((Editor’s Note: There are several SPOILERS for The Walking Dead video game in this article!!! Read at your own discretion!!!))
As most of you who read my previous work here on Pop Cults are aware, I listed Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead as my 2012 Game of the Year – and for good reason. The point and click adventure game based on Robert Kirkman’s hugely popular The Walking Dead comic book series from Image Comics (which also inspired the wildly popular The Walking Dead television series on AMC) has raised the bar for what point and click adventure stories should be. Above that, I also believe that the game has set a new benchmark for what gamers are expecting in terms of writing, storytelling and character development in future games – points that Telltale Games prominently featured in their game. Yes, there were some technical issues with the game (clipping, frame rate and inconsistencies in scenery), but these were all overlooked because of the overall experience that the game presented players.
This is especially true when it comes to the way the players come to genuinely care for the characters involved in the story. Not necessarily every character in the game, though. Heaven knows I would have loved to kill off Kenny, Larry and Ben earlier in the game than when they eventually died, but certainly some of the other characters definitely grew on me, particularly Lee Everett and Clementine. There is something about the characterization of several characters that comes from their development through the game and simply grabs the player and holds them, making them care about their survival and ultimate fate in the game.
Aside from the two main characters, the one character that I had a real attachment to was Carley, the news reporter that you meet in Lee’s family’s pharmacy in Macon during Chapter 1. You choose to save her or Doug (can you guess who I saved regularly) and you start a somewhat fond relationship with Carley depending on your choices with her. But the hinted romantic feelings are not why I attached myself to Carley. I felt strongly about her character for her fair assumptions of Lee, her trusting of him despite knowing his past and the way she is always looking for the best in Lee and helping him make some decisions in the early part of the game. I tried again and again to see if there was any way to save her life, but no matter what happened and what choices I made, she always ended up being killed by Lilly, which is a double heartbreak because I also really cared about Lilly.
Yeah, her father, Larry, might have been a major asshole and would have done everything in his power to make Lee’s life a major pain, but Lilly was a collected and strong, yet sometimes paranoid, leader of the survivor group. (Well, co-leader, but who’s counting?) But Lilly’s emotional opening to Lee made it easy to accept her as an ally, even if she was always at odds with Kenny over what is right for the group. She is left even more vulnerable after Chapter 2 in which her father is killed at the St. Johns’ farm (more so if you choose to help save Larry) and comes to view Lee as the person she trusts most in the survivor group. Since it is she that finally kills Carley on the side of the road, it is a hard decision to make to either take her with you or leave her to die. Still, she leaves the group soon after if you take her and another person you cared for is gone.
Now I come to Katjaa and Duck (aka Kenny Jr.), Kenny’s wife and son. Kat is a caring and level-headed woman who is only looking for the best for her family, especially her son Duck. She is often a voice of reason and nurturing in the group and I really appreciated that. Duck, as odd as this sounds, reminded me of the different personalities in my kids. Sometimes their over-exuberant nature was a bit much, but their innocence was refreshing even if not immediate. It is the way that these two characters reminded me, the player, of the way things were before the apocalypse that takes place in the game that made me grow attached to them. Most especially Duck, who is a young boy. Like others that you come to attach yourself to, they both meet untimely ends, literally within minutes of each other. You won’t believe what I may say here, but after Duck’s death in Chapter 3, I had to stop playing for a bit and then went and hugged my kids after the first play through.
The last character that I had a real connection to was Omid, a survivor you meet shortly after Duck and Kat’s death scene. He and his partner Christa are both seemingly great characters, but Omid’s enthusiasm and outlook on the situation really seemed like a fresh tone in the game where everything was as bleak as the eventual outcome. Omid quickly becomes a trusted and trusting ally of Lee, particularly because Lee is honest with both Omid and Christa throughout the game, mostly in Chapter 4. He and Christa’s ultimate fate is left undetermined, but I am hopeful that they made it and survived past Chapter 5. In fact, I am hoping that Omid and Christa are the two figures that Clementine sees in the field at the end of the game after Lee dies. I am hoping that these three characters will come back in the sequel or hoping in my dreams that they managed to reach some kind of safety as a group/family.
And now I come back to Lee and Clementine and why it is that I was able to attach myself, as a gamer, to them. With Lee it was rather easy; you control him and his reactions are reflective of who you are. He is not a muscleman or instinctive survivor. He is a flawed, everyman type character who makes more than a few mistakes throughout the course of the game. It is that fallibility that makes it easy to empathize with his character and everything that he goes through. It also helps that no matter what you do, Lee is never really an asshole at any point in the game. There are many scenes where Lee can redeem himself for being a jerk, no matter how much of a hard-ass he tries to be. Even if you do as much as you can wrong, the fact that Clementine is with him easily corrects all of his wrongs.
I can’t even begin to describe Clementine and just how she is the most important character in the game. More so than any other character in The Walking Dead video game, Clementine is the emotional and moral center. Everything you do in the game is specifically for her. There is something about her design and character development that makes you immediately care for her. Whether it is the way she looks or how understanding and forgiving she is towards Lee no matter what he does, Clementine is perhaps the most emotionally attachable character in gaming since Aerith in Final Fantasy VII or Rosalina in Super Mario Galaxy. She is an instantly likeable character that can evoke or awaken the paternal instincts of any gamer who has played the game.
Never has a pair of characters dug themselves into my mind like Lee and Clementine have. And I have allowed myself to get attached to various video game characters over the years. Still, none of those have had the same impact on me. Telltale Games did something really right with the way they presented these two in The Walking Dead. It is a perfectly developed guardian/ward relationship that transcends into a surrogate father/daughter relationship over the course of the game, but it is how natural it feels and presented that makes it all the more incredible. There have been characters that you had to care about and protect before, but the way you must nurture and protect Clementine while also trying to make sure the character can protect herself feels like something a parent would do in the real world. Truth be told, I saw a lot of my relationship with my own daughter in the way Lee and Clementine’s relationship is developed in the game. I hate to be cliche but that’s pretty deep. For a game to reach out to the player, at least myself, and bring out that feeling and have it projected on two fictitious characters goes way beyond any story I have seen in any games and that stretches a near 30-year long obsession with video games.
The Walking Dead does character development right on so many levels that I really do feel that it will ultimately be the benchmark for how characters are presented and developed for years to come. And that character development is helped by the addition of a great story that the game rolls out over five chapters. It is a perfect storm of tone, characterizations and storytelling that make The Walking Dead stand head and shoulders above every other game that was released in 2012. Not Mass Effect 3, not Halo 4, not Torchlight II; nothing came close to what Telltale Games did with The Walking Dead. I know I am not the only one who feels this way about the game and I know that I am not the last one who will write about why The Walking Dead was as close to gaming perfection as any game can get, but I felt I needed to validate why I chose The Walking Dead for you here on Pop Cults. Many of you know that I value the story of a game above EVERYTHING else in a game and The Walking Dead is a prime example of just how a great story can make other aspects of the game. That, my friends, is why this game deserved to be the 2012 Game of the Year above all others. Even in the beginning of 2013, I have yet to come across a game that has impacted me more.