Double-Teaming The Dead

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.

Comments

It's funny to see how different people we know make different decisions in different situations. I think it's also interesting how some people can treat video games decisions as meaning less than a real life decision. I see it as a test bed or a place to play, but I take the decisions pretty seriously. Not like "losing sleep" serious, but taking a minute or two to think about it and "pace around" as Certis puts it will happen to me during a game. Some people I know don't get that. They are still in the "it's just a game, it doesn't matter" mind set. Of course, it doesn't REALLY matter...but it does to "Lee"...ya know?

E Hunnie also gets pretty dead serious about zombies. She isn't constantly specced out and training for Z Day like McChuck is, but she's absolutely mentally prepared.

Playing this series together is definitely on our list. Once we finish Dr. Who.

Damn you couldn't have posted this while the game was still on Steam sale the other day?

Wait. Wait. Wait.

What's your beef with Katniss?

This is a wonderful read. After hearing you and Justin McElroy talk about playing this with your other halves, I'm doubly psyched to get Mrs. Bullioncube to play this game with me.

Stele wrote:

Damn you couldn't have posted this while the game was still on Steam sale the other day? :D

No worries, Stele. I voted to put the game back up on as the Community Choice!

God please don't let me be the only one who read the title differently.

Lovely piece. And it's always heartwarming to hear tales of bonding over games.

One question. I hate to sound like a douche for asking this but "Darwinistic survivalism"?

Using that phrase in the context of people making conscious decisions made me twitch. Can you unpack that a little for me?

So jealous of you Corey. I am eternally searching for a game to draw my wife in. If there's a Tudor/Elizabethan non-combat RP game, or a Little House on the Prairie sim you let me know.

And yes Edwin, at a glance I thought this might be 50 Shades of Undead.

strangederby wrote:

Lovely piece. And it's always heartwarming to hear tales of bonding over games.

One question. I hate to sound like a douche for asking this but "Darwinistic survivalism"?

Using that phrase in the context of people making conscious decisions made me twitch. Can you unpack that a little for me?

There's a difference between "Darwinist" and "Darwinistic" (as "historic" and "historical") You're interpreting the latter as the former. Don't worry, I get it.

wordsmythe wrote:

There's a difference between "Darwinist" and "Darwinistic" (as "historic" and "historical") You're interpreting the latter as the former. Don't worry, I get it.

That's interesting. I've just been searching the web for a definition of Darwinistic and all the results I get point to Darwinism.

Great piece Cory.
While I was playing through the second episode last night I found myself at times glad no one else was watching my choices.

I wonder if my choices would have been influenced more if my spouse had been watching.

strangederby wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

There's a difference between "Darwinist" and "Darwinistic" (as "historic" and "historical") You're interpreting the latter as the former. Don't worry, I get it.

That's interesting. I've just been searching the web for a definition of Darwinistic and all the results I get point to Darwinism.

Yep, me too. Any chance the non-native speakers could get some enlightenment on this?

Grimmi Meloni wrote:
strangederby wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

There's a difference between "Darwinist" and "Darwinistic" (as "historic" and "historical") You're interpreting the latter as the former. Don't worry, I get it.

That's interesting. I've just been searching the web for a definition of Darwinistic and all the results I get point to Darwinism.

Yep, me too. Any chance the non-native speakers could get some enlightenment on this?

A "historic" event is an event from history, a "historical" event doesn't have to be, but could just relate to history. So we have historical reenactments of historic battles. The reenactment itself isn't historic, but it relates to an historic event. "Darwinistic" is sort of twice-removed from "Darwin" in a similar way.

Thanks Wordsmythe!

wordsmythe wrote:

E Hunnie also gets pretty dead serious about zombies. She isn't constantly specced out and training for Z Day like McChuck is, but she's absolutely mentally prepared.

Playing this series together is definitely on our list. Once we finish Dr. Who.

Gotta justify that exorbitant gym membership somehow.

Great article, Cory. I love what you're getting at as you wrap up the piece, thinking about how its the people we share story and experience with that really informs our perception of and connection to the those things.

I'm still trying to get my wife to appreciate games as more than just an occasional time-waster. We've played through New Super Mario Bros and Castle Crashers, but trying to get her interested in something a little meatier always falls flat.

She is reading World War Z right now though and enjoying it, even though she has a distaste for zombies in general. So that's something!