The Walking Dead Season 2 and Shaping a Character in Video Games

[Spoilers ahead for Telltale’s The Walking Dead game series]

One reason I will defend video games as worthy of consideration alongside other more “serious” forms of storytelling is the extent to which their interactivity can allow players the chance to shape the characters we are playing. The Mass Effect trilogy, the Fallout games (though I can only speak for Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas), The Witcher and its sequel – all of these certainly have traditional narratives with goals that must be accomplished along the way, but they are also concerned with the personality of the main character and the values and ideas reflected in the choices that the character makes at the player’s direction.

That’s not to say that they’ve quite reached the level of interactivity that I’d like. I’d wager that almost any Mass Effect fan has “my Shepard wouldn’t say/do that” or “but I don’t agree with any of these choices” moments, for example. But there’s enough variety available that a playthrough with one Shepard, or Lone Wanderer, or Courier, or Geralt of Rivia, doesn’t necessarily feel exactly like another.

Which brings me to Telltale’s much-praised The Walking Dead. Like most gamers, I was thoroughly impressed with Season 1, in no small part for how it required players to make difficult, spur-of-the-moment decisions and explored the consequences that followed. Because the narrative centers around a not-always-harmonious group of survivors, it’s impossible to please everyone, and the consequences of the player’s choices have less impact on the plot per se than on the relationships between the characters and which of them survive various turning points in the narrative. Shaping Lee Everett and his efforts to protect Clementine and teach her to survive ranked up there as one of the more compelling interactive experiences that I’ve had since getting back into gaming several years ago.

When I heard that we would be playing as Clementine in Season 2, however, I was less than enthused. Playing as an adult trying to help a child through the world (as in Season 1) was one thing, but actually trying to put myself in the mindset of a young girl? I was a little less sure that I could do that, and so far the game hasn’t entirely assuaged my concerns. Early on, for example, Clementine is with Christa and Omid, the expecting couple who survived Season 1, and they are having a discussion over what to name their baby. When Clementine is prompted for input, I instinctively selected a choice along the lines of “You two should decide.” That’s likely how I would respond in real life, i.e. it’s their relationship, their baby, and their decision, and I should stay out of it. But is that really how a 10-year-old would respond, or would she simply give her opinion? I ended up replaying that scene for other reasons and went with “What if it’s a girl?” instead. But I didn’t have to second-guess myself this much when playing Lee.

One other sticking point: at one point, there is a “sixteen months later” jump forward in which Christa’s baby has apparently been born but is now absent for some unstated reason. What is the point of keeping us, the players, in the dark about what happened to the baby? The problem I have with this is that Clementine almost certainly *does* know what happened, and that would undoubtedly shape her perspective and attitude, and yet we’re supposed to role-play her perspective and attitude without knowing this. (In fact, S1 kind of did this too – at the very beginning I’m supposed to role-play Lee responding to questions about whether he was really guilty of murder, and I thought to myself, “How the hell should I know whether he’s guilty or not?” and chose a fairly neutral response to be safe. I later came to see him as wrongly convicted, but at the time I just didn’t know.) If they’re going to withhold this sort of crucial information from us, then we should be playing from the perspective of a character who also doesn’t have the information.

I don’t mean to sound down on The Walking Dead here – I’ll be looking forward to Chapter 2 – but one thing that game developers do need to consider when giving us the option to shape our characters is whether or not the characters have a perspective we can understand. So far, it’s unclear whether we’ll quite get there with Clementine.

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