How a brutal game changed my life: My love letter to Telltale’s The Walking Dead

7 min read
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The year is 2012. I applied to do an exchange student program and, very fortunately, I was accepted. I was sent to Austria to live with a family in the heart of Vienna and they were very… proper. “Grand piano in the living room so our sons can practice three times a day” kind of folks. They didn’t speak much English, and it was really difficult for the first couple of weeks. They were sending me to German lessons, but there’s only so much you can learn in a few days, right?

Anyway, it was a really plain night and I really didn’t really have much to do. Everyone had drifted into their rooms and their lights had long since been turned off, but I couldn’t sleep. I had grown a massive cyst on my back but I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew was that it hurt like HELL every time I tried to lie down. Bored, tired, in pain and with the sound of a tram cruising up and down the street, I opened the App Store on my phone.

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That’s when I stumbled onto Telltale’s The Walking Dead. The first episode was free even. “Let me give that a bash”, I thought. I loved Robert Kirman’s original comics published by Image, and AMC’s TV series adaptation was still good (this was 2012, remember?). I completed that first episode in one sitting, enveloped by the characters and the grim despair of it all. Clementine’s abandonment and Lee seeking some kind of redemption in a world where redeeming oneself is often put at odds with surviving just gripped me in a way very few games had. I bought the rest of the season and over the course of the next few months played through the rest of the game, loving every second. I must have replayed it about 7 times since then. I wouldn’t be studying video game writing if it weren’t for that lonely night in Vienna.

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Fast forward to 2015. I was at university, in my second year and everything kind of sucked. This was a time when my anxiety was manifesting itself and I had no idea what it was. With the fear of exams looming over me and the knowledge that one of my best friends was leaving to start his life in the big bad world in a few weeks (Love you, Sanks!), the mismanagement of my mental health wasn’t doing me any favours. Opening Steam, as one pointlessly tends to when looking for something to do, I found The Walking Dead Season 2.

Instantly bought and downloaded it and my friend and I played through the whole thing well into the night, sitting in my tiny, cramped university residence room. Watching Clementine grow up and fight back against the world, accepting and later rejecting an abusive father-figure was a painful yet fulfilling respite from our own struggles. We argued over the choices and swore at the screen whenever something bad happened to Clem. I still talk to good ol’ Sankey to this day, and I’m sure he remembers that night of pure escapism as clearly as I do.

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Now we’re in 2017. Still at university, studying my Honours in linguistics. Anyone that’s done an honours degree can tell it’s the worst year of university. More work and less time, with friends you’ve known for years slowly fading away into the real world. It was a very chilly winter’s night when I bought The Walking Dead Season 3. I remember getting up and closing the windows in my apartment because the wind was howling so loudly I couldn’t hear the game audio. My roommate was out and my girlfriend was busy with an assignment. I was feeling really lonely that night.

I didn’t blitz through Season 3 as quickly as the other games. I spaced it out over a series of chilly nights, slowly taking in the plight of a family trying to make it in a new society built in an autocratic state of desperation. When Clementine did eventually return, having grown into the hardened and brutal young woman she was, it was like seeing an old friend again, something I desperately needed at the time. I remember audibly cheering when she made her entrance. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and my neighbours complained the next day.

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And now we’re here, in 2019. There’s a lot of uncertainty on my shoulders right now. I’m in my last year of Masters, and if you thought Honours was tough, it’s got nothing on this. Will my research be accepted? What will they think of my proposal? Was this the right degree for me? What do I do after this? Have I screwed everything up? This time I’ve actually been dealing with my mental health. Well, as best as anyone can. Dealing with deadlines every week for research topics, marking papers written by bright-eyed first years about Joseph Campbell, doing my absolute best not to burn out; 2019’s been rough. But you know what? The Walking Dead Season 4 just finished.

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The final season of the franchise that fundamentally changed my life is finally concluding. It’s story ends at the same time one of my stories is ending. I’ve yet to play it, I’ll admit. There’s a part of me that doesn’t want to let it go. I want to know that it’ll stay alive as long as I need it to. But hasn’t it done that already? It’s strange how The Walking Dead, perhaps one of the saddest, most unforgiving and fundamentally despair laden worlds, has always been there for me in my times of trouble. There’s an irony to that I don’t quite understand, but I don’t think I need to.

I don’t really know why I’m writing this feature. Maybe it’s because I’m sad to see one of my favourite game series finish its run. Maybe because it’s helped me reminisce over my past failures and successes. Maybe because, in a way, I’ve grown up alongside Clem and her dark story ending hit me kind of hard. Maybe I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks to the people who made something special in 2012 and kept at it, despite all the shit Telltale threw at them. I guess you never really know what kind of art will hit you the hardest until it does.

So thanks, The Walking Dead. You’ve been what I needed for a long time. But it’s time for you to rest. And for me to let you go and move forward, knowing that despite everything life throws at someone, they can endure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Critical Hit as an organisation.

Last Updated: April 5, 2019

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