Failed Connection: Watching My Fiancée Play Walking Dead

Warning! This post is full of spoilers of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead. If you haven’t played it yet, you should stop reading precisely now.

This is the second of a two-part feature on the way different players and gamers and non-gamers experience Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead. To read Part 1, hit this link.

My fiancée, Caitlin, sat back from the screen as Alela Diane’s “Take Us Back” played and the credits of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead rolled. There were no tears; her eyes weren’t even wet. Yet another difference between my playthrough and hers — though I wasn’t openly weeping at the close of the story of Lee and Clementine, I was definitely feeling the emotional impact.

“I liked it,” Caitlin said in a matter-of-fact, ‘Okay, now, what’s for dinner’ tone. She offered little else in the way of commentary, so I pressed on, asking what she thought about the characters and the store as a whole.

She shrugged, saying she enjoyed the game and that the story was interesting. She’d be into playing the game’s eventual sequel. I asked again, looking for specifics, and she dropped the real reason for the lack of emotional stirring as Lee slipped off into, presumably, the great beyond.

“When I play this whole game, I do not connect with him (Lee) at all,” Caitlin told me. “His life situation is very different from mine. I couldn’t predict how he would act when I wasn’t controlling him.”

It was that feeling that drove a wedge between Caitlin and Lee as her avatar in the game. She said there were moments when dialog options she thought would result in calm, measured responses from Lee actually triggered rough, angry rebukes.

“It’s just an issue of consistency. He’s not the character I’m making,” Caitlin said.

Of course, players run that risk when taking on the role of a character in a game that isn’t a blank slate. There’s a story being told in The Walking Dead, and that’s Lee’s story, as much as it is also the player’s story. He’s a filter through which those events pass to the player.

Even taking that into respect, though, The Walking Dead assumes certain things about how you’ll relate to Lee. It assumes you’ll care about his well-being and his goals of taking care of Clementine. It assumes you’ll shape his decisions and that you’ll internalize those choices. And it assumes that you’ll have at least something of an emotional bond with Lee so that, as you progress through the story, the stakes of what’s happening are important to you.

For Caitlin, those emotional bonds weren’t made, and it might have something to do with the larger concepts of how games are made and how we relate to those games.

Gender politics were something of a factor in Caitlin’s playthrough of The Walking Dead. She’s not the first person I’ve seen discuss a few of the more ridiculous things about the game’s story — the way Lilly is expected to lead but also portrayed as a “bitch,” who ultimately starts witch hunt and cracks under the pressure, for example. Or even earlier in the story, when players first meet Carley and she lacks the capacity to work a radio; first she has no idea the thing is missing batteries (or even requires them), then she can’t find batteries on her own in a one-room drug store, and then she puts them in backwards. On its surface, the whole exercise in light puzzle-solving and giving the character a reason to interact with the player, but you also could argue that you have a woman who needs a man to help her work a common electronic device, fixing it at its most incredibly basic level.

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1 Comment on Failed Connection: Watching My Fiancée Play Walking Dead


On December 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm

While I don’t really have much in common with Lee, I actually enjoyed the chance to delve into a character that was different from me. There was enough in the character that I could still understand where he was coming from most of the time,even though I don’t know if there were many points where I would have said, “I’ve been there.” I wonder if there isn’t something to the idea of who the target audience is when it comes to being surprised by what a character says when an option is selected. Sure, I’ve been caught by surprise on occasion in this game, or others like Mass Effect, but generally this isn’t the case for me. Typically, I have a pretty decent grasp on what the tone will be before the words are uttered, and like Phil, I fit squarely into the usual target demographic for most games.