You can read more of my writing over at the Meeple Like Us blog, or the Textual Intercourse blog over at Epitaph Online. You can some information about my research interests over at my personal homepage, or on my profile at Robert Gordon University.
The Walking Dead (Telltales Games, 2012) is a gritty, harrowing adventure game set in the grim, unforgiving darkness of a zombie apocalypse. It’s a pitch-black story full of woe, heartbreak, death, pain and loss. Yet at the core, it’s a touching and emotionally resonant story about redemption and humanity in the face of tragedy. At the core it’s about innocence denied and yet retained in the face of grotesquery and violence. At the core, it’s about a young girl and her relationship to a terrible world doing its best to break her. The core of the game is Clementine. It is perhaps surprising that Clementine should be such an emotionally effective character - the game is largely one long escort mission, and bitter experience with video games has taught us that our charges are sources of frustration, not affection. Children too are rarely well characterized in games, and often-times seem a design indulgence attempting to artificially spark feelings of protectiveness but failing. The imposition of pseudo-parental responsibility is not a game design convention that has traditionally demonstrated much effectiveness. Clementine, as a character, should not work at all. And yet she does and in the process communicates much of importance about ourselves – of the value of compassion, and our natural impulse to shelter that which is fragile. When she breaks, we break with her.
And yet, Clementine is not presented simply as a weak point in our emotional armor. We are shown her in all her complex nuance - sweet, compassionate, innocent, and yet reluctantly aware of how terrible the world around her is. She is shy and yet possessed of a keen coolness of perception and insight of situation that puts her at odds with the arbitrary and often angry attitudes of the people around her. Our role, implicitly communicated, is to help her develop these talents and trust in herself because nobody survives for long in this dark world. We know that Clementine will need to go on without us at some point. As temporary stewards of Clementine our key contribution in the first game is to allow her become the person she needs to be – the one that can shoulder the almost oppressive weight of adult responsibility that becomes her burden within the second season of the franchise. In this, we are guided by perhaps the most chillingly effective piece of game feedback in all of history, the occasional admonishment that ‘Clementine will remember that’. When we tell a lie, demonstrate distrust, or allow the darker side of our nature to reveal itself we are constantly aware that we are shaping Clementine’s view of how one survives in the apocalypse. No other morality system in gaming is quite so effective in making the player feel genuinely regretful for the spontaneous harm they may have inflicted.
Our guardianship of Clementine is destined to be brief, but the relationship we build with her is seminal to her development. By the time season one ends, she has the confidence to strike out on her own. We don’t equip her with a vast library of survival skills, but instead a kind of fatalistic self-confidence in her own moral compass and wisdom. She survives not because she is a cold killer, but because she still retains the compassion and the hope to see the best of the people she encounters. Within season two she grows to take on a leader’s role – surrounded by grown-ups and alpha personalities, she retains her central importance as the keeper of the community spirit. In an inversion of traditional expectation, those that should be responsible for her care turn to her for guidance. She is never in charge, but always sufficiently close to those that are to steer and shepherd them towards doing what is best. It is her influence which is most consistent, most compassionate, and most coercive. She is uniquely capable of offering a perspective that is free of challenge or confrontation. She is the conscience of the survivors, but one forged in suffering and battle. She may be kind, compassionate and fundamentally naïve but she also has a backbone of iron. Clementine, with our guidance, is empowered to turn the other cheek and offer endless patience. She is also capable of showing cold fury and vengeance when the vagaries of frontier justice demand it.
Clementine then represents a fascinating subversion of gaming expectations. She is a child in an overwhelmingly adult-oriented game. Yet she is presented not as a gameplay obligation but as a delicate and interesting character in her own right. Her presence is not gratuitous or twee - it is fundamental to the emotional heft of the game. Her role is not to tug on the heart-strings, but instead to lend real human weight to what is otherwise a relatively shallow adventure experience. The interplay between Clementine and those around her is not optional world-building, it is core to both the story and the effectiveness of the final conclusions. To remove Clementine from the Walking Dead is to remove all genuine depth from the narrative. She is so integral to the relationship between player, game and story that failing to make the emotional connection with her is to deny yourself the bittersweet satisfaction of the finale to both seasons. In that respect, she may not be unique in gaming but she is certainly vanishingly rare. She is a child written so convincingly that she genuinely evokes the adult fear of parents trying to protect their children in circumstances spiraling far beyond their control. Clementine is not only a tremendous character in terms of how flawlessly she is written and presented – she is also an excellent positive role model that shows that being a hero does not necessarily begin and end with martial prowess. She shows that empathy, understanding and compassion can be the most effective tools when trying to collaboratively create a better world. We could do with more of that in gaming.