I stopped watching The Walking Dead on TV because I stopped caring about the characters, but the reason I'm still playing The Walking Dead in game form for the opposite reason; I'm deeply, emotionally invested in them. And even when the second season of Telltale's episodic zombie story struggled to find footing, there was a constant: I always wanted to know what happens to Clementine.
Warning: I'm gonna drop spoilers for the first two seasons of The Walking Dead .
The first season put players in control of Lee Everett, but you were primarily concerned with Clementine, a precious girl you stumbled across, just as the world burst into flesh-eating flames. What lessons do you impart to a child forced into extraordinary circumstances? How do you help them learn, grow, and make mistakes, when under the near-constant threat of death? (I guess it's given me something to think about, if the world ends, now that I have my own daughter!)
Though key creative talent behind the first season left Telltale (they'd go on to form Campo Santo and make Firewatch), the company moved forward with a shaky second season. The basic premise for the season—Clementine on her own, without Lee, trying to survive—had little going for it beyond that premise, but hey, I stuck around because I wanted to know what happens to Clementine.
The latest season, which starts stronger and more confidently than the last one, makes a key change: you aren't Clementine anymore. She's part of the story, yes, but as a side character. Instead, Telltale's shifted the focus to Javier García, a former professional baseball player with some key hangups about his family. The game gives Javier's story room to breathe before it collides with Clementine's, but in making Javier the the character you're guiding around with the analog stick and ostensibly the "main" character in the storyline, it puts you in a weird position.
Try breaking down how you, the player, exist in this fictional universe. You get to make some choices but not others, pick some lines of dialogue but not all of them. Are you playing as the characters, or acting as a guiding force—some kind of shoulder angel for the people involved?
I started thinking more deeply about this because we shifted to playing The Walking Dead on PC, after spending the last few years on PlayStation. Since there's no way to bring my save (and choices) over from one platform to another, I had to use Telltale's story generator. The generator doesn't get super granular—it won't ask, for example, whether you pulled the trigger on Duck in the first season, and I totally did—but it does ask broader questions about who these people are.
"In The Walking Dead Season 1, Clementine met Lee after she lost her family and home. He protected Clem and taught her the importance of … community / justice / survival / self-reliance."
I suspect it's possible to download a save generator that would let us pick every single decision from the first two seasons and drop it into the new one, but instead, we went with "survival," since it seemed to fit "our" Clementine.
Javier hasn't spent dozens of hours getting to know (and care for) Clementine. He doesn't know what it was like to leave Lee, the closest thing she had to a father figure in a world gone mad, behind. He wasn't there when Clementine had to decide Kenny, a broken family man who'd lost his mind, should be put down. Javier has every reason to distrust this punky teenager, whose first impulse was to pull a gun and tie him up. But I'm the one pulling the strings here, and Clementine's history—the history I was there for—is why he should trust her. Or, more importantly, why I'm forcing him to trust her, for the sake of Clementine's survival.
I realize there's probably no version of the story where you're able to ditch Clementine, as Telltale's "decisions" are often clever smoke and mirrors with little actual deviation, but the reason they're clever is because I can still feel this wide range of emotions within that space, as evidenced above.
(Telltale's Batman series, which doesn't deal as much in life or death decisions, grants broader agency to players by having them choose whether to show up to important events as Bruce Wayne or Batman. I'm guessing the story doesn't change much, but it imbued our playthrough with deeper meaning.)
Because of this history, I'm not sure how things are going to end up for Javier. Though he seems like a good dude, the reason I'm playing is to see Clementine through this nightmare, the best I can. You'll have to watch out, Javier. You might be the one I'm controlling with the analog stick, but when push comes to bullets, the person I'm going to be fighting for is Clem.
I'm not sure if Telltale designed the third season to put me in this position, in which I may actively fight against the character they've assigned me to, but I'm into it.