Contains Heavy Spoilers
Many games have morality systems implemented into their gameplay design. They often are represented in a good versus evil dichotomy. The Mass Effect series, for example, uses Paragon coded in blue and Renegade coded in red. The Fallout series uses Karma. The decisions the player makes will fall in either of these categories, accumulating into an overall morality score. This morality score will often determine how npcs will react to the protagonist and in some cases offer a good or bad ending depending on your accumulated points on the scale. While, efficient and understandable, the problem with morality systems set up like this is the gamer will inevitably game the system in order to achieve the good ending or the bad, or to obtain some other type of achievement. This diminishes the natural reaction of the player and discards any hard-pressed moral reasoning the designers had intended for the game in exchange for reward metagaming. Telltale’s The Walking Dead adventure series uses a morality system that eludes this false dichotomy and instead creates a deeply personal and engaging journey devoid of metagaming. Telltale partially achieves this process by rejecting it altogether. There are no good decisions in The Walking Dead, there are only bad ones. Decisions come down to your personal values, what the game has taught you about this post-apocalyptic world, and what is the lesser of two evils. While most games offer black and white scenarios, easy to comprehend and outcomes predictable, The Walking Dead revels in the gray area. Thus, making every decision agonizing, no matter how big or small, because it might be consequential.
The Walking Dead carries it’s moral ambiguity throughout all parts of it’s design. The story is faithfully adapted from The Walking Dead comics and is integrated into the cannon of both the show and the comic. The Walking Dead game also borrows it’s form from the television show. It takes place in five episodes that were originally released months apart. Each episode takes roughly two to three hours to play through, varying with your speed with the puzzles.
The story begins with the scene of the protagonist, Lee Everett, a late-30s black male hand-cuffed in the back of a police car. We don’t know anything of Lee’s past. The police officer driving Lee to prison is questioning you about whether you are guilty or not. This sets the moral ambiguity from the start. From a sociopolitical standpoint, we have a black male in the south being taken to prison in a cop car. This sets up preconceived notions about race, class, and racial justice in the south from the beginning. Not giving us any of Lee’s backstory also makes it difficult to ascertain his culpability and whether we are lying to the officer or not. However, the game gives us clues quickly rejecting any stereotypes that might be inferred. Lee is well spoken and educated; we later learn he was a college history professor. Lee is dressed in what can be considered middle-class attire: blue collar shirt and khakis. He is a family man and is good natured. While he can be prone to outbursts, depending on the choices the player makes, he is by default level headed, sensitive, and rational. Despite all of these qualities, he is also guilty. We learn either sooner or later, depending on conversation choices with the officer, that Lee is guilty of killing a state senator that was having an affair with his wife. While the game offers many conversation choices, none of them are a denial of guilt, which the officer is complaining about with previous convicts. He concludes Lee must be innocent. Lee doesn’t entertain the notion, demonstrating Lee to be an honorable man ready to take responsibility for his actions. Consequently, Lee is a flawed hero, though still more commendable than his counterparts, despite his past.
The first person Lee meets after a harrowing escape from the now zombified officer is Clementine. Clementine is an eight year-old girl, seemingly abandoned, that Lee takes under his wing. Clementine is cleverly designed to be precocious, yet innocent, and not annoying. She is mature for her age but the player is constantly reminded she is just a little girl. The relationship between Lee and Clementine forms the cornerstone of The Walking Dead. Manipulation to make the player feel as Lee feels about Clementine isn’t necessary or employed. While some games use tools such as rewards and bonuses or usefulness to make the player want to protect a companion character, The Walking Dead doesn’t resort to such tricks. We want to protect Clementine as Lee wants to protect her. They even form a team, as Clementine reminds you when you want to leave her alone in dangerous situations.
Clementine is also Lee’s moral compass. Early on in the game when Lee and Clementine are sleeping in a barn at Herschel’s farm the player has the option to say it smells like “manure” or “shit.” If the player chooses “shit” as the conversation choice Clementine will admonish Lee for it but later also use the word. My Lee wouldn’t swear so I chose “manure.” She will also continue to gently prod Lee every time he uses a curse word even if they are unintentional. Comically, Lee addresses the fact that Omid swears in front of her without repercussion exclaiming, “Oh, so gets to swear?” Of course, this goes much deeper than swearing. Clementine is malleable and how she reacts to Lee will change depending on what she sees him do. Even justifiable acts of violence will make you think twice when you see Clementine’s innocent face in a shock of horror.
While the primary relationship of the game is between Lee and Clementine the other characters are also effectual. Kenny, a redneck fisherman from Fort Lauderdale can become Lee’s best friend or enemy depending on how you play the game. While The Walking Dead steers clear of a black and white morality, it establishes a separate dichotomous pattern of saving either character A or character B early on, only to break it later. In the first episode “A New Day” the player is confronted with saving either Kenny’s son Duck or Hershel’s son Shawn (a tie in with the comic/show) from a surprise zombie attack. If you choose to save Shawn, Kenny will never let you forget it despite he saving Duck himself. The Walking Dead uses a very effective mechanic of putting a timer of varying lengths on almost every choice given. This creates a sense of urgency that forces you to think on-the-fly and trust your instincts. Regardless of who you choose to save maintaining a positive relationship with Kenny is difficult reflecting the social politics in a post-apocalyptic world.
Later in the episode the pattern is repeated. Lee, Clementine, Kenny’s family make it to Macon and Lee’s family’s drug store. They are reluctantly taken in by a volatile group of survivors that have held up in the drug store. Lilly, their leader, and her angry father create the conflict that will propel the story for the next few episodes. Lilly’s father Larry believes Duck has been bitten despite his mother’s insistence that he hasn’t. Lee can choose to be confrontational and side with Kenny, work against his best interest and side with Larry, or try to be diplomatic and diffuse the situation. I chose to try to be diplomatic; a strategy that proved to be fruitless. This scene also reinforces the themes of secrecy, lies, and new beginnings. Who Lee presents himself to be can change the dynamic of the group. Lee hides that his family owns the drug store but some characters already know about your past. Carley, a news anchor, has been following your case. She believes Lee to be a good man but advises about sharing too much. Lee can rebut that this is the apocalypse and who cares what happened before. This sets Lee down his personal path of growth depending on the choices you make. After a series of trials Lee must choose to save either Carley or Doug, an amiable computer geek. I chose to save Carley. It is unclear as to why. In my gut reaction, I must have thought Carley would be more useful to have around with her good aim. This is the way the game trains you to think. Lee can be played as a cool pragmatist, a sentimental rationalist, or any where in between.
The themes of TheWalking Dead are as heavy and complex as the comics. What was right and wrong pre-zombie apocalypse no longer applies in the world of The Walking Dead. And the game gives you no shortage of tough choices to make. Early in episode two “Starved for
Help,” Lee is tasked with handing out the last of the food rations. There is only enough to feed four out of ten people. Whom you choose to give the food to could turn political in an already tense situation. I chose to give the food to the children, a newcomer Mark, who was looking weak, and another newcomer rescued from outside, Ben. When a family of farmers offer to trade food for gas their offer seems too good to be true, and it is. The family turns out to be a group of cannibals and in true Star Trek redshirt fashion they’re eating the unknown new guy, Mark. Like The Walking Dead comic the game shows us that there are deeper threats than the zombie apocalypse. The most dangerous animal is man and unfortunately, in this setting, strangers can never be trusted.
After Lee discovers the family is about to eat Mark he and the rest are entrapped in a meat locker. Larry overexcites himself and has a heart attack. We earlier learned that everyone who dies turns into a zombie despite whether they were bit or not. Do you help a crying daughter resuscitate a man that hates you, or help Kenny destroy his head before he turns on you all? You don’t have much time to decide. I chose to help save him in the highly emotional scene. Regardless, Kenny drops a salt lick on his head in a shocking instant. This underscores how powerless Lee and, you the player, really are. Lee is not omnipotent; he is only one man and you cannot control the actions of others. When you escape you can choose to seek revenge on the cannibal family or let them die poetically by being eaten alive by zombies. I chose the latter. A pivotal point comes in the game that seems immaterial when the group finds an abandoned station wagon chock full of food and supplies. What seems like a godsend is tainted when Clementine is upset because the group is stealing. You can choose to take or not take the food but as the group points out to Clementine, what was wrong and right before no longer applies, it’s about survival now. Still, Clementine serves as the bridge between the values of the old and the new world and keeps you questioning your own values.
The writing in The Walking Dead is superb and possibly the most realistic of any game I’ve played. Race continues to be a thread through the series but doesn’t overpower it. While, Lee draws some parallels with Rick from the comic and show, Telltale’s game harkens back to some of the political racial themes that George Romero established with The Night of the Living Dead, albeit less heavy-handed. In the beginning of episode two Lee is having a conversation with Mark about why Larry doesn’t like him. Lee has the option to say he’s an “old racist asshole,” despite lacking any hard evidence of the accusation. When I read that that was an option, I was like: that is something I would say. I was overjoyed that they wrote that as an option. It later comes back to haunt you when Mark blurts out you said Larry was racist. I stood by my word, even though Lee was subtly embarrassed by the lack of evidence. Another instance is when Lee and Kenny are investigating the suspicious barn of the cannibal family. They come across a locked door and Kenny expects Lee to know how to pick a lock because, “you’re…you know…urban?”
Lee replies, “I know you are NOT saying what I think you’re saying.” Something I would also say. Even though it was played for laughs it still addresses racial stereotypes in the south. Most games shy away from topics such as race relations. The Walking Dead hits them head on without being preachy. The naturalistic dialogue and adult themes of The Walking Dead set it far apart from any game writing on the market.
While the dialogue is well written and witty, silence is always a viable option. Sometimes it is the only appropriate answer. After the group is on the run from bandits attacking their stronghold at the hotel they discover Duck was bitten in the scuffle. You, Lee, and every character knows what must be done but Kenny refuses to talk about it. In fact, Duck’s parents both seem to be in denial, still chasing the pipe dream of getting to the coast and sailing away on a boat. The time comes when something must be done about Duck before he turns. The player has the choice to persuade Kenny or Katjaa, Kenny’s wife, to put Duck out of his misery. My Lee chose silence because how can anyone tell a parent what to do with their child in that situation? Even though Katjaa seems the most sober about the situation and decides to do it she tragically fails. Unable to kill her dying son she sacrifices herself leaving Kenny completely alone in a heartbreaking scene. Furthermore, something still needs to be done about Duck. Lee can shoot Duck himself or urge Kenny to do it. This time I urged Kenny to do it. My rationale was he would resent me later for doing it and also regret not doing it himself. Then there is explaining the situation to Clementine. She isn’t stupid and lying to her would betray her trust. I was always direct but careful to not be callous when dealing with Clementine. It’s a dangerous world after all and she must be prepared for anything.
Some of the most touching moments, and there are some, are just between Lee and Clementine. In episode three, “Long Road Ahead,” Lee spends the most time interacting with Clementine. When Kenny and Katjaa tell Lee that Duck has been bitten, they ask him to deliver the news to Clementine. Lee holds Clementine and must begrudgingly tell her that Duck has been bitten. She proceeds to ask about Carley, who was just previously shot in cold blood by Lilly. You begin to wonder just how much terror a child can endure in such a short amount of time. The player has the option to then tell her, “I’m glad I have you.” And you are. Being surrounded by so much death and darkness is emotionally tolling. Clementine serves as a small ray of hope in a quickly fading world. It’s such a short scene but also immensely powerful.
In the same episode a newcomer, Chuck, warns Lee he needs to form a plan and prepare Clementine to defend herself else she end up like Duck. In one of the most memorable scenes Lee decides to teach Clementine how to use a gun. In what would normally seem inappropriate in our world is a necessity in the world of The Walking Dead. Lee gingerly adjusts Clementine’s aim and gently covers her ears in a fatherly manner. Lee then must cut her hair short so she has less of a chance of getting grabbed. The conversation is probably the most humorous in the game but also one of the most realistic. Clementine is reluctant but understands and is afraid she will look like a boy. “Do you know how to do this?” she asks.
To which I replied, “Nope, no idea,” in order to maintain our honest dialogue. It’s these scenes that really stand out in The Walking Dead. The father-daughter relationship dynamic forms organically and never feels forced. However, all of these seemingly selfless acts of kindness Lee performs to keep Clementine safe may not be selfless at all. In episode two Clementine asks Lee if has ever thought of having kids to which he can reply, “I’d like to someday. Maybe a little girl like you.” It was also implied that Lee’s wife didn’t share the same sentiment. In a way Lee is using Clementine to fill the void of not having children. And in his new beginning, Clementine might as well be his daughter. These selfless acts of kindness might actually be selfish. This further adds to the complex emotional layers of the story and the multidimensionality of Lee’s character.
The penultimate episode of The Walking Dead sets up the action and urgency for the last. It is revealed that Clementine has been communicating with a stranger over walkie talkie and he has been deceiving her into thinking he knows where her parents are. Lee awakes to find Clementine gone and worst yet Lee is bitten by a walker in a random attack when picking up her hat. The player has the option to reveal the bite to the group or hide it and this choice will influence whether they will help you find Clementine or not. I chose to hide it, as to not startle the group or induce pity. I would tell them when the right time came. I convinced Kenny and Ben to come along and help me. Lee passes out through the travails of the episode. Once he wakes to Kenny and Ben trying to cut of his arm. You must decide quickly whether or not to cut it off. I decided against it. I thought it had been too long since Lee was bitten and cutting off an arm would only make it harder for Lee to defend himself. The possibility of Lee surviving the zombie attack with amputation is enticing but deep down the player knows this is already a death sentence. The bleak tone of the series has reinforced over and over that no character is sacred, no one is safe.
The conclusion of The Walking Dead begins with a showdown with the stranger. We discover he is keeping Clementine in the hotel where her parents were last seen. The scene plays out eerily quiet, with no music and little ambient noise. He orders you to put your belongings on a table and to sit down for a conversation. The stranger and Lee talk civilly and quietly but always on the verge of something sinister happening. All of your past actions come back to haunt you when the stranger lists the ways you have put Clementine in danger and judges your other choices including who you saved and why. It is only here when the stranger asks Lee if he’s ever hurt anyone that Lee divulges the full story of his past. He says he hurt his wife in many ways, that she travelled a lot while he wanted to settle down and have a family.
“We all are,” Lee replies.
This is one of the crucial themes The Walking Dead universe explores. The focus isn’t on the zombies. The emphasis is on the danger of man and what happens to the human psyche when the rules of society disintegrate. The stranger begins to talk to his dead wife’s head in a bag and Clementine sneaks out of her entrapment. Lee motions to the table where she picks up a meat clever and sinks it into the stranger’s shoulder. Lee makes his move and he and the stranger scuffle. But it is Clementine who saves you. She puts a bullet in the stranger’s head and I am awestruck to learn that I have turned Clementine into a cold-blooded killer.
But Lee and Clementine have one last test. When trying to escape the horde of zombies Lee passes out again and Clementine drags him to an empty warehouse. Lee’s skin color has been becoming increasingly gray; he doesn’t have much time left. He then must tell Clementine he has been bitten. The game plays with player expectations one last time after Lee falls down for the last time. A button prompt appears to make Lee stand up but no matter how hard and fast the player presses it it is impossible for Lee to get up and he instructs her to handcuff him to a radiator.
In a form of metagaming, Lee must instruct Clementine how to kill a zombie in her path and escape the warehouse before he turns. In explicit detail Lee instructs Clementine how to find the a bat, to break the window, to enter the office with the zombie. This is referential to story games in general but Lee is now the player and Clementine is his avatar, as Lee was the avatar for you. Clementine takes care of the zombie successfully but there is still the matter of Lee turning into a zombie. Clementine has proved she can now take care of herself. The player can either have Clementine shoot Lee before he turns or just to walk away leaving him to become a monster. Again no choice is ideal. This little girl has lost everything, her parents, and now must lose the only person she had left. I chose for Lee to have her kill him. She didn’t want to see him turn into a walker and reluctantly agrees. Her believable sobbing is heart-breaking. While either choice would be traumatizing, I chose to have her kill Lee as his last lesson to her, so that there was no possible way he could hurt her in the future, and so she could complete her last step into her initiation into accelerated adulthood. The last words you can choose to say to Clementine are, “Don’t be afraid”, “You’ll be okay”, or “I’ll miss you.” I chose, “I’ll miss you,” and Lee drifts off. Clementine winces but regains her composure, teary-eyed raises the gun, and pulls the trigger. Much like The finale of The Sopranos when Tony is shot, the screen goes black. Lee’s consciousness has ended, and we seeing through his eyes, no longer have a window into that world. While the ending is austere, there is no other the way the story could end. Of course, everyone’s playthrough will differ depending on their choices but the end will always be somber. I take solace in that my Lee did everything he could to prepare Clementine to fend for herself in the cold world of The Walking Dead.
Many games give the player difficult choices but rarely does a game have you thinking about them days later wondering, what if I had done this differently? Telltale’s The Walking Dead is so powerful because of it’s moral ambiguity. You can never do the right thing, only the less wrong thing. And while the game can’t change fundamentally in narrative, it does tailor the game to your decisions. As in life, it’s the small things that matter. The minutiae of character dialogue and character development makes all the difference. How the player interprets the personal moral code for Lee, and subsequently Clementine, determines how they will play the game. There is no right or wrong answer, and therein lies the strength of The Walking Dead.