Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Walking (Dead) With My Girlfriend Finale: Keep that hair short, girl

The Girlfriend and I have now finished the last three episodes of Telltale's The Walking Dead (and then moved across the country to Washington, hence, the delay of this article), and I thought I'd get a few more thoughts down on the game. This article will contain a few spoilers, although I'll try to keep it as clean as possible. Still, if you don't want at least some elements of the game's story spoiled, read no further.

The thing that became clear, once The Walking Dead was over, was that it's not Lee's story at all. Lee is the protagonist, sure, and the games stick very closely to his perspective. But the actual story, the character who the player influences in the most interesting ways on their journey, is Clementine's.

There was a moment, after the games were over, when Shanna chastised me for being too honest with Clem. Indeed, anytime the option to sugarcoat or euphemise or lie to spare her young feelings was presented, I would argue strongly against it. "She's just a little girl," Shanna argued. "She deserves the truth," I would reply. We were having a sincere discussion about the best way to parent a child who was not a child, just a deft creation of 3D modelling and writing and Melissa Hutchison's excellent voice work. But Clementine felt real to us, and her opinions mattered.

When we chose to do the right thing, it was as often as not because we were worried what Clementine would think (and the game is brutal about inserting her into moments when the urge to do wrong is strongest). Her disdain is the worst punishment the game can deliver, because, thanks to her childish naivete, she never hesitates in opting for the "good," "righteous" choice. Sure, you can rationalize your actions (and the game's structure, which requires that Clem remain devoted to Lee, ensures that she'll at least partially accept your excuse), but the punishment for doing so is the sense that you've made a permanent influence on Clem's impressionable mind.

Telltale aren't the first people to realize that a child's judgment is an excellent way to make a player give considerable weight to their actions. It's easy, especially for jaded gamers, to treat fictional worlds like consequence-less playgrounds where the id can run free. This is all well and good if that's what you designed your gameworld to be, but it can absolutely wreck an attempt at a serious tone. By placing the watchful eyes of an impressionable being on the player, learning from their actions, it's possible to give normally sociopathic players pause.

The difference here, and the reason Clementine is so compelling, I think, lays in the fact that most games that employ this mechanic (Bioshock 2, The Witcher, and Dishonored come to mind) tie your influence on the child to some set outcome for the game. You are told, explicitly, that your choices had a concrete impact, that you've pushed this child to some specific life route. In short, you're given closure on the choices you made, assured that what you did 'mattered,' because in a video game you expect to be given a clear metric for the choices you made. But The Walking Dead's conclusion derives its poignancy and meaning from the fact that we are utterly denied our closure, our ability to see how we've shaped the future.

When the game is over, your ability to influence Clementine is gone. There's no jump cut to her as a heroic messiah or a blood-thirsty warlord, guided by your parting words. There's only a scared little girl, still trapped in a bad situation, and the hope, a hope which exists only in the hearts of the player (or players), that the influence we had on her will be enough to keep her safe. That we taught our little girl enough to make her strong and smart and healthy. There's no guarantee that it will, that all those "Clementine will remember you said that"s will amount to anything. We just have to hope that it was enough.

I think that's called 'parenting'.

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