How The Walking Dead and Other Games Let You Off the Hook
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.
The primary premise of The Walking Dead at the outset seems like it’s about survival — your survival and your group’s survival — but it becomes more accurate to say that the game is about protagonist Lee protecting the child Clementine. The story of The Walking Dead tests us and asks us to make a lot of various decisions, but through most of the first four episodes, it never questions this fundamental premise, the assumption we all make from the start: We are the person who should be caring for Clementine.
At first, this is because there’s literally nobody else. Lee isn’t the best of limited options, he’s the only option. This persists for a while — Kenny’s wrapped up in his own family, Lilly’s a loose cannon, and most everyone else who doesn’t invalidate themselves winds up dead. But then we hit Episode 4, where we find Lee making fewer decisions about the group welfare, as in Eps 1-3, and more decisions about Clementine specifically. It’s here that the game finally starts to ask you if you’re doing a good enough job for this little girl, and even further, starts to provide potential alternatives to your care.
Even as characters start to ask if you’re a sucky surrogate father, no one can really step into the role — until Clementine disappears, kidnapped by a man who really thinks that you’re not only bad at caring for her (as other characters have insinuated and even said outright), but thinks he could do better. When contacting this character, The Stranger, by walkie talkie in Episode 4, he pointedly says, “This isn’t a kidnapping — it’s a rescue.” The game goes further by leaving Lee not only having failed to protect Clementine, but bitten by a zombie. He now has a clock on his life; at some point, he’ll be physically unable to protect her altogether. And then you finally meet The Stranger, and he calls you out on every decisions you’ve made in the game.
It’s a great moment, and an intense one. You’ve been taking care of Clementine, as Lee, by circumstance, but Telltale is banking on the idea that you’ve grown attached to the little girl. Now it’s telling you what a poor job you’ve been doing, and the game, and The Stranger, aren’t even wrong. Most of Lee’s defenses are somewhat stumbling — “You weren’t there, you don’t know what it was like,” is a recurring theme in Lee’s answers during the conversation.
While I love the scene, Telltale never quite drives the point home. You’re accountable for your actions, but you’re never truly responsible for them. While Lee’s somewhat bumbling defense of his actions in those various moments are compelling, forcing players for a second to ask themselves if they really did make the right choices all the way through, there’s a much bigger question: Are you really the man (or woman) for this job? As Lee sits before The Stranger, slowly dying, can he really say definitively that Clementine should leave with him?
And then Telltale excuses you for all you’ve done. You might have wronged The Stranger and been a poor candidate for caring for Clementine, but this guy has his dead zombified wife’s head in a bowling bag. That pretty much closes the discussion on who Clementine is better off with right there, and yet Telltale gets so close to really taking you to task for what you think, feel, believe and do in the course of protecting Clementine. And that would have been interesting.
Games have a tendency to do this, though, especially when choice is involved. Meaningful interactive storytelling through choice asks you not only what decisions you’d make or opinions you’d hold, but why you make them. What is it about you that informs this choice? What do we learn about ourselves through these choices? What does it say about us as people as we explore the lengths we’re willing to go to do to things like save Clementine?