedaled to the nearest GameStop and bought the Xbox 360 version with cash, even as my PC copy finished downloading. “You’ll love it!” I enthused. “It’s all about exploration!”
She played for an hour but lost interest and went back to surfing Tumblr. Her character stands motionless in some foreign village, waiting for Nicole to return and give her purpose.
The story is similar with Portal, that great gaming equalizer for couples. “It’s a puzzle game, but with a twist,” I explained, making sure the controller still had batteries. “And it’s funny! Just do what the game says.” But Valve’s non-standard field-of-view settings gave her vertigo and put an end to the cake party.
It’s not that Nicole isn’t a geek. Her knowledge of Harry Potter is neigh-encyclopedic, and not to be tested lightly. She’s so devoted to Doctor Who that a typical night may involve a tense conversation about the merits of Martha over dinner (She’s a Donna girl, but not before her love of Amelia Pond). Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings: All are core fandoms for Nicole’s ever-evolving interests. We met because of a conversation about the Hunger Games and why Katniss is the worst. Not everything grabs her, but when it does, it doesn’t let go easily.
The Walking Dead falls into that category. In spite of a second season that spent way too long on a boring farm, Nicole enjoyed watching the trials of a group of good ol’ survivors of the end of the world. She cringes at the gory parts (and anytime Carl has to deliver lines) but revels in the power struggles of the barely-surviving group. And she’s just started reading the comic, something I gather is an altogether different beast than the AMC show or Telltale’s amazing episodic adventure game.
So when I finally took Julian "rabbit" Murdoch’s advice and committed to playing Episode One of The Walking Dead, she noticed. And watched from the couch, setting the iPad aside to see what these comic-drawn characters were doing about the dead returning from the grave.
“Can I play?”
One ultra-long HDMI cable later and we’re up and running.
Cut to the zombie eating Lee’s face and Nicole’s frustration with the controls. Telltale’s Walking Dead features distinct juxtapositions between standard adventure-game exploration and frantic, combat-like encounters. For those of us used to using two analog sticks to whip around and dodge plasma grenades or fireballs, the controls feel like second nature. But a game like Walking Dead has a much broader appeal, and these combat portions – while true to the source material – can get frustrating fast.
I’ve never been comfortable with people watching me play games. Past relationships haven’t expressed much interest, and former roommates and most of my friends just like to criticize how bad I am at games (a fact I do not dispute). But I also do not want to be the domestic partner that just plays the game for Nicole.
So we strike up a deal. All dialog choices will be Nicole’s, as well as helping me find interaction points. I’ll handle the controls and weigh in on decisions as long as there’s time to do so.
We’re playing the game together. We are Lee.
And as we progress through both episodes of the game in a single sitting, I find that, really, I’m the one watching the game through Nicole’s decisions. The tough choices: choosing sides with Kenny instead of Larry, saving one survivor instead of another, whether to handle a potential zombie before they turn or not. I find Nicole to be pragmatic, even cutthroat, compared to the bleeding-heart way I played through the first episode.
Later, after the second episode finishes and we find the emotional strength to move from the couch, I ask Nicole about her decisions. At one point, we decide to kill someone who could potentially turn into a walker, instead of trying to revive them. I wouldn’t have made that decision, but Nicole did. Why?
“He punched me in the face and left me for dead. He was kind of a dick!” she says. “And he was going to turn anyway. Better to handle it now, you know?”
You don’t care that there might have been a chance to save him?
“He was gone, Cory!”
Suddenly I see a different side of Nicole. She’s making decisions I wouldn’t expect from her, killing characters instead of being compassionate, making snap decisions under pressure while thinking about the good of her group – her group of fictional characters, even. Her hard-nosed, no-nonsense, Darwinistic survivalism tells me exactly who I want on my side when the zombie apocalypse comes. You're either with Nicole or you're a zombie snack.
Moreover, I realize that she’s taking the story in a different direction; in her direction. That she’s taking this seriously, not just treating it like it’s some silly time waster. It makes me fall even more in love with her.
Later, after Nicole goes to bed, I load my own saved game and start to play Episode Two all over again. I walk a few feet, start a conversation. It feels profane. This isn't the Lee I want to know. It's not the Lee I am. It's not the Lee we are.
And the "we," it turns out, makes all the difference in the world.