Over the winter, I played a succession of three video games that involved characters in a parenting or protective role: Fallout 4; The Last of Us; and The Walking Dead. And if parenting in today’s world is hard, it’s even worse once the world goes to hell.
Today I’m writing about my parenting experience with The Walking Dead.
Spoilers for the game follow.
The Walking Dead starts off with you, as Lee Everett, a convicted felon in the back of a police cruiser and on the way to prison. The background chatter on the radio and the number of cruisers heading the other way with their sirens on tells you something strange is happening in the world. Since the game is part of The Walking Dead franchise, you already know what’s happening: zombies. And it doesn’t take long before you’re on the run from them. When you take shelter in a seemingly abandoned house, you come across Clementine, an eight-year-old girl whose parents were away when the shit hit the fan. It’s up to you to take care of her (and a small group of survivors whose ranks grow and shrink through the 5-episode game) as you try to stay ahead of hungry zombies and even worse, other humans.
Even though you start off as strangers, Clementine quickly attaches herself to you, looking up to you (literally) and remembers your choices; the things you say to her and others. The game even pops up the message “Clementine will remember that,” to add emotional weight to your choice. Your decisions are really what the game is about. The Walking Dead minimizes the action side of things and emphasizes choices in its gameplay. Throughout, I tried to make the best of the choices offered. I wasn’t trying to roleplay a saint or a badass. I just tried to be me as much as possible given the background and circumstances the game presented. If you let yourself relate to Lee, and get attached to the characters, the choices you need to make can be tough; let one character fall to his death to save others, or save him knowing your choice might doom your other companions. All your victories are Pyrrhic victories.
It’s The Walking Dead, so things from bad to worse; you get infected by a zombie bite and Clementine is kidnapped. You must find her before the infection turns you into one of the walking dead. You do find her and save her from her kidnapper, but by then you’re the one who’s going to be the biggest threat when you turn in a mindless zombie. As bad as things were before, trying to protect Clementine from the world and prepare her to face it, you realize that you won’t have enough time to do that. The world has gone crazy, and there’s no safe place for a little girl.
For me, The Walking Dead was more emotional than Fallout 4, with its emphasis on action, and The Last of Us, because that game had no real choice in how things turn out. But in The Walking Dead, I was given choices, and I wondered through the game, “could I have done something better?” You’ve been Clementine’s protector throughout the game, regardless of who else comes and goes, and then you’re done. The game ends with you being forced to say goodbye to Clementine and sending her out into an unendingly harsh world with the desperate hope that she can survive without you. It’s any parent’s constant concern, “will my child be safe out there,” but turned up to 11.