How a digital eight-year-old brought emotion back from the Dead
The beating heart of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games' episodic point-and-click consensus pick for 2012's game of the year, is Clementine. She's a smart, soft-spoken eight-year-old NPC in a blue-and-white ball cap that your character Lee Everett, a regret-filled convicted killer, meets in this new outpost of Robert Kirkman's zombie empire.
Desperate to escape some walkers in a rural Georgia town, Lee ducks into a house seeking help. Instead, he hears a walkie-talkie crackle and finds someone in need of it.
The girl of the house, Clem, had been hiding in a tree fort since the zombie outbreak occurred. When Lee decides to take her along, many gamers no doubt groaned, considering the irritating kids on The Walking Dead TV show made it often unwatchable.
Instead, most formed an emotional father/daughter relationship unprecedented in gaming — or perhaps anywhere in pop culture — thanks to the narrative's interactive nature. How you commune with live people is far more important than how you kill dead people.
Die from a zombie disembowelling and you just start from the beginning of the fight, but make a regrettable dialogue choice or rescue decision and the repercussions will reverberate throughout all five episodes. (Though you can still download season one via PSN, XBLA, Steam or App Store, Telltale also recently released a physical disc, too.)
Clem is such a sweet, smart, charismatic, vulnerable, goofy and, most importantly, realistic presence that you really want to make choices that will keep her safe, keep her spirits up and protect her from the horrors surrounding you. My most rewarding response from the game — which informs you of the after-the-fact impact of your choices — was: "You shared hope with Clementine." And the only time I replayed a chapter was to protect Clem from being traumatized by me killing a survivor in front of her.
The only comparable game relationship I can recall is Ico and Yorda in Fumito Ueda's 2001 classic Ico. Playing a horned boy locked in a castle by local villagers, you find a girl also trapped there and must work together to escape under constant threat of shadow monsters.
The gameplay mechanism of holding hands illustrates the emotional bond that makes you want to protect Yorda rather than seeing her as a hassle like in most other escort missions. But they don't speak the same language so those emotions don't run quite as deep as with Lee and Clem, who have regular heart-to-hearts.
There actually aren't that many children in games as a design decision to keep gamers from killing kids (and politicians from complaining about gamers killing kids), making their rare appearances particularly impactful.
Consider Heavy Rain, another interactive drama (and direct inspiration for Telltale), which opens with you losing track of your son and him getting killed by a car. A couple years later, your other son is kidnapped by a serial killer who only murders children. "I wanted a much more personal story," said creator David Cage, a father of two boys who could think of nothing more horrific to fuel his story.
Or Bioshock, which became instantly infamous for its Little Sisters, possessed young girls who you could choose to rescue or "harvest." Suddenly, the binary moral choices that had become all the rage in gaming had an actual pressure point. Though desensitized to killing adults, gamers never before had to make a choice between letting a young child, even a creepy one, live or die.
That's why Clementine is so powerful. She acts so much like a real little girl that she provides a game-length pressure point, a moral compass guiding you through an amoral apocalypse. Every ethical decision you make thus becomes rooted in Clem's potential reaction and in protecting her physically and emotionally.
There have been few games quite as bleak as The Walking Dead, and some of the arcs may have been unbearable if not for the bright innocence of this impeccably written and voice-acted character. (Melissa Hutchinson deservedly won the Spike TV Video Game Award for "Best Performance By a Human Female" in the role.)
As the episodes rolled out, #ForClementine became a trending hashtag and she became one of the most fully realized characters in gaming history — the creators later told Game Informer that "Clementine was literally the first idea" with the rest of the adventure game built around her.
It's not known if Clem will be part of The Walking Dead's second season. Regardless, her iconic character will live on by inspiring future generations of less-annoying fictional kids and teaching developers that it's as important to make gamers care as give them someone to kill.
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