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.