Tag Archives: the walking dead

A light in dark places when all other lights go out

image courtesy of Mike McCune

image courtesy of Mike McCune

Any unfortunate person who follows me on Tumblr has noticed that it’s lately become the repository for all my feelings about The Walking Dead (and for that I sincerely apologize to them). Most of it has been silly and more than a little odd, but one thing it’s been doing for me – and the games have done this as well – is get me thinking a bit more about storytelling and how it’s done and what it means.

This is something I wrote and originally posted on Tumblr, and primarily it’s about what I perceive as showrunner Scott Gimple’s missteps in the matter of how the mid-season finale went down. But it’s also about my understanding of storytelling and the obligations of anyone who wishes to undertake it in a serious fashion, so I’m reposting it here. There are, naturally, spoilers below, so take care.

Okay, I need to say something about this that has nothing to do with theories or analysis or flailing or Daryl’s arms or the brilliant perfect sunbeam that is Beth Greene. And it’s gonna get long, so get comfy.

I need to say something about storytelling.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my own feelings and my own reaction to this, as I’ve said in other posts. I’ve been thinking about the nature of the hurt I’m feeling and about the fact that technically it’s about something that didn’t “happen” (it did) and that wasn’t “real” (it was). I’ve been thinking about the pain I’ve seen in other people, about how – regardless of whether or not you think it’s stupid to get so worked up over a zombie TV show and whether or not you think everyone who’s worked up is messed up in the head or heart or something (like it’s your business, you judgmental prick) – if the show isn’t “real” that pain sure as hell is, and about the context of this particular character being taken away and in the way in which she was.

And here’s what I think right now: it’s cruel.

Doesn’t matter if she’s alive. Doesn’t matter if she comes back and she’s brilliant and glorious and amazing and single-handedly cures the zombie disease and ushers in a new era of peace and joy and prosperity and she and Daryl get married in a big frilly wedding and have a hundred adorable babies. It’s still cruel.

I’m a storyteller, and I’m one professionally, which means nothing more than that for me it’s a job so I spend a fuck of a lot of time thinking about and doing it. I spend a fuck of a lot of time thinking about what it means. What stories are and what they do. And the thing about stories is that they are real. Maybe not to everyone, because not everyone experiences the world in the same way or reacts the same way to powerful emotion, but for some of us, the line between fiction and nonfiction is rather arbitrary, and we feel fictional things very deeply. When fictional characters die, we mourn. When they experience joy, we experience joy with them. When they become wiser, we learn with and from them. For some of us – strange kids, queer kids, bullied kids, abused kids, kids who have mental illnesses, kids who are dealing with whatever shit they’re dealing with and the adults they and we become – these “unreal” things and people have literally saved some of our lives.

Stories have guided faiths, birthed religions, raised and destroyed and altered cultures, saved and killed, given and taken, strengthened and weakened, pushed the world forward and held it back.

Do not tell me that stories are just stories. Do not fucking ever tell me that.

The conclusion I’ve come to, as a storyteller and as someone who loves stories, is that storytellers need to understand that – if the stories they tell are wonderful and sharp and resonant and engaging – they hold the hearts of their audience in their hands. They carry those hearts with them, take them on journeys. Some of those journeys are perilous, some of them are painful, some of them are full of joy, some of them are full of suffering, some of them are full of love, some of them are brutal and lonely and sad. Many of them are all of those things, because life is all of those things, and the best stories are true stories. True fiction. True dreams.

As a storyteller, you can bring your audience through suffering and pain. You can take them into dark places. You can take them into the core of hopelessness. You can take them into the fucking void.

But you can’t forget that you’re carrying their hearts in your hands. You can’t forget that you have to be careful. You can’t forget that, in the end, you have to be kind.

Not merciful. Not comfortable. Kind.

I think Gimple, in how he did this, forgot that. I think, at the very least, he underestimated the power of the story he was telling, and that – for a storyteller – is a failure. Regardless of what happens next, this was needlessly, pointlessly cruel, and real people really got hurt. And as a storyteller, I’m not okay with that.

Maybe I’m making too much out of this. But they’re my feelings and I have them, and here they are.

Storytellers: Be careful. Be kind. Don’t forget what you carry.

A happy TWD fandom thing by me

So I wrote this a while ago, but I don’t think I ever posted about it here, and hey, for other fans of The Walking Dead and Beth Greene in these dark times, it might be a balm.

It’s also one of the things I’m most proud of that I’ve recently written, and part of me that wants to be a Serious Author is like THAT’S RIDICULOUS and the part of me that has a soul and enjoys fun is like whatever shut up.

Fic: If the Stars Are Eternal So Are You and I (Beth/Daryl, the funeral home and if things had gone differently).

They still sleep in shifts. When she’s taking hers he roams the house, quiet as he can, and he lingers when he comes back to her, watches her side and back and chest rise and fall with her breathing. Feels creepy. Can’t really help it. This is confusing and a little alarming. Even if he knew what to do about it he’s not sure he would be able to do anything at all.

It’s been a month.

Oh.

You’d think at some point she would have finished that conversation.

And because I love reading aloud, I recorded a downloadable audio version.

 

Good Endings and Bad Deaths – on The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale and writing in general

[Hey, guys – meant to edit this earlier, but this is just to say… I no longer believe all of this. In part because of the very things I’m talking about here, which I frankly find unbelievable. Possibly just in the denial phase, but come February, well, we’ll see if there’s actually another writerly analysis post to write. Because I think there might be, and that might be really cool for a number of reasons.

Scott Gimple would still be an asshole.

Carry on.]

Okay.

This is going to be sort of a weird hybrid dinosaur-unicorn of a post – except way less cool than such a thing would ever be – wherein I’m half sobbing tantrumy 14-year-old and half Author Who Has Opinions About Writing. I’ll try to make it more the latter than the former but no promises.

Massive, massive spoilers to follow.

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Meaningful choice and The Walking Dead: an addendum

thewalkingdead-part2-poster

After I wrote yesterday about some of the ludonarrative problems inherent in a game like The Walking Dead, I kept thinking about why the finale of Season Two didn’t work nearly as well for me as the first game. The conclusion at which I arrived wasn’t simply that Season Two’s penultimate choice couldn’t carry the narrative weight it was supposed to, but that the first game actually gives you no choice at all.

Spoilers follow.

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Thoughts on ludonarrative difficulties and The Walking Dead: Season Two

Note: This is all my interpretation of a game and a story that allows for a multiplicity of interpretations; that’s one of its strengths. So when I say “the game is doing X” or “the game meant Y” that’s not meant to be a conclusive statement of fact. These are things I think, results of my experience as a player and as someone who constructs narratives professionally. Take them for what they are.

HUGE SPOILERS, NATURALLY

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On The Walking Dead S2, Sarah, and why it all matters

the-walking-dead-game-season-2-episode-3-clementine-screenshot

I just sent this to feedback@telltalegames.com, regarding episode 4 of The Walking Dead: Season Two. Massive spoilers for that episode within.

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Some fragmentary thoughts on The Last of Us

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I’ve made sporadic, clumsy attempts to write about video games on this blog before, and here’s another. I do think I might do this more, though, because I write about games a good deal in a vaguely academic sense for Cyborgology, and when I do, I tend to come at them from a narrative-focused perspective, though I’ve also written about things like mechanics and game design (and DRM) because you can’t really separate those things from narrative in a game – yeah, that pretty much tips my hand on where I come down in the now-tired ludology/narratology debate.

I also tend to be behind in terms of writing about games that you have to pay more than about $10 for. This is because so much of my time is taken up by writing and teaching and other related stuff, and also because, for financial reasons, I tend to really, really try to wait for Steam sales, which usually puts me a few months behind at least.

All that said, I got The Last of Us for Christmas and I have some Thoughts. Here they are.

– I’m both impressed and a little startled that something this much of a trope salad ends up not feeling like a game that’s desperately and clumsily trying to please an audience that’s already been pounded to death by post-apocalyptic militaristic zombie dystopias. I don’t know if it’s because of how emotionally engaging the story manages to be or whether I’m just still a sucker for things like The Road, but I never found the obviously tropey stuff distracting or clangy. It somehow all meshes together and feels of a piece. That’s saying something about the quality of the writing involved.

– I cannot even believe the voice acting. This should be the standard that all other narrative-driven games try to meet, because you know? Voices mean a lot. They might mean just about everything. Facial animation helps, but man.

– Boy, a lot of the first half of it reminded me of Enslaved. I fucking loved that game.

– I do largely agree with Christopher Franklin that the game is working within a limited design format that ends up creating a slightly jarring disconnect between cutscenes and combat. The Last of Us is clearly trying to connect the two in a way that feels meaningful, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing. In what is – in my opinion – an otherwise nearly perfect game, that’s the one really noticeable false note.

– I loved the ending. I see why some people seem to not have done. But for me, the emptiness and the bleakness fit the rest of the game’s mood. I also found the ambiguity about the future more satisfying than I think others did. No, there are no immediate consequences for the choice that gets made. But I think the game is strongly implying that there will be, and they won’t be pretty. I like that the writers had the guts to leave the part to my imagination.

– Along those lines, I think the last game I played that was this emotionally brutal – aside from The Walking Dead, which also shares a lot of similarities here – was Spec Ops: The Line, though of course The Last of Us is nowhere near as overtly abusive. There were things that happened that literally had me staring at the screen in shock. There were things that made me say, out loud, “Oh my God.” There were things that I found deeply upsetting. Part of this is that I often lose myself in a story to the point where I don’t clue into the parts that other people find predictable, but regardless. Like The Line, this is not a “fun” game. It’s not trying to be.

– Further long those lines, probably what I found bravest and most effective is something else that the game shares in common with The Line, which is a deep skepticism about the idea of heroes in games wherein the protagonist commits acts of horrendous, cruel violence. Walt Williams, the lead writer for The Line, said in an interview something that I love and has stayed with me: “Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic demands.” In other words, don’t do or be Nathan Drake. If you’re killing hundreds and even thousands of people, you are or must become a mutilated monster of a human being in some very fundamental ways, and the game’s story – if there is one – needs to address that in some way. Uncharted does not. The Last of Us does. Joel is not a hero. Joel is an emotionally ruined, selfish, wreck of a human being and he makes horrible choices. When the game ends and you sit there feeling sad and empty, I think that’s pretty much how you should feel.

Even further along those lines, I think The Last of Us does something else that makes the characterization of Joel even more poignant and effective: it makes it very, very clear that most of the people Joel/you kill aren’t special or evil or even significantly different than Joel himself. Almost everyone in the game is simply doing whatever they perceive is necessary for their own survival. No one is a good person; the world doesn’t allow them to be. As Joel says at one point, “it was either him or me.”

This is something else that The Line attempted to do: to humanize the people you kill, to make it clear that they’re just people, as lost and confused as the protagonist, desperately fighting to stay alive. That said, the one way in which this fails – and also failed in The Line, though I think you could also argue that it’s part of Martin Walker’s crazed attempt to justify to himself what he’s done – is that no one is really ever afraid of you, at least not in the gameplay segments. They remark on how startling and worrying it is that you’ve killed so many of their friends, but no one cowers in corners and pleads for you to spare their lives, unless they then attack you seconds later. No one runs in terror or tries to shield their friends from your bullets. They just come at you, over and over and over in a human wave, and you kill them. In that, the game both humanizes and dehumanizes them, and not in the conscious way in which The Line worked. It’s another slightly false note, though on my first playthrough I didn’t notice that it detracted from the experience at all. And in fact, I suspect that that has more to do with how accustomed I am to playing a game like that than the quality of the game itself.

I’m not sure how to fix this, and I’m skeptical that actually having NPC enemies do those things would be fully effective. I think the problem is, yet again, core mechanics, the fact that in a game like this, killing – even lent emotional weight by the narrative – is fundamentally problem-solving, something that has to be done in order to allow you to move through to the next cutscene. Again, I think The Line was aware of this and managed to make some narrative use of it, but it didn’t seem to me as though The Last of Us was, and I’m not sure how it could have been that kind of self-aware without being an entirely different kind of game.

A game that does do this – that does almost everything that The Last of Us is trying to do and does it much better – is The Walking Dead, but that game makes use of different mechanics; I think that’s a huge part of why it’s able to do these things more effectively. So again we’re simply running up against the inherent limitations of a particular kind of game.

Again, for what it is, I regard The Last of Us as a game that comes about as close to perfect as a game like itself could. It’s definitely on my list of the top ten games I’ve ever played. But again, I’m with Christopher Franklin in seeing it as also a perfect example of what this kind of game really just can’t do, at least not as it currently stands. I think it also stands as a call for something better, for something new in terms of how we blend mechanics with storytelling. So I’m optimistic about what The Last of Us means and is doing.

And I’m playing it all again, so that definitely has to mean something.