Over the years, video games have proven to gamers the world over its ability to tell good stories. All that’s needed are good writers, strong direction, and a great cast of voice actors. As someone who used to be considered a non-gamer, I discovered what I have been looking for in games––story and characters I want to dive into as readily as I do with reading books or watching movies, but with the interactivity to engage with the characters and participate in the story.
Bioware nailed interactive storytelling with games like Dragon Age: Origins and the Mass Effect series by writing characters who seem as rich and complex as us. The care taken to bring these characters to life makes us almost believe they exist in reality. That’s powerful storytelling when these characters can imprint themselves in our minds, whether we are still playing through to the end or have completed our journey with them. It’s like they’re saying, “Please don’t forget me.” I can maybe count a handful of books, films, and now games that have left that kind of impression on me.
Recently, I finished playing Telltale’s The Walking Dead. I don’t call myself a Walking Dead fan because I don’t read the comics or watch the TV show. It was only after I read reviews on the game was I convinced I want to give this one a shot. Everyone spoke of the relationship between the two main characters Lee and Clementine and how the gameplay is more story heavy than action heavy. Choices have to be made, and lots of times those choices are brutal.
The set up for The Walking Dead has a similarity to Bioware’s decision base gameplay with dialogue options you have to choose to shape the story in some small way. Being a fan of decision based, story games I had to find out what’s deeply moving about the relationship between Lee and Clementine. It also helps that my friends gave me the game for my birthday to play on the 360 a few months ago.
I could review this game, but there are already plenty of good reviews on it like Shaun’s piece on At the Buzzer, Chuck’s episodic reviews found here and here at Counter Attack, and Pixel Bubble’s most recent post. Instead, I want to talk about the characters in greater detail. This post will be littered with spoilers, so if you haven’t played the game and plan to I suggest reading my post after you have completed the game.
When you first meet Lee at the start of the game, he’s riding at the back of a cop car, handcuffed, and waiting to be taken to the police station for booking. We don’t know what crime he has committed, but on first appearances it doesn’t seem like Lee is a bad guy. It makes you wonder what Lee could have possibly done to have led to his arrest.
The story starts relatively normal, but considering this is a Walking Dead game you know this seemingly peaceful setup won’t last for long. We run into the zombies, or as the world of The Walking Dead calls them, the walkers. The officer taking Lee in is dead and has turned into a walker himself. The tempo of the game quickly picks up, and you as Lee are rushing to escape the walker infestation you have encountered.
Lee eventually stumbles upon a residential home looking for help. It’s seemingly empty until he encounters a little girl named Clementine. We find out she is all alone and her parents are up in Savannah, Georgia. The babysitter in charge of watching her has also turned into “one of them,” and Clementine has since been keeping herself hidden in a tree house outside of her house. With both Lee and Clementine on their own, they join up together on a search for someplace safe and to find their own families in a world where the undead outnumber the living.
What the game does well is the gradual build up of Lee’s and Clementine’s relationship with each other. We see just how much these two rely on each other for everything––their survival, comfort, protection, and ultimately what shred of humanity they have left to cling to. The relationship strengthens and grows into one of a father caring for his daughter. We are reminded that these two aren’t really father and daughter, the search for Clementine’s real parents always looming at the back of Lee’s (and the player’s) mind all the time. Despite what their relationship is to each other, one thing is very clear––Lee will do whatever he has to for the sake of Clementine.
The decisions you have to make for Lee are mainly motivated by what is not only good for the group of other survivors you have with you in the game, but for Clementine as well. None of the decisions you make are easy. If you thought making choices in Dragon Age or Mass Effect was hard, you haven’t encountered anything like The Walking Dead game. There’s nothing to indicate which is the right or wrong choice to make. To make things even more difficult and nail biting is the timer you are given to select one. I always managed to make a decision just before the timer ran out. I can’t say what happens if you don’t make any sort of decision when the timer does run out. My guess is the game chooses for you. These dire options you are presented with all throughout the game pushes you to question all you have learned of what is right and wrong in your own lives. Even the characters themselves often remind Lee he will have to make the hard choices if it means surviving.
For instance, a character named Kenny is a family man from Florida who has done some pretty shocking things for the good of their group and for their survival. He constantly pushes Lee to do what he has to, even if it may not be the most popular choice to make. At times it can be downright cruel. As Lee, and depending on how you play it, he’s constantly on the fence about what to really do. Most of the time I had Lee try to save people if he can, much to the disapproval of some of my group members. Of course, in the end, I had to let people die.
There’s one part in the game where you have to decide if you want this woman calling for help, as she is being ambushed by walkers, to be saved or used as bait so Lee and Kenny can get inside a building without alerting the walkers to where they are. As much as I didn’t want to do it, I let the woman get eaten by the walkers. By making this decision, the game doesn’t let you forget how you let an innocent woman fighting for her life be used as bait. You and Lee hear the blood curdling screams of the woman being ripped to shreds even after him and Kenny are already inside the building. The shadow of guilt on Lee’s face is palpable and to a certain degree it affects you too. The game forces you to play god with people’s lives in certain situations and it makes you wonder how far your own sense of humanity will deteriorate in time. The focus on the human condition and how people handle a grim situation in light of a collapsing society is a theme you can’t help but go over in your mind over and over again as you continue to play.
Aside from Lee having to live with the guilt of deciding someone’s own fate, you also have to face Clementine. How do you explain to an eight-year-old that what you did was the right thing to do? How do you make something so horrific seem less so? The answer? You really can’t. No matter how gently you break the news to her about why someone died or why you couldn’t save this person, Clementine will still view it as wrong or she’ll somehow feel disappointed in you for not doing more.
Clementine represents innocence, hope, and an untouched simplicity of a time where the world hasn’t gone to hell. She’s raised on clear cut right and wrong principles. With the zombie infestation in the game, it muddies what we know of right and wrong a great deal. Lee tries to shield her from the ugliness their world has succumbed to, but even he has to be faced with the reality of this is what their world is now and Clementine has no choice but to learn some pretty hard lessons in this new world.
What I find truly amazing about Clementine is how in spite of everything she has seen and been through, she doesn’t become cynical or hardened. I can’t imagine what a child must think and feel to have to go through some of the messed up things that go on in this game. It’s damn near impossible to be a kid when everywhere you go there’s a threat of death at every corner.
The walkers in the game are not the only problem the characters have to face. Loyalties and trust are tested and even the living are turning on each other. Everyone in the game has their own ways of coping with the tough ordeal they’re in and the mindset for most is Charles Darwin’s most famous scientific theory of “survival of the fittest.” It’s not just society that’s crumbling, but the human condition is also decaying from the inside out.
I think Lee is largely responsible for keeping Clementine as she is––a kid who doesn’t lose most of her innocence and hope. To use an overused cliche, Lee is very much Clementine’s rock. He has to be the strong one to keep things together for both their sakes. Lee tries to find ways to keep things normal for her by encouraging her to play or draw pictures like a regular kid her age would do. I also believe Clementine acts as Lee’s rock for him too. She’s the one shining light in his dark life. Clementine is someone he can hold onto as he deals with real world threats and coming to terms with what he did in his past.
Lee has latched onto Clementine as his penance and redemption for past mistakes. I’m not about to get religious on any of you, but from what I have noted in the game, Lee acknowledges he has made many mistakes in his life. Lee isn’t too proud of those mistakes, but with Clementine, it’s his chance to do something right for a change. When Lee finds his family long dead and his brother gone the way of the walkers, in many ways, he can’t repair the damage and grief he has caused to his family. Clementine embodies a second chance for Lee. This is why there is no doubt in your mind that Lee will die to ensure Clementine lives through this zombie apocalypse.
Measures are taken to prepare Clementine for the day when Lee may not be around to protect her anymore. He teaches her how to shoot a gun and gives her tips and pointers on what she needs to look out for. It is Lee and Clementine’s hope that they’ll be able to stay together forever, but unfortunately, the day of Lee no longer being able to protect Clementine has arrived towards the end of the game. Lee is bitten by a walker and he has to race against time to save Clementine from a deranged kidnapper.
The closing of Lee and Clementine’s story in The Walking Dead is rightfully one of the saddest scenes you’ll ever experience in a game. Lee is dying and if the proper preventative measures aren’t taken, he will eventually come back as one of the walkers. The goodbye between Lee and Clementine will rip your heart to shreds. You’ve been rooting for these two to make it, but reality sets in and Lee has gone down the path of a doomed and gloomy end.
The scene where Lee finds he has been bitten by one of the walkers is heart stopping. As Lee is chanting, “No, no, no!” in despair, you are shaking your head in disbelief as well. You’re too shocked and in anguish over your favorite hero now walking down a path to his death. It sinks in pretty hard that Clementine will have to live on without Lee in her life.
I didn’t come into this game thinking it would end in sunshine and roses, but I had hoped Lee’s death bed had involved going out in a blaze of glory, holding off the walkers while Clementine and whoever remained in your survivor group escaped on the boat they find in town. Instead, it’s a slow death for Lee, going on borrowed time until the last second has stopped.
The goodbye scene is a testament to why this game has been well received by critics and players alike. Telltale managed to create two characters who you cared about, and they also represent a refusal to give up when all hope is lost. Kenny goes through the ringer himself, but he’s one of those characters who prefers to hold onto hope than give up. Hope may be seen as a weakness in the world of The Walking Dead, but it’s really a strength that will carry you even in the darkest of days.
I think one of the other driving themes for this game is the idea of hope. It’s what keeps Lee and Clementine going, and even in Lee’s final moments, he still instills hope in Clementine. He not only prepares her physically to fight off a walker horde, but he also prepares her emotionally. Lee gives her everything he believes she needs and he is able to die knowing she’ll be fine. He gives her the fighting spirit that he has carried for both of them.
Through the relationship between Lee and Clementine, we take a hard look at what we define as morality and what our perception of a good or bad person is. The game is unrelenting in deciding for ourselves if the decisions we made as Lee is for our own self-interests or is it truly for the good of everybody else. Everyone’s definition will vary and we won’t agree with the conclusions we come to, but what is certain is we should never let go of our ability to care for others, to love, and to find the silver lining in every bad situation. Who else will fight for humanity if everyone else gives up?