How Telltale got it (mostly) right with The Walking Dead

26 May

The Walking Dead: Part Two

I can’t think of a better game to start this discussion than Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

TWD1

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS. Read at your own risk.

The Walking Dead does many, many things right, and I hope that it’s popularity spurs other game developers to be a little more daring in some of their choices. (Heck, I hope it makes the TV show a little more daring.)

This is a game where the characters have supreme importance. It is not about bombastic gunfights or stunning scenery that you travel through while completing an epic quest or even a game that challenges player’s skills or reflexes. At it’s core, The Walking Dead is about character interaction.

The interpersonal tensions between characters and the growth of Lee Everett as a person are the story. Each character — their experiences, traits, and desires — creates the game world and narrative in ways that are not common in most modern, popularly and critically lauded games.

I really want to commend Telltale for what they’ve accomplished. The point-and-click adventure game isn’t a particularly lucrative genre these days, but they still took risks with their characters in a medium that is notorious for the cocky, white, muscular soldier/space marine/adventurer.

It would have been very easy to make The Walking Dead with a more homogenous, commercially acceptable cast of characters. I doubt many people would have commented — at least not with enough power to negatively impact sales. (Again, I’ll point to the TV show. It’s very successful despite the apparent lack of black people in Georgia.) But if Telltale had gone that conventional route, I believe the game would have suffered and been a less uniquely enjoyable experience.

Race

There was a moment in Episode Five where I realized that the main cast consisted of three black characters, one white character (my Ben died in Episode Four — there would have been two white characters if he had lived), and one Persian-American character, meaning that the majority of the cast was non-white. At the end of the episode only two black characters and the Persian-American character remained.

While the game had already been doing a great job with keeping the cast racially diverse throughout, I was struck by how unprecedented this is in games. How many times have you played a game where all of the important characters are non-white? (If you have examples, let me know! I’d love to try these games out.)

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I’m not trying to downplay the rest of the game with this observation. Glenn (Asian-American) makes an appearance, there are non-white minor characters (like some of the cancer survivors in Savannah), and of course a bunch of the non-white main characters, who are the people we get to know the most, survive through multiple episodes. I’ve always liked that Katjaa, although white, is Belgian, lending some additional complexity to a character that could have been a blonde, blue-eyed American.

Perhaps the most important examples of how Telltale handles race are Lee and Clementine. I find these two characters to be such important aspects of the game that I’m reserving the topic for another post.

Gender

Telltale also handles gender exceptionally. The lack of female characters in video games has been discussed to death, and it’s nice to see a game that includes a diverse and interesting cast of both men and women.

Looking through the characters listed on The Walking Dead wiki, I count twenty-six male characters and thirteen female characters in the cast, including the minor characters. When I narrow it down to only major characters that wind up joining Lee’s group, there are eight men and six women. How many men and women are in the group at any given time is a little flexible considering situations such as choosing between saving Doug or Carley.

That’s not too shabby compared to many current video games. But what’s more important to me is the importance of the women in the game. Just like the man, they are characterized as unique, often flawed individuals with useful talents that contribute to the group’s survival.

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Katjaa’s veterinary experience may not make her the best doctor (although how ridiculous would that have been?), but her medical knowledge is occasionally helpful and she often serves as en emotional bedrock for the rest of the group earlier on in the game. Yes, she and Duck serve as motivation for Kenny’s actions (and, seriously, more on the topic of women as men’s motivation later), but Katjaa is very much her own person. In fact, Katjaa’s personhood helps us to understand why Kenny love and cares about his family so much.

Not everyone may like Lilly, but her Air Force training has made her very useful with a gun and for a while she’s the leader of the group. Her bluntness and bossiness are tempered and complicated by her affection for her father and the occasional tender moments between her and Lee. No matter your personal feeling about her, she is a well-written and interesting character (and if she’s inspired any strong feelings in you at all, I’d say Telltale did their job).

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Christa and Molly, two latecomers to the game, are capable characters with strong wills and opinions. Molly knocked Lee out the first time I met her and Christa survives to the very end, something only a strong, resourceful, and lucky person could accomplish.

Clementine is a major focus of the game. Much of Lee’s character development is tied to her and as he grows, more and more of her personality is revealed to the player. She also (sadly) grows up and loses her childhood throughout the game. We see her growth as she starts to become a resourceful and brave young women. Clementine is one of the most universally loved parts of the game and a huge testament to the effort that Telltale put into their female characters, which, really, is no different than the effort they put into their male characters.

Class

I was interested to see how Telltale would handle class in the game considering it’s set in the Southern United States, which has the unfortunate stereotype of being full of “uneducated,” lower class people who can be identified simply through their accent (scare quotes because it’s a ridiculous and offensive thing to buy into).

The characters with the heaviest Southern accents are the St. Johns, who have the sort of accent and speech patterns often associated with “hicks.” But interestingly, they own a prosperous dairy farm and, despite their… um, unfortunate eating habits, are doing very well for themselves in the post-zombie world due to their cunning and ability to negotiate.

Yum.

Yum.

This is a satisfying reversal on the stereotypes surrounding people with stereotypically heavy Southern speech types. Telltale even used their audience’s presumed stereotypes — it’s not exactly an uncommon or unacceptable prejudice to hold and, as such, it’s often unconscious — to surprise player’s with the St. Johns’ true nature.

The other character who stands out to me is Charles. Here is an older, grizzled looking homeless man (and he was homeless before the zombie plague as well) who seems to always have a bottle of alcohol on him. Based on stereotype and tropes seen across other media, we might expect him to be cowardly, untrustworthy, or sinister. Instead, Charles is a brave and smart man who takes a genuine interest in Clementine.

He's got a great beard, too.

And he’s got a great beard.

With these examples, we can see how Telltale plays with stereotypes when creating their characters. They take audience expectation into account to create surprising characters and give them the sort of depth that we would expect to find in a real person.

Age

There is an impressive amount of age diversity among the entire cast, especially when putting the game into context with the majority of other games that have been produced either today or in the past.

Most video game protagonists are teenagers or emerging adults (I’m defining emerging adults as anyone in their early twenties), because that is the desired demographic for most games. The Walking Dead does something a little different. The two principle characters, Lee and Clementine, are thirty-seven and nine respectively, and there is considerable diversity among the rest of the cast as well.

Generations are represented here. There are entire families sticking together — Kenny’s family, Lilly and Larry, the St. Johns — which represent at least three, maybe four, different generations all together. Many of the minor characters are a little older, including Vernon and Hershel.

The main characters skew more toward middle age, but there is an impressive amount of age diversity among the entire cast. There are quite a few older minor characters — Vernon comes to mind, and I think Hershel counts as well, and Charles is definitely older than the average video game character.

That eyebrow.

That eyebrow.

The only critique I would have is that Clementine and Duck act too young for their ages (nine and ten). I can handwave it a little with Duck, since he’s characterized as being the dullest crayon in the box, but Clementine is often praised for her emotional resilience and intelligence by other characters.

For a eight-year-old, I think she tends to be surprisingly clueless about what’s happening around her. I buy that it’s difficult for anyone to deal with the sudden appearance of zombies destroying absolutely everything you know, but I was continually surprised by the things that Lee had to explain to her. She acted a few years younger than her actual age to me.

I’m not saying that Clementine should run around cussing and blowing zombies to bits (please no). I enjoyed her occasional moments of maturity. For example, I loved the moments where it was clear that she didn’t really think her parents were alive but was only hanging on to the hope. Those were moments of affecting character development that contributed to how much I wanted to care for her throughout the game.

If anything, I wanted to let her stay young. I wanted to let her have a childhood for as long as possible. This may be more of a personal issue, because I feel that people constantly underestimate children. From all the time I’ve spent around them, I can promise you that eight-year-olds are pretty darn sophisticated in their intelligence and tenacity. Telltale did an absolutely wonderful job with Clementine as a character, but I didn’t necessarily buy her as a third grader.

Body Type

Everyone looks different! Yes!

We’ve got tall people, short people (can we talk about Omid and Christa’s awesome height difference for a second?), gangly people, muscular people, chubby people, people with potbellies, people with wrinkles, people with all sorts of different hair textures. There’s not just one character model in this game, and I love it.

Duck's happy about it, too.

Duck’s happy about it, too.

Sexuality

So, uh, why was everyone straight? This seems like a tremendous and strange oversight on the part of Telltale. They’re so careful in the rest of the game to create characters that look and act differently, that I started thinking maybe it wasn’t an accident to not include a single gay character.

It’s a possibility — please remember that this is obviously conjecture — that Telltale wanted to focus on the theme of the straight family. There are a whole lot of families in this game, and they almost always consist of straight parents (even if one parent is dead) and their children. No aunts, uncles, cousins, or grandparents here. We even have a potential family in Christa and Omid, who are anticipating the birth of their first child.

The other characters’ families present different options to Lee. Will he be like Kenny? How about the dynamic between Lilly and Larry? There are a lot of options in front of him, and the game does its best to reaffirm the theme of family again and again.

Lee struggles throughout the game to be a good father to Clementine, and I think most people would agree that by his last scene they have become a family. But that family was a choice for both of them. The threat The Stranger presents — the climax of the entire game — is that he will take Clementine away, destroying Lee’s budding family as retribution for Lee’s supposed destruction of The Stranger’s family. When Lee and Clementine work together to overcome both The Stranger and the reappearance of Clementine’s zombified parents, they solidify their bonds of family because they choose to stick together.

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Although I enjoy this theme (I could probably keep talking about it, but I’ll cut myself off here), I don’t think it’s a good excuse for not including a gay character. Sure, it could be argued that one of the minor characters is gay and we don’t know it, but it doesn’t do anyone much good if it’s a secret.

A gay family would have easily fit into the theme of the game, and I would have loved to see what a talented writing staff like the one at Telltale would have done in a medium that has an absolute dearth of non-straight characters.

Conclusion

So, that was long. And you know why? Because this game is written well. The writing team put real effort, thought, and emotion into their work.

This is not a list of things that I found wrong with the game. Instead, it is everything I found interesting and complex in a game that doesn’t take the easy way out. (That easy way out would be cliche, the crutch that far too many games lean on.) Telltale populated their world with people who feel full and unique. They each have their own problems, their own motivations, their own desires and wishes for the future.

All sorts of people can connect to the characters in this game, and not just because they might feel physically or demographically represented. We can relate Lilly’s frustration or Doug’s awkward kindness. Maybe you find yourself uncomfortable with how much you see yourself in Kenny’s brashness and unwillingness to consider other’s opinions.

Telltale has given us options. These characters are all different and none of them is perfect. (Okay, Omid might be a little perfect. I love that guy.) This is exactly the sort of writing I want to see in other games. We need to push past the easiest options, which too often are offensive stereotypes that, at the very least, cause people emotional pain. Games can literally only be made better through more thought, care, and the inclusion of characters who are genuinely diverse. We shouldn’t be afraid to change the game industry so that it heads in this direction — we should be excited.

You can read part 2 of this topic here.

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2 Responses to “How Telltale got it (mostly) right with The Walking Dead”

  1. Cat Spratt May 31, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    This is a wonderful critique and I’m glad that you’re writing a blog like this. 🙂 I’m really looking forward to your post on Lee and Clementine, and on how the game handles race. I’d also like to know your thoughts on the foreshadowing of the ending, and on the “Clementine will remember that” dialogue cues throughout the game.

    • howmanyprincesses May 31, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

      Hi, Cat! I’m actually about to start writing that post right now, and it should be up on Sunday. I’ll definitely take your thoughts into consideration.

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