Clementine Will Remember All of That 9

The Illusion of Choice in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead

With Telltale Games releas­ing the first episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two last month, let’s take a look back at the mys­te­ri­ous past of the year 2012 (or early 2013 if you were as late to the game as I was): You had just fin­ished the first sea­son – (or, if not, you should, because there are major spoil­ers wait­ing for you just ahead.) Lee, the play­er avatar, is dead, Clementine is safe (well, safer), and you’re think­ing: “Wow, that was a hell of an end­ing! Beautiful, pro­found, and real­ly, real­ly sad. I won­der if there’s a happy end­ing if you make the right choic­es.” So you start up the first episode again, and, by god, this time, you will decide the shit out of these deci­sions, until Lee and Clementine get the happy end­ing they deserve!

But there’s some­thing odd: Your deci­sions don’t seem to influ­ence the plot at all. Your actions change some details, but the game is quick to imple­ment them into the planned-out story. For exam­ple: If you choose to res­cue Carley, tough jour­nal­ist and poten­tial love-interest, in Episode One, she plays a minor role in Episode Two and then dies in Episode Three, try­ing to defend Ben from accu­sa­tions of theft. If you instead choose to res­cue Doug, huge nerd and all-around nice guy, he plays a minor role in Episode Two and then dies in Episode Three, try­ing to defend Ben. Your power over the plot seems to be real­ly lim­it­ed.

There is a lot to say about The Walking Dead, and a lot has already been said. There’s the heart-wrenching sto­ry­line, maybe the best one in the cross-media Walking Dead fran­chise. There are great char­ac­ters, more com­plex and like­able than in any game I have played. Clementine may well be the best-written child char­ac­ter the medi­um has to offer. But one major com­plaint comes up again and again: Fast-paced choic­es and moral quan­daries are the most promi­nent fea­ture of The Walking Dead, but they seem to have no real con­se­quences. Why did this game receive approx­i­mate­ly all of the awards in 2012 if its main sell­ing point is used so incon­se­quen­tial­ly? I sug­gest that the most impor­tant aspect about this game is not the many dif­fi­cult choic­es it offers the play­er – it’s the illu­sion of choice the game con­structs.

Every episode begins with the same dis­claimer: “This game series adapts to the choic­es you make. The story is tai­lored by how you play.” Deception! Imposture! Fraud of the cen­tu­ry! “The story doesn’t adapt to shit,” you’re think­ing, dear read­er, and you should apol­o­gize to lit­tle Clementine for your lan­guage.  You see, there is a huge down­side to those branch­ing sto­ry­lines and mul­ti­ple end­ings that are all the rage in videogames nowa­days: All this con­tent has to be pro­duced and, most impor­tant­ly, paid for, no mat­ter if an indi­vid­ual play­er ever gets to see it. A huge amount of ani­ma­tions, voice act­ing and so on is lost on a lot of play­ers based on the choic­es they make in the game. And let’s face it: Not every pos­si­ble branch or end­ing can pos­si­bly be of the same qual­i­ty. To avoid this prob­lem, The Walking Dead uses a videogame sto­ry­telling method which has been called “par­al­lel paths” or “beads on a string.”

When the play­er reach­es a cer­tain point in the story, he is pre­sent­ed with two or three options that change the con­tent he expe­ri­ences for the next part of the story. Then, some­thing impor­tant hap­pens – a game-changer, if you will, (ha!) – and you’re back on the cen­tral sto­ry­line. Further down the road there are some nods to the orig­i­nal deci­sion, for exam­ple dif­fer­ing lines of dia­logue, and that’s it: The amount of dif­fer­ent con­tent that needs to be pro­duced is lim­it­ed to a min­i­mum while, ide­al­ly, still giv­ing you a feel­ing of agency. For exam­ple: If Ben sur­vives Episode Four, he dies in Episode Five, and Kenny stays behind to help the poor kid, but, alas!, gets munched by zom­bies. Later, you come across a hole full of zom­bies that seems to serve no pur­pose what­so­ev­er. But if Ben is already dead, Christa falls into said hole, and Kenny res­cues her, dying in the process. (Apparently, though I’m pret­ty sure he’s the mys­te­ri­ous per­son Clementine tells “I thought you were dead,” in the trail­er for the next episode.)

David Cage calls this prin­ci­ple “Bending Stories”, and because he’s David Cage, he pre­tends he invent­ed it. But I have to admit: “Bending” is a real­ly good metaphor to describe this process. Because there actu­al­ly aren’t two entire­ly sep­a­rate branch­es; they twist and turn and over­lap, espe­cial­ly if you con­sid­er the afore­men­tioned nods to the orig­i­nal deci­sion. Most of the time, the story stays on a fixed path, but occa­sion­al­ly jumps to dif­fer­ent moments. In many cases, the exact out­come of a scene doesn’t depend on a sin­gle deci­sion, but is a com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ent lines of dia­logue and actions that react to deci­sions you made dur­ing the course of the game. So, you don’t have to imag­ine the story as a series of solid branch­es, but as a sin­gle, more flex­i­ble branch that, at cer­tain points, bends into a dif­fer­ent shapes every time you play the game.

The game­play of The Walking Dead is all about deci­sions. (There is no real com­bat, and the adventure-game puz­zles are, at best, laugh­ably easy and obvi­ous­ly not the main sell­ing point.) So, what’s the point of deci­sions in an inter­ac­tive story if they don’t have any impact, espe­cial­ly in a game that doesn’t real­ly offer all that much inter­ac­tiv­i­ty to begin with? That line of think­ing is a lit­tle too sim­ple. The deci­sions you make in The Walking Dead don’t change what hap­pens, they change how it hap­pens.

Your actions deter­mine what kind of per­son Lee is, how he reacts to cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, and how the other char­ac­ters see him. You could almost say The Walking Dead is an RPG: Is Lee a failed family-man who sees Clementine as his sec­ond chance? Is he short-tempered and vio­lent? Or does he keep a clear head and talks his way out of hairy sit­u­a­tions? Does he regret what he did? Is he a cynic or a wide-eyed ide­al­ist? Will the other char­ac­ters be his friends, or just his com­pan­ions? Is there even any coher­ence between what he does and what he says? Maybe he doesn’t talk at all, which is real­ly stu­pid but real­ly funny. It doesn’t change the over­ar­ch­ing story, but all of this and much more is up to you.

The inter­face makes sure you don’t for­get that, by dis­play­ing mes­sages such as, “Clementine will remem­ber that.” At first, I hated Duck, because he was the loud, obnox­ious and the annoy­ing kind of kid I just loathe. But when he start­ed help­ing Lee, I got to know him and began to like him. When I high-fived him, the inter­face said, “Duck thinks you’re incred­i­bly awe­some.” Then he died, because Telltale Games is cruel like that. That was harsh, but just because I chose to allow it to be harsh. He would have died either way, but through my choic­es, espe­cial­ly dur­ing the dia­logues, I got to know and like Duck, even though I didn’t have to. The whole atmos­phere of the expe­ri­ence that is The Walking Dead changed accord­ing to my will.

Then there is Clementine. I soon found myself bas­ing my deci­sions not only on what I thought would be the smartest move to sur­vive. I start­ed to base them on what Clementine would think of them. I want­ed Lee to be an exam­ple for her, even as she her­self was an exam­ple for Lee. “Clementine will remem­ber that,” is a sen­tence you’ll read again and again when play­ing The Walking Dead. As with most of the other char­ac­ters, near­ly every­thing you choose to do or say comes up again in dia­logues with her. Your choic­es have an effect on the rela­tion­ship between Lee and Clementine, but also on Clementine’s char­ac­ter, because she is still a lit­tle girl and has to learn a lot from Lee. I found myself want­i­ng to act in a way so that Clementine would grow up know­ing what was right and what was wrong. But she also knows what her par­ents have already told her before the zom­bie attacks. She doesn’t con­done steal­ing or killing, even if it seems appro­pri­ate in some of the hor­ri­ble sit­u­a­tions the game throws its pro­tag­o­nists into. So, while Lee teach­es Clementine to be a decent human being, Clem makes sure he is one.

In that regard, (as Jim Ralph point­ed out in an arti­cle on this very site) the rela­tion­ship between Lee and Clementine is a lot like the one between the Man and the Boy in The Road – a story that is equal­ly pro­found and depress­ing, but with a dis­tinct lack of zom­bies. Like the name­less pro­tag­o­nists of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Clementine and Lee, too, have to “carry the fire”. What is the fire? It’s the knowl­edge that Prometheus gave to mankind, so that they may sur­vive in a cold and dark world – the Man gives the Boy impor­tant sur­vival skills, just like Lee teach­es Clementine. It’s light in the dark and heat in the cold, sym­bol­iz­ing the hope that is des­per­ate­ly need­ed in a world that has gone to shit as dras­ti­cal­ly as the one in The Road and The Walking Dead. Both Lee and the Man try to keep the hope alive in their kids, and both Clementine and the Boy are actu­al­ly the only rea­sons why the adults still hope. But the fire that needs to sur­vive is also human­i­ty and decen­cy. The Man wants his son to always remem­ber that they are the “good guys”, and that the peo­ple who gave up on their ideals and start­ed rob­bing and can­ni­bal­iz­ing each other are not. You know, just like Lee has to show Clementine, when they meet – at first glance, sick­en­ing­ly friend­ly – peo­ple who gave up on basic human prin­ci­ples and became can­ni­bals to sur­vive. You could also say that “car­ry­ing on the fire” is a metaphor for con­tin­u­ing human his­to­ry – as in that Billy Joel song that is near­ly as silly as it is catchy, but let’s not get too car­ried away here.)

The father fig­ures in both sto­ries try to teach “their” chil­dren not only how to sur­vive, they also want the next gen­er­a­tion to carry on every­thing that is good about the human race and to aban­don the bad. It’s so easy to lose your human­i­ty in this cruel, post-apocalyptic world. But as long as the next gen­er­a­tion doesn’t for­get kind­ness, for­give­ness and grat­i­tude even in the face of star­va­tion, there is still hope. Both men try their hard­est to be exam­ples, and while they don’t always suc­ceed at ful­fill­ing their own moral stan­dards, the kids are quick to call them out – thus show­ing that they have learned their lessons and are much wiser than you might think. Clementine remem­bers Lee’s every action, like the Boy remem­bers the Man’s.

Both sto­ries fea­ture dif­fi­cult deci­sions that don’t influ­ence the out­come of the actu­al plot, but show how good or bad their pro­tag­o­nists are at “car­ry­ing the fire.” In The Road, the father-and-son team meets an old, starv­ing man – one of the few human beings who doesn’t want to kill or rob them. The Man, mis­trust­ful as ever, wants to ignore him and keep their sparse sup­plies to them­selves, but the Boy per­suades him to give the old man some­thing to eat before they part ways. If the Man had decid­ed not to help the old guy, the fur­ther course of action – i.e., the plot –  would­n’t have changed. But the Boy shows that he is bet­ter at keep­ing up the same ideals that his father wants to teach him. The same thing hap­pens many times in The Walking Dead. But, due to the nature of the medi­um, you get to show how good you are at car­ry­ing the fire.

Clementine will remem­ber that,” shows up again at the very end, when you choose the last bits of advice Lee has to offer the lit­tle girl. From a game­play per­spec­tive, it doesn’t seem to mat­ter any­more. But to some­one who even remote­ly likes Clementine – and a lot of play­ers do, how else do you explain the pop­u­lar­i­ty of the twit­ter hash­tag #for­clemen­tine – this mat­ters a lot. It’s impor­tant to Lee to know that “Clementine will remem­ber that.” It was also impor­tant to me on my first and sec­ond playthrough, and it will be impor­tant to me on the third, even though I know every­thing already and still have very lit­tle con­trol over what hap­pens. And when I played the first sea­son for the first time, I had no con­trol at all over what hap­pens to Clementine after Lee’s death. You may not be able to change the events of this world, but you can change how you and other peo­ple react to it. You can build up hope, or you can crush it.

And that is basi­cal­ly what The Walking Dead is all about: The world is a dark and scary place, but we have to rely on each other, and even though we don’t have much influ­ence on what hap­pens around us, we can still make the best of it. That’s where this seem­ing­ly not-very-gamelike game shines: You may think there is a huge seg­re­ga­tion between game­play and story, but, para­dox­i­cal­ly, the game­play reflects the story because of this seg­re­ga­tion. The Walking Dead does, in fact, “adapt to the choic­es you make”, and its story is “tai­lored by how you play”. “Adapt” and “tai­lor” – there is no promise that your choic­es will actu­al­ly change the story. The devel­op­ers under­stand that inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling in video games can be much more than an ani­mat­ed choose-your-own-adventure book. Because, as James Portnow of Extra Credits put it:

Choice in games is about the act of choos­ing. […] It’s a lot like life, actu­al­ly: You have con­trol over the choic­es you make, you use those to influ­ence the con­se­quences that result, but you don’t actu­al­ly have con­trol over those con­se­quences. Otherwise, we’d all just make the right thing hap­pen all the time.

The Walking Dead is not about choic­es, it’s about deci­sions. It’s about mak­ing the right deci­sion in a world where every­thing goes wrong. It’s about doing what you think is right, even when faced with absolute despair, even though all hope seems lost, and even though this bleak world doesn’t give a sin­gle fuck about your deci­sion. But you have to do it. For Clementine.

Adrian Froschauer

About Adrian Froschauer

Adrian Froschauer is a journalist from Germany, but likes to think of himself as a fun guy despite his Teutonic upbringing. He doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up, so he just writes stuff about literature, movies, and videogames for now. Follow him on Twitter: @AdrianFrosch.

9 thoughts on “Clementine Will Remember All of That

  • iPadCary

    FINALLY !!!!
    Someone who under­stands that all of these WD “games” are noth­ing but “inter­ac­tive”, badly writ­ten CG movies.

    • Adrian Froschauer
      Adrian Froschauer Post author

      Sorry to dis­ap­point you, but I’m afraid you have to keep look­ing for some­one who shares your views on these games. To be hon­est, I’m not even sure how you got the idea that I am that per­son …

      • iPadCary

        What do you mean?
        You said “the illu­sion of choice”, right?
        That means these so-called “games” stink on ice!
        And right­ly so!

        • D

          God you’re an idiot. You prob­a­bly skim read the arti­cle. The game never promis­es that the story will com­plete­ly change depend­ing on your choic­es. It’s about the jour­ney you take with Lee as he bonds with Clementine, not a dozen dif­fer­ent end­ings.

          The world is a dark and scary place, but we have to rely on each other, and even though we don’t have much influ­ence on what hap­pens around us, we can still make the best of it. That’s where this seem­ing­ly not-very-gamelike game shines.” — The author obvi­ous­ly does­n’t share your views.

          By the way you’re also heart­less if you did­n’t con­nect with Clementine.

          • Scholar Jen Zin

            Why is some­one heart­less for not con­nect­ing with Clementine? She was a pret­ty shal­low char­ac­ter and did­n’t even come off as that vul­ner­a­ble. Look at how peo­ple respond­ed to Sarah in Season 2. That was heart­less.

        • JolosaurusRex

          So which games do you think are good ones? I am gen­uine­ly inter­est­ed in your opin­ion. To the point of obses­sion actu­al­ly. NOW TELL ME!!

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