This post has taken a while to get to the point it is: I actually started writing it just after Christmas last year but things just got on top of me, then I went on holiday and forgot about it until I looked at it tonight.
The catalyst for writing it was Episode 5 of Telltale’s The Walking Dead game and while this piece isn’t finished yet, I thought I’d just post what I’ve got so far: This is a work in progress. I’m still not sure if it’s finished or not or my memory of the series is the best, but if you haven’t finished the series, this does contain spoilers so read with your peril.
Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead series – made up of five episodes, each about six weeks apart – isn’t an easy game to play, especially as a parent. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride that will see you emotionally attach yourself to some of the characters and feel bad when something goes wrong – at least, I did. I got emotionally attached to Lee and Clementine, the two key characters, hook, line and sinker by the end of the series.
I finished Episode 5 a while ago and if you’re a parent, it’s an emotional experience, especially experiencing the end and the impact it had on the relationship between Lee Everett, a former high school teacher but now convicted killer, and Clementine, the girl he finds hiding in a treehouse in the backyard of her parent’s house.
Everett isn’t a parent, although he tells a non-playable character in the final chapter, No Time Left, that he wanted children, but throughout the game – whether he wanted to or not – he was forced to become a parent to Clementine, whose parents are believed to have escaped to Savannah following the zombie outbreak. We see Clementine’s parents in Ep 5 and things aren’t good.
While at first The Walking Dead was only available for New Zealand and Australian gamers over Steam – for some reason Telltale Games refused to even submit it for classification in our region – it’s now available on both Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and iOS here.
Unfortunately, for most New Zealand and Australian gamers, though, unless you’re playing games on our PC via Valve’s Steam service you won’t be able to play The Walking Dead because it’s not available for console games in our region. Telltale Games didn’t actually consider it worth submitting the game to the NZ or Australian classification offices – it probably had something to do with Australia not having an R18 rating – but they should have submitted it. At least I think they should have. With Australia getting its classification system sorted I hope they reconsider submitting: I even emailed Telltale’s PR manager – twice – about that very issue but he hasn’t got back to me. That either means one of two things: he either hasn’t got around to reading my email or he doesn’t want to answer. Part of me thinks it’s the latter.
Anyway, based on the comic book series created by Charlie Adlard, Robert Kirkland and Tony Moore, Telltale’s The Walking Dead doesn’t feature characters from AMC TV series but I guess has a story line that runs parallel to the TV show, and it doesn’t pull any punches in it’s delivery. It’s a gritty, pull-no-punches tale of a group of survivors who find end up together and band together in the search for somewhere safe to call home after the world has turned to shit and the undead wander the streets. Lots of undead, actually, out to eat anything that moves. It’s made up of five episodes. each of around eight chapters: A New Day, Starved for Help, Long Road Ahead, Around Every Corner and No Time Left.
There’s no doubt that Telltale hasn’t pulled any punches with the graphic content of these games – on at least two occasions limbs have to be hacked off by the player – but after finishing No Time Left I posted my thoughts about it here (on my blog on http://www.stuff.co.nz) and I was intrigued at the number of commentors who said the game had impacted on them as parents, or affected them emotionally, even if they didn’t have children.
Glenn wrote “Finished it last night. I cried at the end of it. More than I have for any movie or book in years. I can’t stop thinking about it today at work. I feel like someone I know and loved has passed away.”
This reaction from parents continued with Croacker, who said “I have an 18 month old son. Since he came along anything involving kids in peril has really hit home. The Walking Dead game is harrowing. Episode 3 had me so close to tears.”
If you’re a parent it’s hard for the game not to resonate with you and I can almost see anxious gamers who are parents checking on their sleeping offspring after playing an episode of this series, just to make sure they’re safe. It sounds silly but it’s a series that pulls at your heart strings and impacts on your emotionally. It’s a powerful narrative where a man who isn’t even a parent – Everret – will do anything to protect the young girl who is now in his care. But let’s go back to the very beginning.
When we first met Lee Everett he was in the back of a police car, speeding out of Atlanta, a conversation with the elderly police officer underway. Everett is guarded, not really giving much away, and this is where we’re first introduced to the game’s choose-your-own Adventure-like scenario where, in that at certain points, Everett is given a series of dialogue options that the player can pick from. Some are courteous, some are surly but you don’t have long to answer and if you don’t pick quick enough, the game will just pick an option for you.
When a walker stumbles into the path of the police car, causing the vehicle to roll down a bank, Lee finds himself alone (actually he has to fight his way out of the police car after the officer gets turned into a zombie), not really sure what’s going on. After escaping more walkers and wandering through a small forest, he comes across a housing estate and hidden in a tree house in the backyard of Clementine, a girl who hasn’t seen her parents for days and is scared. Very scared. This is the start of a relationship that would develop over the next five episodes.
It’s at this point that The Walking Dead turns its main character into a person, rather than a man desperate to escape his past. Clementine isn’t Lee’s daughter but that doesn’t stop him from caring for her and protecting her as if he was his own. When Clementine goes missing at the end of Episode 4, Around Every Corner, you can see that Lee’s already shattered world has been turned upside down just that little bit more: Clementine is his responsibility, she’s all he has. He isn’t going to give up on her. He’ll search for her if it kills him – and he’ll turn the world upside down to achieve that.
As the game progresses, Lee gets to know his fellow survivors a little more and he gets attached to some of them, especially Kenny, the hillbilly, and his wife Katja and their son, Ducky and Omid and Christa. You can see Lee’s parental instincts kicking in as the game progresses, as well as his empathy for his fellow survivors, and in perhaps one of the most poignant and emotional moments of the game, Lee has to make a difficult decision near the end of Episode 3 that, even if it means his friendship with Kenny will suffer massively.
Episode 4 contains not one but two major plot twists near the end, too: one involving the kidnapping of Clementine and the other, well, I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t finished it but it’s a major twist that I didn’t expect. It’s an event, though that changes Lee’s whole view of the world and makes him even more determined to keep Clementine safe. To me he also seems more aggressive in Episode 5 and more and ill-tolerant of fools but comes to the realisation that he won’t be able to look after Clementine for ever. He even starts considering who would be the best of the group to care for Clementine when he’s gone: one moment thinking Kenny, the next thinking Omid and Christa.
At one point in the game Lee teaches Clementine how to use a pistol and at first it seems just the usual thing you’d expect from a group of survivors having to protect themselves against an undead threat, but I saw that moment as Lee further cementing his resolve as a father figure to Clementine. Further cementing his role as a protector to her. It shows that Lee would do anything he can to protect her, even teaching her how to use a weapon that she clearly felt nervous using at first.
Lee’s commitment to Clementine and his resolve to find her is never more evident than in a rather tense standoff during Episode 5 when Everett tracks down the mysterious voice that has been plaguing them on Clementine’s walkie talkie since the closing moments of Episode 3.
The voice belongs to a character who comes to be known as the Stranger, who has kidnapped Clementine and is holding her hostage in a run-down hotel in Savannah. As the Stranger questions Everett about his ability to care for Clementine, he gets quite agitated and aggressive, almost to the point of violence. It’s clear that the Stranger is clearly demented (he has the undead head of his wife stuffed into a bowling bag) but Everett becomes incensed when the Stranger says he’s going to look after Clementine. Lee will do anything to protect Clementine. Anything. Things don’t end favourably for the Stranger.
It’s been a long time I’ve played The Walking Dead but it’s one of those series that will stay with me for some time to come. Who knows, maybe I’ll play it again and see if I can get a different outcome from my first play through. But maybe if I hadn’t been a parent the relationship between Lee and Clementine wouldn’t have resonated with me so much. Maybe I would have just played it and not really thought about the journey that Lee made from a prisoner in a police car at the beginning to protective father figure by the end for a young girl he barely knew.
It’s food for thought anyway.