You’re on your own: Telltale’s The Walking Dead grows up

I’m going to tell you a story, if I may, about Clementine, the protagonist of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 2.  Specifically a story about her curious ability, as a child, to make for a more empowering lead than a strong, dependable, burly man’s man named Lee.


I’m covered in viscera, edging my way cautiously through a bloody big mob of the walking dead (Season 2, Episode 3: In Harm’s Way). It’s a tense affair. I’m dressed up like a walker (zombie) in an attempt to fool them into thinking I’m one of their own. My head is lolled a bit to the left which accentuates my double chin more than I’d like. I’m gargling with the phlegm I keep nestled in my throat. I’ve got a bit of poo dripping slowly down my forehead, ready to, in about a minute or so, plop off the end of my nose and maybe, God forbid, land on my slightly extended lower lip. I’m running the risk of eating walker poo for one very simple reason: I don’t want to become walker poo. Not today at least. 

The plan is working too (!). I’m about half way through this massive herd of the undead and having a right time of it. I put on a little limp as a creative flourish, dragging my right leg just a tad as I go. I’m a really, really good walker understudy it seems. Maybe they sense this overconfidence in some unnerving and all too human way, because they begin to pay more attention to me. The limp was one step too far. 

Before I can even attempt to rein in my act I’m busted, with walkers all around me turning in place to get a better look, much like a smelly, fleshy satellite array. They’re all at it: zoning in on my equally drenched cohorts with surprising accuracy, if not similar levels of speed. In the space of five or six, maybe seven seconds we’re all buggered; the walkers now fully aware that we were being highly deceptive and maybe a little rude towards them. I break into a comfortable jog, casually batting that poo away from my person. ‘Phew, close call’ I think, wholly ignorant of the out of the frying pan… qualities of my predicament. 

This bliss doesn’t linger, however, as I hear the pained screams of my companion Sarita ringing out from nearby. Slaloming gracefully through the mass of animated corpses I find her with ease. Upon our making eye contact I feel instantly strange, as if my body is somehow singing with energy. Time slows to a standstill, while the sounds of screaming and scratching and the tearing of flesh are replaced with - and this is going to sound insane, but stay with me - dramatic music. I’m not sure whether it is adrenaline or some perverse personal enjoyment I’m gaining from the grisly sight, but the instant I witness Sarita with a walker chomping down enthusiastically her on her arm, I feel so uncontrollably alive.

What to do in a messy situation such as this? Well thanks to my exalted state of mind I have all the time in the world to contemplate our, Sarita and I’s, quandary. I stand there, humming gently to my internal Apocalypse Now-esque soundtrack for what seems like an hour, already knowing exactly where my course of action will take the two of us. Thwack, I chop clean through (it takes me a couple of goes) the stricken cow’s arm, saving her from a fate worse than death with not a moment (except the couple I just spent savouring the atmosphere) to spare.

I am effing bad ass, I think to myself in a restrained-yet-entirely-pleased-with-myself way. Lee wouldn’t have been so heroically decisive; he’d have tried to talk Sarita out of her corner. But I’m not Lee, am I? I’m Clementine. Hair cut short, puffer jacket clad, hatchet wielding, spur-of-the-moment decision taking Clementine. Eff y’all haters.



There's a sense of liberation to be found in the second season of The Walking Dead that wasn't present in its forerunner, at least the way I ended up playing them both. I spent much of my time with Lee as a selfless mediator, attempting to keep my group together for the good of everyone. At least that’s what I told myself at the time. Looking back I was anything but: I made almost all of my decisions - many times taking them for people I deemed incapable of making their own - in an utterly self-serving fashion. In that season Clementine and her safety were my top, maybe only, priority, and in being placed as her protector I was  invariably looking out for both her and Lee's best interests first and foremost. That bond, I suppose, was the fundamental emotional hook running through the whole story, powering every other response it elicited from me. While it's not a particularly sophisticated one at heart, I can't argue that the pairing didn't work its manipulative magic as intended.

With Lee gone the dynamic of the second season is markedly different. Along with her guardian, everyone barring Kenny is dead or presumed so, leaving Clem(entine) with little connection to her past. Without this I quickly began, likely aided by her now being the playable protagonist, to view her as less of a child - though maybe it’s better to simply say less vulnerable, less passive. The leap from her being a moral compass/emotional engagement figure occurred quickly and seamlessly: she was now alone and had to rely upon herself; a fundamental change in her character had begun and would need to reach its culmination quickly. Even before the cold open had ended the game was testing my understanding of this: would I stop and help my last companion, Christa, escape a posse of bandits or leave her to fend them off alone? Essentially, would I accept Clementine’s new position as a participant in the world rather than as someone in need of protection from it? I stayed of course, not that it, naturally, made much of a difference.

The vignette immediately following Clem’s separation from Christa further hammers home the importance of her being strong and independent. After hunting around in a trashed campsite with a friendly dog, she eventually jimmies a can of food open, a can which I was more than happy to share with my new canine friend. I had images running through my head of all the adventures the two of them might one day get themselves into, running around the remains of modern humanity and taking care of one another. But no, the greedy mutt jumps at her the minute the lid is off, giving her a right gash on the arm for good measure, shortly before they have a tussle that leads to the scrounger getting its comeuppance-impalement on a dirty-big umbrella. A few minutes later she’s locked in a shed by a group of suspicious survivors (she might have been bitten) sewing her arm up with pilfered supplies, a vice and an awfully high tolerance for pain. Her transformation is complete.

It’s not as though she just turns into a withdrawn survivalist type or anything, and past these early didactic sections everything calms down in this regard. Once it becomes clear Clem isn’t bitten she’s invited to join this new group, which largely returns everything to the conversation/action/aftermath structure of the first season. So while she’s largely as physically vulnerable as she was previously, there are ample opportunities for social situations where she’s able to exert some of her newfound strength. This manifests in many ways: from her being canny and evasive when she would previously have been truthful; to times where she’ll recklessly get lippy and eventually physical with aggressors; and many, many times where she’ll tell people to shut the hell up rather than listen to any more petty arguments.

Having played Lee as purer than the driven snow I don’t know how aggy he could become, though that’s not really the point. That I chose to - was compelled - to make Clementine a more brash and forthright character is what’s important. Lee had to be pragmatic because he was the only thing between Clementine and death; I made him make all those decisions because Telltale told me that was the case (honest, it’s never even up for discussion). Playing as Clem is different by virtue of that no longer being the message. Lee died because of his generous belief in putting others, chiefly Clem, before himself. She’s never in that position largely because she never builds such concise, clear-cut relationships. Even her surrogate Clementine-figure, Sarah, presents a more complex challenge than Clem ever did to Lee, mainly because she’s often crippled by fear and is ultimately less worthy of the sacrifices being made for her.  

As the makeup and dynamic of her new group changes over the course of the series Clem befriends and alienates in equal measure, occurrences which are largely a product of her never being treated as anything but an equal. Characters interact with her much like they do with everyone else, as if Lee’s absence removes a focus on her added vulnerability, leaving her to be viewed more similarly alongside her companions: important but never indispensable. Through this leveling of the social playing field Clem is given the freedom to develop in more interesting directions. While in the past she was largely a plot device, now, by virtue of no one valuing her above themselves, she is free to exert her own will, interacting as she seems fit, often in dark and profound directions not afforded to, or at least not deemed appropriate for Lee.

In being stripped of the symbolism of the Lee/Clementine dynamic Telltale manages to transform her character in an astoundingly short time whilst retaining a sense of believability. It hints at an inherent strength largely overlooked in the first season, one that was overshadowed because of her associations with others and not through any fault of her own. In excising this social closeness Clem becomes a fascinating protagonist, one with which - for the first time in a long while - I felt compelled to take decisions based on their actual merits, rather than to pursue a sense of obligation to the characters and the monstrous concept of the ‘right way to play’. While I was harangued into making Lee a selfless fool, I feel that season two has given both me and the character of Clementine just enough breathing room for us to create something much more compelling. For a game so deeply interested in the ambiguities of the human condition, Season Two of The Walking Dead seems to be the first time it has fully embraced it for its protagonist, to great effect. 

I’d like to thank a good friend for a couple of solid conversations about this topic, without which I’d never have been able to form this into something approaching coherence.

As it happens, those discussions were an expensive endeavour, incorporating many beers and untold cigarettes. These costly facilitators of critical thought don’t come cheap however, so I’ve set up one of them Patreon pages wot a lot of other writers have got themselves these days. If you like my thought process I’m unfortunately going to need more of these intelligence-catalysts, subsequently, please consider donating to my peerlessly altruistic cause. It resides here: Chrz.