Spoiler Content: Major, game-ruining spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I don’t discuss it in as much detail as my Spec Ops or Bioshock papers, but I do spoil one pretty major thing.
Survival is a theme that many modern games have loved to explore. The player is given a clear losestate: don’t die. The player is given clear primary objectives: get food, water, and medical supplies. The player is given clear secondary objectives: getting warmer clothes, and, more specifically, a gun, will help you get the food and water you need. The player is also given clear means of accomplishing these goals: scavenge for what you can, and kill anyone who stands in your way. Survival plays into the systemizing of games perfectly, as though the genre was made for the medium, and survival games line the halls of gaming’s greatest achievements. Day Z and The Last of Us, two very successful games from last year, both explored these mechanics in depth. Fallout, an isometric, post-nuclear roleplaying game from 1997, became a such a cult classic that it was later rebooted by Elder Scrolls developer Bethesda to resounding critical success. Survival is a genre that games do well, and have explored many of the important themes of. However, one game stands out as providing a subversive taken on the survival genre, and while The Last of Us may be a close second, it is Telltale’s critically lauded Walking Dead franchise, based on the enormously popular comic books and TV show, that, that most effectively explores the negative impact of survival-centric thinking. The Walking Dead tries to highlight how dehumanizing the systemization in survival games really is. They not only encourage but explicitly reward degradation of humanity, giving the player absolutely no ludic reason not to, and, in fact, many reasons to, kill anyone who so much as looks at them funny. Survival games create a world that is a puzzle for the player to solve, emphasizing player-centrality above all else, and treating other people as disposable obstacles. The suffering of other characters does not affect the player, in fact, the suffering of others benefits the player. In these games, the player is usually alone, combat-experienced, and healthy, with no attachments or obligations that a normal person might have, and can move freely throughout the world with complete control. The world is theirs for the taking.
The Walking Dead attempts to subvert the nihilism that accompanies the systemization of humanity by placing the player in the shoes of Lee Everett, a history professor under arrest for murdering his cheating wife, just as the zombie apocalypse breaks out. Throughout the game, he escorts an eight-year-old girl, Clementine, across the American South. Clementine is not his daughter, she just ran into him as the apocalypse began, but the player is encouraged to view her as a daughter figure. Through the injection of the player into a paternal role, The Walking Dead changes worldview that accompanies many survival games, shifting the focus from raw survival to the safety and personal development of a young girl. While the game explores many themes, this them, I believe, is most central to its presentation of a post-civilization humanity. The game focuses on this point the greatest in a passing comment by one character, a reference to the famous John Donne poem, No Man is an Island. While the character only quotes a brief segment of it, the well-known one from Hemingway, I believe the poem is worth repeating in its entirety.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
In the context of an apocalypse, this poem rips apart every shred of the survival mentality created and conditioned by many games in the genre. It presents the seemingly noble desire to survive as destructive not just to the world but to the self, as a loss for one is a loss for all. If survival means harming others, than the survivor does not survive, they are just as scarred as those they have killed. Through emphasizing the interconnectedness of humanity by using this quote, The Walking Dead paints a world not of a single, great tragedy, but of a million individual tragedies, each one chilling away at the fabric of humanity, and, in turn, every human being who is a part of it. Yet, through the placement of Clementine, Telltale proposes an alternative view of the apocalypse, one that doesn’t come with the pitfalls of the self-centric one. Clementine’s presence in The Walking Dead challenges the systemization and devaluation of humanity by providing the player with a meaningless choice to treat every human being as a part of a greater whole, and through their role as a parent, redeem themselves for the actions they must take to survive.
The Walking Dead, while a game about choice, does not have a great deal of player choice. The player’s decisions, for the most part, will not alter the narrative significantly, and are usually only reflected in a single line or two. Lee will start in the apocalypse and he will die in the apocalypse. Nothing the player does can change that. This is primarily due to budget constraints, and is a common practice within the industry. Interactive storytelling veteran David Cage, famous for games such as Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls, once referred to this process as “bending stories,” or working in light of budget constraints to create choices that seem to have an impact, but do not significantly shift the game narrative. In the industry, this is called the illusion of choice, and The Walking Dead embraces this philosophy wholeheartedly, tailoring the themes of their world to this technical constraint. The inevitability of death in an apocalyptic world is a core theme, and the player is provided with the choice not of if to die, but how to die. While the expanded universe of The Walking Dead isn’t clear on the exact outcome, it is fairly clear that humans will die off, and that their civilization will not rise again. With this inevitability, and the real impact of player decisions denied, what good can the actions of one man do? Any choice the player makes will be meaningless. Standard survival games would ludically tell the player to survive as long as possible, to view people as a means to an end, however, The Walking Dead gives the player a choice, however meaningless, to do otherwise. Lee’s decision to protect Clementine, to save a child, is a redemptive one, one that has no impact on his own survival, but does help him redeem, however little, for the murder of his wife. He bears the guilt for ending one life, and so he tries his hardest to save another. As games author Adrian Froschauer puts it, “The decisions you make in The Walking Dead don’t change what happens, they change how it happens” (Froschauer). Every sequence will begin and end the same way, but how they progress is what Lee, and by extension, the player, can change. The game carries its larger themes into its minute-to-minute gameplay. In this, the player is given a genuine choice of their worldview. For example, PopMatters contributor Nick Dinicola, in his article “I Am Clementine” describes his take on Clementine as a guarded, distant and practical girl who has seen every one of her friends die. Clementine does not seek companionship or trifle with niceties because she has seen how futile those attitudes are. In short, Dinicola’s Clementine had given up on people. Yet, my Clementine, as distinct from Dinicola, had a different approach. She saw Lee’s actions towards others, actions that I decided as the player, and realize that the only thing she had left in that world was other people, was the friends she was close too. Clementine had experience great loss, but she understood that that loss is the nature of the beast. “The world is a dark and scary place,” says Froschauer, “but we have to rely on each other, and even though we don’t have much influence on what happens around us, we can still make the best of it.” These are the words that my Lee and my Clementine lived by, and how they chose to experience the world.
When Clementine enters the world, and Lee chooses to accept her, the winstate of the game changes. Before, it seemed clear: stay alive, however now, pinning down the exact goal is difficult. Like real world people, Lee isn’t driven by a single desire, in this case to survive, but instead by a complex amalgamation of survival and his paternal duties to Clementine. Yes, he has to keep her alive, but he also wants to raise her to be a good person, to help her have some good experiences of human connection. Finding that balance between survival and humanity is difficult, but it is what Lee must do as a complex character with conflicting obligations. Late in the game, a character, Chuck, tells Clementine that she is going to die very soon, and that people can’t live in this world, and I flew into a fit of rage, directing Lee to yell at him for daring to try to make Clementine think that way. In all likelihood, Chuck was right, and Clementine would die sometime soon, but the idea of tarnishing the one innocent thing in a world where everything has gone to hell enraged me to no end. From an objective, survivalist standpoint, yes, it was probably important for Clementine to accept that she might die. However the game was no longer about pure survival for me, it was about keeping Clementine alive. Through her simple existence, Clementine had change my and Lee’s worldview. Her role as a child further adds to this, and is unique in video games for being surprisingly realistic. Children in games are usually a burden or annoyance, invoking feelings of ire instead of the paternal feelings that so many experience. If Clementine was this kind of child, she couldn’t have had the emotional impact on both Lee and the player that she did. The game subverts all of this, starting with the player’s introduction to Clementine: she helps Lee first instead of him helping her. In a genre which, like many gaming genres, places player empowerment at the core, Clementine’s role as an agent slightly disempowers Lee, and continues to do so as Lee sacrifices for her. In the game’s conclusion, Lee chooses to die so that Clementine can live, in an ultimate rejection of empowerment and survival, denying everything that the genre has built up. The scene is heart-wrenchingly emotionally resonant, bring many players, myself included, to tears because of the paternal feelings it evoked. This is because Clementine is not a burden, she is not an escort quest, I don’t need to be distracted from what I care about to help keep her alive, she is what I care about, she is an adult with way less experience than me, not a bumbling child. The game carries this theme into other children in the world, including Duck, a seemingly annoying kid who, after a few plot-centric quests with Lee, becomes more a sort of side kick, and rewarding the player with a message “Duck things you’re incredibly awesome” if the player chooses to give him a high five at the quest completion. Children are not worthless in this world, they are precious, and not just as one-dimensional symbols of innocence in a fallen world, but as real people who haven’t had the optimism beat out of them. Clementine embodies this, and Lee, and the player, are driven to protect it.
Protecting Clementine goes far beyond just physical protection, and even explicit interactions. The player must make all of their choices about not just in the context of their own survival, but of what Clementine will learn from those choices. In the second episode, I was given the option to kill a man who had killed and eaten one of my friends, a man who certainly deserved to die, and were I alone, I probably would have done it. However, Clementine was there. She was watching. Knowing that, I couldn’t kill this man, even if he deserved it, even if it was the better choice for my survival, because that would teach Clementine that this is a world where humanity is not valuable. Despite the myriads of reasons to do it, my desire to raise Clementine right prevented me from doing it. Despite everything in the world encouraging me to abandon my humanity, to embrace what Lee had started even before the apocalypse with the murder of his wife, Clementine made me want to seek the good in humanity for her. And, in the end, Lee dies for this. In the ultimate unification of all of the game’s themes, the game lets Lee choose how to die. His last words, he can inform Clementine’s worldview, telling her either to survive or to be human. The game flashes its iconic, “Clementine Will Remember That” text on screen after the player makes their final choice, but, from a gameplay perspective, she won’t. That choice, made in the last few minutes of gameplay, will have literally no impact on the last stages of the game, but, to me, that is the most important moment of the game. What I chose to say to Clementine in Lee’s final moments were overwhelmingly powerful to me, I would even go so far to say they are a part of my identity. That choice had nothing to do with anyone’s objective survival, but it meant more to me than anything else in the game. That is the power of the way The Walking Dead treats the world.
In Cormac McCarthy’s iconic post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, the unnamed boy keeps repeating the phrase, “Carry the Fire.” When he meets a new group of people after his fathers death in what becomes the book’s final scene, he doesn’t ask them their names, if they have food or if they will take him it, he asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The Walking Dead, in all its nuanced explorations of the apocalypse, is asking this question. When the player meets Clementine, it asks if she carries the fire. When the player meets Kenny, Carley, Ben or Chuck, it asks the same question, “Do they carry the fire?” And finally, through every single choice the player makes, even and especially the seemingly insignificant ones, it asks them, “Do you carry the fire?” The authenticity of The Walking Dead’s characters and the impact of its questions hinge on its ability to get the player to ask these questions. In The Road, carrying the fire was directly related to how the boy and his father treated others, in if they viewed survival as more important that the lives of others. Behind carrying the fire, there is the philosophy of for whom the bell tolls. The Boy carries the fire because he understands that other people are not just human beings deserving of dignity, but connected to him. He cannot hurt one for his own gain, because the suffering of another is his suffering. In short, the bell would toll for him. Through Clementine’s existence, Lee begins to understand this as well, and her presence forces him to change everything he thought he knew about violence and survival. The game brilliantly connects the player’s arc with Lee’s arc, forming their narrative so that both ask the question, “Do you carry the fire” at the same time. By linking these two arcs together, Telltale allows the player to explore these ideas with even greater depth, something that could not be done in a non-interactive medium. The questions it raises, the questions it answers and the ones it doesn’t answer, all pull from every aspect of its nature as a game, and through doing so, creates a masterpiece that will be discussed and debated for years to come.
Since The Walking Dead’s release and subsequent critical and financial success, many in the self-proclaimed “hardcore gamer” audience have laid a criticism against it that it is not, in fact, a game. Challenge is not a core engagement of The Walking Dead, the story progresses regardless of which decision the player makes, with only a few losestates scattered here and there. However, despite the apparent lack of “gamey-ness”, I believe The Walking Dead represents an enormous possibly future for the games industry as a whole. Games originally focused on pure mechanical engagement, make the ball bounce back, collect all the white dots, shoot down all the space ships. Today, however, some games are shifting that emphasis, away from pure mechanical engagement and towards another strength of games: agency. The player is actually present in the game narrative, making decisions that determine the way the game plays out. The Walking Dead emphasizes agency as a central theme of its structure, and while it has mechanical engagements, that is not what keeps the players coming back. I played The Walking Dead so I could be a part of a narrative I cared about, so I could explore the themes of humanity and degradation, of dehumanization and systemization, through a medium that lends itself towards doing so. This, I believe, is the core of what future games can do, and through games like The Walking Dead, I believe we can catch a glimpse of the future, and hopefully, start to discuss what we want that future to be.
Froschauer, Adrian. “Clementine Will Remember All of That.” The Ontological Geek. N.p., 10 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://ontologicalgeek.com/clementine-will-remember-all-of-that/>.
Dinicola, Nick. “I Am Clementine.” PopMatters. N.p., 17 Jan. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://www.popmatters.com/post/178309-i-am-clementine/>.
Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.” YouTube. N.p., 25 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emeCepFW9v0>.
Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Raising the Dead.” YouTube. N.p., 19 Apr. 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qizgjT4UXa4>.
Portnow, James. “Extra Credits: Minority.” YouTube. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=suf0Jdt2Hpo>.