As video games continued evolving, more and more companies began exploring the medium as a predominantly narrative form. Point-and-click adventures set the stage decades earlier, but the seventh-generation era saw several mainstream works which came close to truly capturing the idea of an interactive movie. Many of these attempts had serious problems, especially in retrospect; if the story itself wasn’t nonsense, there was almost always the disappointing realization that telling a proper story meant most choices were merely an illusion.
As the first game to truly set this craze on fire, The Walking Dead does not avoid that latter pratfall. But what it lacked in freedom, it made up for with one of the best narratives to hit the market; the first season of the Walking Dead video game outshined both the comic and the television show, and that’s some serious praise.
At the heart of this is the relationship between Lee and Clementine. Though not father and daughter, their relationship is one of a larger trend during the 2010s to explore the bond between a guardian and the one they must protect. This is one of the best, perhaps only rivalled by Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us – something about the post-apocalypse really brings people together. Lee’s influence over Clementine became a popular meme: “Clementine Will Remember That.” This phrase operates on two levels. The most basic, and saddest, is a reminder that this game will never fulfill its promise of meaningful branching paths. On the other, this game is about how Lee’s actions will shape Clementine’s future. Has his presence left her better or worse off? These pop-ups are a reminder that you’re playing not just for the hero’s sake but his entire group.
Viewing The Walking Dead through a lens where your choices don’t matter can lead to another perspective – this game did manage to get many of us engaged before we realized this fact, after all, and there had to be a bigger reason than the mere anticipation of setting up a line of dominos. While the game at large was railroading us back toward a universal path, the self-contained moments were all stellar. One choice in the third chapter is particularly devastating. You are given the choice between doing something yourself or having another character perform the action; the end result is the same, but it presents a moral quandary you would rarely if ever encounter elsewhere in the medium.
In fact, I believe the true impact of the choices exists not in the shaping of the narrative but a pop-up at the end of each episode. You are presented with a screen showing your own choice compared to all other players. As a game exploring themes of gray morality, you might be shocked when what you considered a rare easy choice has a fifty-fifty split, or maybe you find yourself completely against the world and start questioning your own views. In many ways, these choices operate as a survey of how we collectively reacted to the story.
Whether or not it was a complete success, Telltale set out to make the video game equivalent of a television show, and it certainly ended up being one of the biggest narrative events of the 2010s. As much as we can gripe about a flaw here or there, that largely serves to reinforce a bigger truth; we care so much about its failings because everything else was such a success. Few games have ever left me so emotionally raw.