(Warning: Possible spoilers ahead. Tread lightly.)
In the zombie apocalypse, your own sense of humanity is almost always at stake. The first choice in episode two of the Walking Dead, Starved for Help, is a grave wake-up call to the reality of the situation . With food supplies dwindling, Lee is given four rations that must feed 10 people and is asked, “Who will get to eat today?”
I procrastinated. I explored every inch of the screen until I knew the outline of the invisible walls, talked to every character until they ran out of dialogue, and finally dropped my hands from the keyboard, thinking as Lee stared blankly back at me.
Do I feed the kids? Myself? Would it matter?
I fed the two children first, then the most valuable character, the lady with the biggest rifle. With a few crackers left, the game asked me to keep the rest for myself. Would I be penalized? Would the other characters notice?
Of course they noticed.
While Telltale’s latest installment is light on action, the emphasis is placed heavily on the branching narrative, and your friends and enemies remember each decision or off-hand comment. Once I even created an awkward situation when I was caught in my own lie.
But like the first episode, the one question Starved for Help really wants to know is exactly how much your humanity is worth. Each time you cut a man’s leg off at the ankle, while saving him from the ravenous undead, you pay a cost. Like the maimed, (but alive) survivor, sacrifices always exact a toll.
Amidst all the alliances and mundane questions, the heart of Starved for Help lies in the question, “What would you do to survive?” Or more importantly, what wouldn’t you do. There are plenty of excuses for bad behavior in the Walking Dead. The seemingly benevolent grocery mart employees are turned into rapists when society breaks down; others turn to cannibalism, justifying the monstrous act in the name of survival. As one grandmotherly figure puts it, “We don’t waste anything. We eat people that were going to die anyway.”
However, what seems black and white at first quickly becomes muddled when a dying man needs to be mutilated, his brain destroyed, before he quite literally turns into a monster. But with each decision, with each severed limb or impaled skull, comes a cost. It becomes harder and harder to see the light as you slip into despair. When do you give up and lose hope, or when do you keep pounding the chest of a heart attack victim?
After too many sacrifices, like the grieving daughter of a euthanized father, we finally come to the conclusion that it’s not the dead, but the living we have to worry about.
When we stop giving food to children, when we start euthanizing people, and finally start eating each other to stave off starvation, have we become indistinguishable from our enemy? Do we become monsters by valuing survival above humanity?
Without the hope that things will get better, your circumstances seem to justify the worst actions imaginable. When you lose hope, when you cannot foresee a way out, or a happy ending, you accept killing friends, killing yourself even, any vile means to survive or end your suffering. Every good thing, and every monstrous action springs from either hope or the lack of it.
That’s why Clementine, Lee’s young adopted ward, is our salvation. Without her, I would give rations to the most useful of the group. Without her I wouldn’t lie about our chances of escape. Her faith in a happy ending keeps my own humanity alive. Not out of a naive optimism, but because the one thought overriding even my drive for survival, overriding the fear of death and the pangs of hunger, is my desire to see Clementine safe.
Even when her naive sense of humanity stops me from looting an abandoned car full of supplies we need so desperately, I am forced to utter the words, “We’ll be okay, something else will come along” even if I don’t believe it. It’s that kind of hope in things unseen that restores our humanity.
That humanity is always threatened by our choices. I almost let children go hungry, killed my friends, and ate human flesh, simply because I couldn’t see any other way. Despair became more real to me than hope. Hope may result in corpses, but despair transforms them into monsters.