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“For Whom the Bell Tolls” – The True Cost of Survival in The Walking Dead – Extra Credits


In one moment, in one small instant in The Walking Dead, they reach back and quote a 17th century poem by John Donne, A poem calledDevotions Upon Emergent Occasions: Meditation XVII.This moment to me was incredible because in one short phrase, in one utterance they captured for me what The Walking Dead was really about. Chuck, the transient, the old man they find living in a boxcar, only says a snippet of the full phrase, the part most of us know from Metallica or Hemmingway, but it’s worth repeating in full to understand what’s really being referenced. The sentence Chuck quotes from reads thus:“No man is an island, entire of itself;every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,as well as if a promontory were,as well as if a manner of thy friend’s or of thine own were;any man’s death diminishes me,because I am involved in mankind,and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;it tolls for thee.”It’s important first to note that it’s Chuck that says this. It tells us a great deal about him, it illuminates the choices he’s about to make. It shows us that he’s much more than simply a “guitar playing hobo”. I won’t spoil anything here, but for those of you who have played the game, this statement gives us the context we need to understand what he chooses to do shortly thereafter. It also rounds out his character, it shows him not as a drunk or vagrant, it shows that for all the problems he may have in his life, it’s not those that define him. It shows that of all of the members of your group, he has the greatest sense of the past, he is perhaps the most literate and of all of the characters in the game, he may be the only one who, without being self-righteous, is unswervingly moral. But the quote does more than this: it forces us to think about the meaning of the game as whole. Its very “out of place” nature in a sea of otherwise very well-written but very modern dialog calls it out to us and demands that we consider it as more than simply a haphazard reference. To me, in this moment, we were reminded of what the whole work is saying: that each one of us is an incredibly valuable thing. That even the least of us makes the whole more, and if we give up on that we give up on being human. The entire Walking Dead universe is about the loss that occurs for all of us due to a million individual tragedies. It’s not just the post-apocalyptic setting with its lack of conveniences that we take for granted in our everyday lives that hammers this home. It’s not the terror inherent in living a life under constant threat. Rather it’s the demonstration of how that loss erodes all of us. How even the survivors don’t survive unscathed but in many ways lose parts of their humanity due to losing so much of humanity as a whole. The entire game series is about how every individual loss is a loss for us; not only for Lee or for Clementine but for us personally as players. Each sacrifice chips away at us and makes us all the more single minded, focused on the one goal we think we might be able to achieve, the one remaining act wemightbe able to do to retain our humanity, the one redemptive act of saving a child. And here too is that focus on the larger whole. While Clementine is clever and at times helpful, in a strictly pragmatic sense, Lee would simply be better off without her, but the entire game is focused on this relationship, on how this tiny human being allows Lee to be more than he is. But the game also makes this point in harsher ways. One of the most remarkable things about the game to me was that it got me to give up on one of the characters. It showed me that dehumanization, that degradation, by getting me to, in the end, to let one of the characters die. Any of you who have played the game could probably guess who I’m talking about, but for those of you who haven’t: I opted to let a high school kid die. See how inhumane that sounds? How morally destitute? If you heard it on the evening news you’d be repulsed, but in the context of the game it seems justifiable And yet, in the end, with the way the game closes, I realized he was just some scared kid. And then you have to face the fact that, within that universe, given how precious every single life is, how humanity itself is barely holding on, you’ve let another go. And then you’re back, asking for whom the bell tolls. Because this life, even with all of its bumbling and cowardly acts, is part of a larger whole. And in its ending it’s not only him who has lost something but you. It’s rare that a game can point out to us how precious our own humanity is, and how quickly life overwhelms us and, without thinking, we trade it away. And yet, in one line, one single moment or perhaps that’s not fair, perhaps it would be better to say ‘and yet with every aspect of the game’ the Walking Dead provides just that. Again, I’m not gonna say this game is perfect, and we’re especially not saying that this analysis is at all required to have that experience of understanding your place as part of a larger whole, but I think it goes to show very clearly that without sacrificing any of the engagement, any of what we traditionally think of as a ‘game’, we can wrestle with issues essential to who we are. And I like that. See next week for some more Walking Dead!

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