Being a dad to two beautiful girls myself, Telltale’s Walking Dead games strike a chord with me few other games ever have. Criticisms of the dated engine or stilted gameplay aside, this game weaves the story of a girl coming of age in abject adversity flawlessly.
We first meet her in Walking Dead season 1 episode 1. A scared yet brave little girl trapped in her treehouse. Your first interaction with her over a walkie talkie is immediately endearing if you’ve ever dealt with a scared child. Her character is more intriguing when she comes to your rescue minutes later. She’s scared, but, there’s steel in her.
Through the eyes of your character, Lee, the insanity of the situation leaves almost no choice but to take this seemingly helpless person with you. Parentless and alone, she’s forced to become another worry in a growingly worrisome world. She is reliant on you almost to a fault at the outset of this game.
Telltale does a great job of conveying the sense of love and guardianship you develop for Clementine over the course of that first season episode to episode. As you encounter more survivors and escape more and more crazy situations, she grows organically more and more strong on her own.
Trivial decisions become weighted as the relationship grows. Whether to cut her hair becomes as important as teaching her to shoot a handgun. Who to give food to becomes a selfish decision, though, not for yourself. Finding a baseball cap and making a deal with a seemingly dangerous hot head to secure a ride are no brainers once the bond between Lee and Clem is established.
More than once over the course of playing that first season I found myself seeing Clementine in my own children. How they acted around new groups or peers. How they acted when pushed to do something they didn’t want to do. I also found the qualities in my own self reflected in the game to real life. How my decisions are what’s better for them more so than for myself. My safety being second to theirs. The feeling that their health, happiness, and safety are more important than my own.
Credit is due to Telltale for conveying the nuances of a parent/child relationship layered over a story of hard choices and survival. The climax of the first season is truly heart wrenching and sends Clem into an uncertain future where her decisions will mostly be her own. Anyone who has a child going into adulthood, my oldest is 19, knows the feelings that come with that. Though Clem is still a kid, at the end it’s similar given her world’s circumstances.
Season 2 opens hard for Clem. A chance encounter costs her yet another person dear to her. She seems a little colder after that. This season also puts you in the driver’s seat as Clementine. I still found myself jockeying adults and decisions around her as a guardian and not as an observer. It never felt like I was Clementine detached from myself as a parent or that Lee wasn’t present. It was ingrained unbreakably that her safety both mentally and physically were more important than anything else in the game. It hurt to see over the course of episodes people fail her and her innocence diminish.
The sadness of a child who has been cheated out of her childhood is palpable. Learning that adults are flawed and broken, and, that some are selfish and others downright evil almost commands true sympathy from the player. She is still a kid in all this. I know what lengths I would go to to spare my own kids pain and her not having that option makes her perseverance that much more admirable. My wife and I have had many conversations about her as if she were our own. Like I said before, rarely does a game character have such a personal impact.
She’s faced with serious choices and circumstances in season 2, way above what a young girl should have to deal with. A familiar face from season 1 does provide some comfort, albeit, hot tempered potentially dangerous comfort. The Kenny character seemed to come to represent a side in me that gave me pause. Does being brash and short tempered adversely affect my kids, even when not aimed at them? Do they approach situations with that bad behavior influencing their decisions? These are not the thoughts I’ve had playing other games.
While ultimately a good man, I found myself more comfortable partnering her with Kenny who is a parent himself. I wonder why that is? Maybe a different article for a later date.
Jane on the other hand, I wanted nowhere near Clem. Though some may have liked her punk rocky attitude and though I was definitely more like her at that age, her potential influence on Clementine was not something I was comfortable with.
Depending once again on your choices, Clementine is either alone at the conclusion or not. Also, once again I said goodbye to her with her with a heavy heart and a feeling of concern that lasted far beyond the end of the credits. How much hardship can a child take and still turn out ok? How would my own kids fare? Would my shortcomings as an adult cause more problems than provided solutions?
This weekend I rushed into the new Season 3 episodes 1 and 2 anticipating seeing my girl and how she was faring. Though this year you play as Javier, a new character in the series with his own set of problems. Still, when my Clementine showed up alone and looking decidedly more grim and weary I still was relieved to see her alive. Her hardness this time around broke my heart a little and I wondered what she’d been through in between this meeting and the last. You get a few flashback glimpses and they aren’t pretty. I could however, appreciate that she’s grown stronger and seems ok. Once again I noticed my decisions instantly changing towards what was best for her. My wife and I once again hunkered down on the couch and talked about “our girl” during the two available episodes. I can’t wait to see this season through.
I don’t know if people connected with her differently whether they have daughters or not. It would be interesting to see if there is a marked difference. I do know that I smiled at the end of each episode when I saw how high the percentages were for decisions regarding Clementine compared with other players. I think just maybe as a gaming community Clementine is “our” girl, and weird as it seems, I’m comforted to know how many of us are looking for her. We can still be her Lee, because, who else is better for her than him?