Over the last three days, I’ve been pretty much absorbed into Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 1. I know, I know, I’m a little late to the party here. But there’s a reason for that.
I have never liked zombies.
In fact, that’s putting it incredibly lightly. Zombies, for me, have always been a metaphor for the worst humanity has to offer – when morality and reason go out the window, and there is only a savage predator left. A zombie doesn’t care who you are, what gender you are, or where you are from. A zombie will grab you, and it will eat you and it will be incredibly painful, but the worst part is the knowledge as you go down, that you will return as one yourself, and perpetuate the plague.
Zombies are predators who turn their victims into predators themselves, and as a concept that has always terrified me more than I can adequately express.
So it was with considerable trepidation that I put The Walking Dead into my Steam Cart, and if I hadn’t been following the television series and grown enamored of its characters and plot, then I probably wouldn’t have.
Daryl Dixon, thank you. Thank you for being awesome enough to convince me to buy the companion game.
When it began, I immediately took a liking to Lee.
Like the police officer escorting him to prison, I had an immediate sense that he wasn’t guilty of the crime he’d been convicted for… or that if he was, there was more too it than appeared at first sight. His face appeared kind, if worn down by the worries on his shoulders, and his gentle manner and evident concern for the officer after the car accident only furthered my interest in his character and back story.
Fair warning, from this point on there’s going to be spoilers.
When I found Clementine, my first reaction was rather unimpressed. Oh boy, I thought, yet another kid character that needs to be coddled and protected in an apocalypse.
And then Clem, clever, brave, resourceful Clementine, saved Lee’s life with a hammer passed through a sliding door at a critical moment. That is when I knew that I liked her, and that I would be protecting her at all costs. It’s worth mentioning at this point that my maternal instinct is pretty much non-existent. But Clementine wormed her way into my heart with surprising ease with her wide-eyed golden gaze and her canny perceptions of the world around her.
I – Lee – was going to show her that just because the world had gone to hell, humanity didn’t need to follow in its wake.
Every single decision I made over the five episodes was made with her well-being in mind, showing her that there were still some good people in the world.
I told her the truth about Lee’s past, I saved her and trusted her to help the group when she asked for a chance to do so. I took her to the St. John’s Dairy, trying to find somewhere safer than that abandoned motel. Whenever I had to fight a Walker, whenever I had to sneak through a hostile area with my heart pounding and my hands shaking on the mouse, I did it for Clementine. I had a goal, I had someone to fight for. Whenever I was freaking out, when a sudden attack had me yelping and my fingers scrabbling for the escape key, I reminded myself that Clem was depending on Lee.
I couldn’t let her down.
And because of that, I had to confront one of my greatest fears, again and again.
While the Walkers still terrified me, I could face my fear where before, in other games, I would have cut and run. I could grit my teeth and fight through the horror, because it was all for her.
When the St. John’s turned out to be cannibalistic serial killers, I was furious with myself for exposing Clementine to such danger. I put the clues together in time to stop her from taking a bite out of Mark’s legs, and I didn’t take revenge on the brothers because I knew she’d been traumatized enough. I refused to steal from the abandoned car because I wanted to show her that there were better ways to survive.
I cut her hair, I taught her how to shoot, and I watched fondly as she and Lee grew ever closer. He might not have been her real father, but he was doing a damn good job.
Until episode 5. Until the end.
When the stranger stole Clementine with false promises, my fear fell away.
With all my companions short of Christa and Omid dead, I charged through a horde of Walkers armed only with a meat cleaver and righteous fury. Lee was bitten, bloody, and short of one arm, but I had never felt so in-synch with him as I was in that moment. My jaw was clenched, and the Walkers were now just meaty obstacles between me and my girl, and I didn’t care how scary they were, I would not let them stand between me and Clem.
Because that asshole had our girl, and we were going to save her no matter what.
I spared the stranger, and Clementine saved my life again. I walked her through the hordes of the dead until we saw her parents.
My heart broke for her, and just when she needed Lee the most, his body failed him and I knew that the emergency amputation hadn’t worked. That Lee was going to become a monster himself.
Literally, my worst nightmare came to life.
But Clementine was strong, she remembered everything I had taught her, and she dragged Lee to that abandoned building and tried so, so hard to save him. When she knew that she couldn’t, and that everything was lost, I overcame my own horror at Lee’s situation to offer what comfort I could, but also what survival advice I could provide. I didn’t let her shoot Lee. As much as I feared becoming a monster, I refused to make Clementine put me down. It was one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make, and while some might argue that having her kill Lee would be a valuable survival lesson in itself, I put her mental wellbeing above my own qualms.
I learned a lot about myself while playing this game. I feel that I became a stronger person for persisting through the experience, and I will never forget it.
I still hate the walking dead as a concept, but now I can face them in games. Now I can arm myself with grim determination and stride forth, hatchet in hand…if not boldly, then carefully. I’ll do it for myself, but also for all the Clementines out there, all the Lee’s who perished with their swan songs unsung.
Thank you, Telltale.