Video games grant escapists the chance to be the ultimate space marine or a master assassin; a chance to play God or sink a clutch three-pointer in game seven. That already brilliant spread of imaginative opportunities now includes the stress of fatherhood, apparently.
I spoke about the capacity for emotional ruin in Yager’s Spec Ops: The Line, yet when I wrote that post so many months ago, I had no idea there’d be yet another emotionally devastating video game in the form of TellTale’s episodic survival adventure, The Walking Dead.
You’ve no doubt heard of The Walking Dead franchise by now, whether through the comics or, more unfortunately, through AMC’s interpretation (I swear I’m not bitter). Although the game takes place in the same world as the comics, there’s little correlation here.
In Telltale’s Walking Dead, you play as Lee, a convicted felon who may or may not be guilty — we’re never sure. During your transfer to a prison just outside Atlanta, a place where most fans would know as ground zero, things inevitably go awry. Long story short, Lee escapes custody and promptly finds a little girl named Clementine who’s been hiding from the undead in her tree house. The goal from there is simple: survive.
Over the first season’s five chapters, you and Clementine move about the apocalypse with a ragtag band of survivors who squabble and argue in ways that feel remarkably grounded considering the circumstances. You’re typically caught in the middle of these arguments, and while you might not agree with a particular direction, it’s clear that if things hit the fan, you two are in this together.
Like the other two properties, this game is not about killing zombies, though you certainly do a fair bit of that. Instead, the focus rests on the human element. It’s dialogue over zombie head-smashing. Using your brains, not defending them.
The Walking Dead provides a palpable sense that things are riding along a paper-thin cusp of disaster at all times. Decisions, no matter how big or apparently trivial in the present context, carry immense weight. You’ll be forced to choose which character to save or who to give the remaining food rations to when there’s not enough for everyone.
With Clementine, things get even more complicated when you’re thrust into the gaping maw of parental responsibility not ten minutes into the first episode. You protect her in more ways than just clearing out a road full of the undead. You teach her how to shoot, reassure her when times are grim, or shield her eyes when you stumble upon one of the many horrific vignettes along the journey. Clem’s not just a helpless bystander, though. She’s a thinking, reacting character who asks those questions you’d imagine a parent struggling to answer: Why do people die, why did you kill them, why did you do what you did?
It doesn’t sink in until you find yourself trying to explain to a mortified eight-year-old why you impaled someone with a pitchfork.
“When you have the opportunity to kill [redacted] in the barn with a pitchfork, those stats are overwhelmingly in favor of people were just like ‘Fuck that guy’ and stabbed him… when they get to the next brother… next to no one [killed him],” said Jake Rodkin, one of the two project leads, in an interview with GiantBomb.
“Looking at forums, the response was ‘Oh, I stabbed the shit out of that guy with a pitchfork, and then Clementine was right there, and I saw her see me kill someone, and that made me think twice about doing it to the second guy, I just couldn’t do it.’”
As I wrote before about Spec Ops, the illusion of player agency in a video game narrative — the narrative that only moves at the speed of your actions — creates a sense of personal investment far beyond what’s capable in other media. The player is often pressed with making the tough decisions in The Walking Dead and the characters respond realistically since they, too, are looking to protect the skins of their family. Survivors remember your words, actions, decisions, and judge you for taking sides or for being too neutral in a world gone mad. Subsequently, there’s a very tangible stress factor in everything you do because these situations are entirely plausible and disturbingly relatable.
Clementine is your escape from all that; your emotional safe haven of sorts. No matter what, you know you’re here to protect Clem and, in a sense, she’s there to protect you and your sense of purpose. Even though she’s a digital creation, I found myself physically acting out whenever she was in peril, which, you can imagine, happens more than a few times in the end of days. I panicked, worried, got angry, furious, murderous. The game let me express this spectrum by presenting a range of conversation choices. If a party-member failed to protect her, I could confront him or her about it and tell them how I felt. “If you ever put her in danger again…”
While I knew the whole time that Clem was nothing more than a construct meant to stab at my heart, even my over-analyzing self was unable to shake itself from the dream.
The first season of this interactive drama wrapped up last week with the fifth chapter, “No Time Left.” The finale punctuated an experience that most gamers can’t claim they’ve had before. I have no qualms with admitting that I was bawling in the game’s final minutes, and I’m clearly not alone.
For me, Clem is gone. I’ll miss her dearly though she never existed. I’ll fondly reminisce on virtual memories. If that’s not a little bit weird, I don’t know what is.