Posted on September 6, 2012, Jim Sterling How Telltale’s The Walking Dead Makes You Think of the Children
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
Spoiler Warning: Discusses events in TellTale’s The Walking Dead up to and including Episode Three.
Children are one of the most easily exploited concepts in modern culture. Helpless by nature, protected by instinct, the “children” have been used as excuses by media watchdogs and oppressive lawmakers, as well as easy sympathy fodder by writers and directors across a range of entertainment media. However, it is due to the ease of their use that children often don’t work as intended — a lazy writer can toss a doe-eyed pre-teen into a story for instant conflict-in-a-can, but without any extra effort expended, the results can often be infuriating, rather than endearing, to the audience.
It’s often the case that children become annoying rather than compelling, their constant whining and lack of ability to look after themselves can be offputting thanks to a lazy writer who thinks simply having a child is enough of a motivation for the audience to care. It’s a cynical grab for your heartstrings, and most intelligent viewers can see right through it these days — whether it’s the squawking imbeciles in the first seasons of Dexter or Dawn fucking Summers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, our culture is replete with obvious examples of kids we’re supposed to feel sorry for, but see as little more than a pointless and annoying burden to the protagonist.
Videogames fall into the very same pitfalls. Heavy Rain is a prime example — the entire conflict revolves around a kidnapped child who is given absolutely no definition as a character. We’re expected to just “feel” something. I’ve been told that you need to be a parent to understand the emotional weight of the situation but … that’s bullshit. It’s bullshit because I have a child I’m charged to protect, I know parents, and neither myself or my child-owning friends really felt any desire to protect an undefined non-entity of a character. The “character” of Shawn was little more than an idea — the idea of a child. You don’t have to be a parent at all to sympathize with another human being, but they must be defined as a human being first, not held aloft as a burdensome concept. We can’t identify with something that has no identity, and we can’t feel sorry for something that has done nothing to the story other than be a worthless detriment to the hero.
This is why Telltale’s The Walking Dead has been an amazing accomplishment — not just in videogames, but in all of modern entertainment. Anybody looking to craft a sympathetic child character that can actually engage an audience without irritating anybody should view The Walking Dead as a masterclass in how it’s done. Clementine is a beautifully crafted character, somebody we feel sorry for without viewing as a pathetic wretch, somebody that needs caring for but is not a roadblock to progress. She is the method by which the narrative’s conflict propels, yet she is not just contrived for the sake of simple conflict propulsion. She is fully-realized, very human, and just a damn good character.
First of all, Clementine works so well because she’s not totally useless. In fact, she saves the protagonist’s life at the very outset of the game. Without her warning Lee of imminent danger, without her giving him a hammer at the crucial moment to smash an attacking “walker” to bits, the hero of the story would be another shambling atrocity. While Clementine is just a child, as vulnerable and in need of rescue as any other, she’s not a walking target. She responds to the zombie plague wisely — hiding in her treehouse, waiting for her parents to come home, and deciding to accompany Lee when it seemed necessary without digging her heels in and throwing a tantrum that would likely have caused more trouble.
Unlike so many child characters, who scream and squawk with shrill voices and snarky attitudes ill-fitting their status as helpless victims, Clementine is soft-spoken and shy. She has a reserved nature, a modesty about her, and a knowledge that she needs protection as well as a desire to remain out of peoples’ way. Despite this, however, she is also an incredibly strong person, her timid nature hiding a very mature personality. One truly heartbreaking moment is when she damages her walkie-talkie — something she was holding onto as a symbol of her parents. Although she is clearly upset by the problem, she holds back the tears, trying her damnedest not to cry. She is entitled to cry — she’s not only a child, but she broke the one thing she had left. Her resolve not to cry, however, made me feel so much more sorry for her. It hammered home the fact that the zombie outbreak has, essentially, robbed this little girl of her childhood. It’s forced her to grow up, yet she’s not a grown up at all, and her attempts to be strong make her inherent frailty all the more sympathetic.
Clementine has a very distinct personality. She cares for other people, she does her best to stay upbeat and friendly despite being all alone and potentially having lost her entire family. In talking with her, you can find her likes and dislikes, all very adequately defined. Rather than exist merely as the obligatory child, she exists first and foremost as an actual person, and that’s very important. She is also written believably as a child, something many writers fail to do. This is encapsulated perfectly when, in Episode Two, she tells Lee that the farmers’ cow’s saltlick tastes bad, and when asked if she tasted it, guiltily responds, “I don’t know.” It’s such a child response, but it’s something only a truly observant writer would pick up on and use in a videogame. It’s a subtle — and endearing — way of reminding the audience that she’s still a very young person. While other child characters would just scream like Newt from Aliens and be dragged off by something bigger to remind us how helpless they are, TellTale takes the understated approach, and it’s far more effective.
As a result, I’ve found myself protecting Clementine because I want to, not because I have to. Among the myriad choices The Walking Dead presents me with, I always take the options I feel are best for the girl. With dialog, I do my best to be honest with Clementine, to spare her feelings, raise her spirits, and earn her respect. The Walking Dead doesn’t use Clementine as a mallet to beat me around the head and force me to accept that she is the reason for everything. I willingly allow her to be the reason for everything, because she is a sympathetic little girl who I wish to see make it out alive and as intact a person as possible. I care about Clementine, I’m not tied down by her.
The character of Duck at first runs the risk of being the exact kind of character I’m critical of. When we first meet this secondary child, he’s annoying and quite stupid, yammering on about tractors and other banal topics. It’s not long before he’s grabbed by a walker and becomes the very burden Clementine manages to avoid being, and later finds himself at the center of an argument over whether or not he’s been bitten. However, by Episode Three, TellTale manages to craft Duck into an immensely likable character, playing on his annoying nature by turning it into a comedic trait, as he pesters Lee into being the Robin to his Batman. In investigating whether or not someone’s been stealing supplies from the group of survivors, Duck is not only funny, but actively useful in confirming the thefts. You even get to high-five him at the end of the investigation, the game telling you that Duck thinks you’re incredibly awesome. It’s a welcome levity to such a dark and depressing story, and for that I found myself grateful to Duck for providing some required humor.
However, Duck was the perfect avenue through which Telltale could stab us in the back.
Not long after we come to find Duck a welcome reprieve from misery, we find ourselves on the verge of tears, for he is soon bitten during a combined bandit/walker raid and spends much of Episode Three slowly dying. Because Telltale had used him so perfectly beforehand as a source of humor and a worthwhile temporary ally, his imminent death is all the more distressing. Someone so upbeat and cheerful, now wheezing quietly and barely moving, is one of the most disturbing images I’ve experienced in a game. There’s something so much more chilling about Duck’s near-death state than any of the body horror and squick I’ve seen in countless survival horror games. Arms and legs being cut off is one thing, but what the walkers did to Duck was destroy him as a person. A person that Telltale had just spent time building up for us to appreciate and gain comfort from. With any other stereotypical child character, I’d have viewed it as a lazy, manipulative, cynical crutch. But I liked Duck. Telltale made me like Duck, and then he was taken away. Not just physically. He was destroyed before he was killed.
I hate child characters in most media because they’re poorly designed as generic problems to be solved. However, Telltale has demonstrated that it’s not the fault of children themselves, but the fault of the writers behind them. If an episodic, downloadable videogame can create not one, but two children I genuinely care for and sympathize with, there’s no excuse for anybody. If you want to put a kid in your videogame, then The Walking Dead is the first place you better be looking at for pointers. Chances are, whatever you created up to that point will be totally embarrassed by the fantastic work of Telltale Games.
So many movies, books, shows and games tell me to think of the children. The Walking Dead made me want to.