No, I’m not talking about the TV show.
Nor am I talking about the Robert Kirkman comics on which the TV show is based.
Not that those aren’t important, because they are. They made a huge splash culturally and they do a lot of really interesting things.
But what I want to talk about today is not the comics or the TV show, but the Walking Dead video game (y’know, based on the comics and the TV show), which was released by Telltale games as “Season One” and “Season Two.” Each season is structured by episodes (which you could buy individually as they came out), and the format makes it seem like you’re playing through a Walking Dead miniseries.
And why do I find this game so important? Here are a few reasons:
In Season One, you play as a Black protagonist.
In Season Two, you play as a Black protagonist.
There’s also a DLC — which I have not played — which has five different protagonists, including (and I’m using the game’s wikia “ethnicity” tags here) an “Asian-American” man, an “African-American” man and two “Caucasian-American” women. Only one of the five protags is listed as a “Caucasian-American” man. I haven’t played the DLC yet, so I won’t really be focusing on it here, but I thought it was worthy of mention.
In case you don’t play a lot of video games, or in case you do play them and just haven’t noticed this, playable Black characters in video games are really rare. Like, really rare. And playable main characters, as opposed to characters who are, for example, part of the roster in a player-versus-player fighting game? Pfft. I think it would be really hard to fill a shelf with games that had Black protagonists. (Unless the shelf was really small and/or the game boxes were really oversized.)
Lee, the protagonist of Season One, and Clem, the protagonist of Season Two (as well as an NPC in Season One) are both fully fleshed-out, strong, compelling characters.
The game also does not shy away from issues of race, and your PC’s race matters to the other characters in the game.
It Doesn’t ask the burning question of, “Now that it’s the zombie apocalypse and we don’t have kitchens, should the women go back in them?”
Remember in the TV series, when Andrea got a lot of flak both from other characters and from fans for daring to challenge the whole women do the dishes/men do the shooting division of labor? Well that conversation never really comes up in the video game.
Why? Because Zombie Apocalypse is why. The characters in the game are way too busy running for their lives to try to divvy up “gender-appropriate” roles to each other.
It’s the zombie apocalypse. Everybody shoots, and everybody takes care of the baby.
In Season Two, Clementine is eleven years old.
The Walking Dead is a “horror survival” game, which means that, at most points, your goal won’t be to defeat an enemy, but to stay alive. (And therefore you don’t have to be a tank for the game to make sense.) And the fact that Clementine is eleven, and as such only has the height, reach, and endurance of an eleven-year-old, actually matters to game play. Fighting off zombies by hand is harder for you than it is for the healthy, adult members of your group. (Which makes fighting the zombies off that much more rewarding.) And the fact that you are a child is important to the people you interact with, as well. Other characters react to it, sometimes shielding you from danger because of it and sometimes dismissing you out of hand.
As a child, you usually have less power and less authority than the people around you. In an industry full to the brim with adult male action heroes (often the leaders of whatever team they’re in), it’s nice to see a little girl’s point of view.
Clementine Kicks Ass
She may not be a physical powerhouse, but Clementine is brave and determined and she can hold her own in a world full of people (and zombies) who are bigger, stronger and faster than she is.
In Season One, Clem’s role was largely to be protected by Lee. It’s nice to see her come into her own in Season Two.
Choices that Matter
Now, The Walking Dead is a pretty linear game. No matter what you do in this game, what choices you make, more or less the same things are going to happen in each episode. Most of the time, you’ll have no true influence on where your group goes or on who dies.
And yet, the choices in this game matter in some ways more than the “choices” I’ve made in any other video game I’ve played. Because these choices have less to do with determining an outcome than they do with defining, and refining, your character’s morality. Will you save the person you like the most, or the person you feel is most useful to the group? Whose side will you take in a fight? When will you lie to survive? Or steal? Or kill? Those are the kinds of decisions you make, and even if, from a plot perspective, they don’t matter much, the game is very good at making them matter personally. To the protagonist and to the player.
Because the one question The Walking Dead is always asking is not “What do you want to make happen?” but “What kind of person do you want to be?”
And that’s pretty extraordinary.