For those not familiar with Telltale’s The Walking Dead games, in the first installment (or season), you play as Lee, a man who was on his way to prison, who comes across a young girl named Clementine shortly after the zombie — or in this world, “walkers” — outbreak. Clementine is about eight and has been hiding out in her treehouse for a few days after her babysitter gets a little… bite-y. Her parents have not returned from their trip to Atlanta and you offer to help her find them (because telling her her parents are probably dead is not something Lee can bring himself to do).
Your single purpose in this game is to protect Clementine. You, playing as Lee, do a pretty good job, even as the people around you start dropping like flies.
Without massively spoiling the end of season one, season two starts out with Clementine, now about three years older, as part of another group. Telltale made what I think is fairly brave choice — having the protagonist be a twelve-year-old African American girl. In season one, you played as Lee, who is also black, but playing a middle-aged man is not that far from the norm in video games.
But playing as a young black (most likely mixed-race) girl? That’s pretty radical.
Some stuff goes down pretty early on in season two and you’re again separated from the people you know and you’re running for life from a group of crazed psychopaths.
You know, basic fare for the post-apocalyptic zombie future.
The game mechanics center around dialogue and action choices, How to be a Millionaire style. You pick a dialogue option and someone responds accordingly. The game constantly reminds you that the people you’re speaking to “will remember this.” If you die in a scene, it starts over and you get another chance. Every once in a while, you have to make decisions that are life-or-death — do I save this person or this person, do I risk my life to save this person, do I trust this group of people that I come across, etc.
The Walking Dead (and Telltale’s other games, like The Wolf Among Us) has been criticized for creating the illusion of choice, rather than true branching story lines where the story changes depending on your actions. This is not untrue — saving someone over someone else tends to get negated further down the line and predetermined events will happen, just in slightly different ways throughout the game.
I don’t think it really matters. Not to be cheesy, but it’s the journey that matters. Does the underlining structure of the game change the way you feel when you make morally impossible choices? Does it make it any less jarring to have to a walker appear out of nowhere and have to get away? Is seeing an old face from season one appear in season two any less gut-wrenchingly emotional?
To me, the game is not so much about the actual choices. It’s about how you view the choices you make. It’s all about morality. Will you play as a character that becomes ruthless and heartless or will you play as someone who trusts and helps others?
Will you risk yourself to help others, no matter what? Even more important, how will the choices you make effect your relationships with those around you and how will you feel about the choices you have to make?
Will you feel your choices are justified or simply unavoidable?
Clementine is a great character to play in this scenario. She’s young. Her personality hasn’t been too established by the previous installment of the game. And for some unknowable reason (in the in-game world anyway), the group always puts decisions in your hands. While I question putting major decisions in the hands of twelve-year-old, it’s the only way this style of storytelling could work. Otherwise, you would just feel like a puppet playing out the story that written for you with no real agency of your own.
There is a point in the last chapter of season two that your choices matter significantly. At the end of the story arc, you get to decide what kind of person this world has molded you into. Your previous choices may not effect what choices are available to you at the end, but it would be impossible to not take them into account when making those last few choices.
Will you follow Lee’s example of selflessness or will you turn to ruthlessness, like the main antagonist in season two?
I won’t spoil any of the endings, or the ending I wound up choosing, but I will leave you with the a key bit of dialogue from one the characters in my chosen ending:
“I’m real glad to have met you, Clementine.”
And I am — I’m very glad to have played as Clementine. I can only hope she’s somehow a part of season three.