Failed Connection: Watching My Fiancée Play Walking Dead
But more than anything, I hadn’t really considered how differently the story of The Walking Dead might play to someone who considers themselves very different from the protagonist character. This, of course, is a remnant of my favored status as a 20-something male — the target demographic of nearly all video games for as far back as forever. Even though I consider The Walking Dead to be a watershed moment in game storytelling in a whole lot of ways, it’s still the same as most every other game in a very fundamental way: It was probably written for someone like me.
And it was probably not written for someone like Caitlin.
Caitlin’s playthrough included a lot of moments when she was given dialog options, but opted to say nothing. Characters almost always react negatively in The Walking Dead when you choose to stay silent, but it was something that Caitlin did on a number of occasions. She later told me that her inability to predict how Lee might treat characters in charged situations led her to stay out of a lot of things.
That inability to predict Lee’s reactions is a part of games like this, or at least, an unfortunate thing that occurs in many choice-based games. (One of my favorite examples was from L.A. Noire, in which you could “doubt” an old woman’s statement during an investigation. Applying “doubt” instead of the other possibility, accusing her of lying, seemed like a softer option — and it was surprising when protagonist Cole Phelps launched into verbally abusing the old lady.) But there might be something to the fact that it limited Caitlin’s ability to make something of a connection to a character who was supposed to represent her digital self. Maybe that’s just a limit of games in which the player and the protagonist are distinct entities. Unlike games such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, or even titles like Halo in which the protagonist is relatively quiet, Lee’s personality is distinct from what the player instills in him through control.
Then again, it might have something more to do with how characters in video games are built, and who designers have in mind to play them as they’re being built. I wonder how the same game would look with a character like Carley at the helm instead of Lee — she easily could have been put to all the same moral decisions as Lee, and been charged with caring for Clementine instead of Lee. She would have reacted similarly, it seems, in many situations to the way that Lee did in either my playthrough or Caitlin’s. But she would have been a fundamentally different character, both because she was a distinct person in her own right in the story, and because we players would approach her and her situation very differently.
Under those circumstances, would Caitlin’s point of view on Lee have been mine of Carley? It’s hard to speculate. But paying attention to the way different people interact with various characters in video games — especially the characters we’re meant to inhabit in this digital spaces — can only lead to better games and a greater understanding of ourselves.