I was having a leisurely pint of ale with my girlfriend when my mind began to wander away from our conversation. Whatever we were talking about evidently paled in comparison to my thoughts on The Walking Dead, episode three of which I had played through a couple of nights before. When she ultimately realised that I was not giving her my full attention I tried to explain why the game touched me so deeply. I found it almost impossible to justify my feelings without speaking about it in 'gaming terms' and comparing it to other games, two things I know she doesn't understand and finds difficult to relate to.
I took a moment to compose myself and started again, this time with the non-linear narrative and the implications it has for character development. I starting from the beginning, telling her about the player character, Lee, and how we are shown that he is going to jail at the opening of the game. Besides this we know nothing about the character and are still expected to speak for him, shaping our version of Lee from the very start with little prior knowledge of him. I find this a fascinating way of opening a decision-based narrative. Does the player embrace the ambiguous criminality that has been set at their feet, using it to justify immoral actions that their Lee may perform? Alternatively, do they attempt to right these unknown wrongs with their own intervention, repenting for what could be a minor indiscretion by way of noble altruism? There is also the option to let it, mostly, not affect decisions in any way, though his crime is ultimately elaborated on later in the story, putting more importance on it for a time.
Being a Psychology MA I imagined that the good woman sitting next to me would find this divergence of choice to be fascinating. She had bemoaned my short sightedness when ‘researching’ SimCity Social and directed me to a more scientific opinion of the game. I therefore assumed she would surely find something to dig her teeth into with this, even possibly consider playing it herself. Although her interest was peaked we were still ultimately talking about games, and so I’d have to work harder to convince her of The Walking Dead’s narrative merits. It hadn’t helped that I’d recently been talking about Borderlands and its gleeful embrace of cartoon violence over emotional substance, though it just made the endeavour that more meaningful; all games are not striving for the same audience reaction, after all.
Next on the agenda was Clementine, a young girl Lee is charged with accompanying. His task is twofold; protect the youngster from the cruelties of a humanity unhinged and attempt to find her missing parents. Early in the game you happen upon her deserted home and discover, through answer phone messages, that they are holidaying when the infection breaks out. Their likelihood of survival is slim, though it is up to the player to decide how realistic Lee wishes to be about this with Clementine. I began by being quietly optimistic with her as not to break her heart so early on in the relationship. After a couple of hours though I found it increasingly difficult to be anything but supportive of her insistence to find them. I cared for her too much.
I had, as I always do, followed the noble path. Mass Effect, Fable, the Fallout 3; all games in which I inevitably played as if I were me. Proof that role-playing is still very much alive in gaming, yes, but also a testament to my inability to separate myself from a gaming avatar. However, The Walking Dead has, in Clementine, an even deeper moral hook in me. Throughout all of the choices Lee is given I am not simply following my blind morality, vicariously justifying my passive personality, no, I am also making my decisions based upon what Clementine would want. Should I let my sense of anger or vengeance win out as it has in past gaming experiences? No, I have to remove myself and think of Lee and more importantly Clementine’s relationship with him. She will witness such a lack of self-control and remember him for it; that I cannot be held accountable for.
My strong loyalty to video game characters has been noted in the past. When Mass Effect 3 was released one of the first things I mentioned to my girlfriend was my monogamous relationship with Liara T’Soni. As a character featured throughout the trilogy the player can embark upon a relationship with her from the first game. I chose to pursue this for the duration, celebrating her personal growths and becoming genuinely attached to her. This was initially hard for her to understand, though as I continued to talk about the numerous romantic conquests I could have pursued at the same time, my girlfriend found comfort, and a little humour, in my inability to be unfaithful even within a game.
This brought us to the question; would she care to take part in this fascinating exploration of human morality? Yes was the initial answer, though we are still yet to sit down together and begin our journey across a decimated Georgia. Like all game related discussions we have, the actual act of playing proves to be the barrier to entry, not the content behind it. Discussing the implications of player choice with her proves fascinating; her Psychological viewpoint far surpasses my own, though the connotations of her sitting and playing a game still prove to be an obstacle.
She still can’t separate the mechanics, and her fear of not being able to competently interact with them, from the game that sits on top. While the controls are very simple their unfamiliarity still intimidates her. The Walking Dead harbours one of the greatest and most emotionally resonant narratives I have ever experienced within a game. It is a shame that by virtue of it being just that, that so many will miss a fantastic examination of the human condition when it is pushed to the limits.The Walking Dead harbours one of the greatest and most emotionally resonant narratives I have ever experienced within a game. It is a shame that by virtue of it being just that, that so many will miss a fantastic examination of the human condition when it is pushed to the limits.