There’s something about The Walking Dead‘s Clementine that I’ve struggled to articulate. I sputtered around it in our last Water Cooler discussion, and it’s come barreling to the forefront of my thoughts now that TellTale released the first preview of the next episode. It’s hovered around my subconscious for weeks; I even dreamed about it. I don’t actually remember any of the dream, but I woke up feeling distraught and specifically worried about how Clementine was going to get out of the last mess I left her in. That says a lot about my investment in the character, and it gave reason to tease out just what my relationship with this character is.
First and foremost, there’s something to be said about how one of the biggest sequels of the year stars a little girl. Not only is Clementine’s race and gender unique for a high-profile protagonist in games, but her age is a huge potential burden. There’s a reason the first season featured not only a grown man, but a convicted killer as its hero instead of a little girl. In a world of flesh-eating zombies and men, there are plenty of skulls to crack, something that requires a certain amount of strength and, for some satisfying dramatic fodder, a little moral ambiguity. What’s more, being an adult put the player and Lee in a position to make important decisions that would affect the direction of events. Clementine has neither of these things; she’s a slight girl. Thus, TellTale has the challenge of not only orchestrating fights between adult-bodied zombies and a child, but figuring out how much agency she can have within the group. Where there were times when the group turned to Lee for advice as to where to go next, none of the adults are going to ask Clementine these questions; when they do, it feels contrived.
This also changes how standard diegetic directions are read. I was admittedly surprised to find a conversation on Tumblr about whether or not Luke–an adult character–could be read as abusive because he continuously puts Clementine into dangerous situations. His prompts read as benign on their own. It makes perfect gaming sense for Luke to ask the player-character to climb up the ladder and scout ahead because that’s what the player wants to do–progress through the world and know everything about it. Suddenly, when the dynamic is changed from two adults delegating duties amongst themselves to an adult suggesting action to a child, this standard bit of instruction takes on a more sinister tone. While I didn’t read this as abusive, once I thought about it, it did contribute to my continued distrust of this new group of survivors–something which ultimately informs the game’s foreboding tone.
At the same time, TellTale has somehow crafted a game around a little girl who evokes empathy without the condescending need to “protect” her. Clementine is her own person–through the choices players make as her. I don’t distrust Luke because I feel the need to protect Clementine from him, I distrust him because I feel all narrative signifiers point to Clementine having reason to distrust him. Without the authority to tell the group where to go and when, my agency in the world of The Walking Dead is zeroed in on what kind of person I want Clementine to be. For me, she’s smart and resourceful, but eager to prove herself–not to be better than or accepted in the group, but to prove she warrants respect as a peer. “I can take that guy,” I imagine we both think. “Don’t mess with me.” And it manifests itself in small ways–like choosing to accept a first drink of alcohol or a cigarette. And what will she do when the only other girl her age suggests mischief with a Polaroid camera? Can one even foster a girlhood friendship under such dire circumstances? It’s small, purely character-serving decisions that stick out in my mind and ultimately make the game enjoyable. As TellTale’s hashtag suggests, it’s not about protecting Clementine, it’s about being Clementine. I don’t wake up worried about Clementine because I want to protect her as my gaming objective; I wake up worried about Clementine because I spend a few hours a month in her head, helping her figure out who she is and how to survive (the former being a tall enough order for an eleven-year-old girl).
This brings me to the harrowing realization that, while I’m anxious to see what happens next, I know in my heart of hearts that whatever comes will not be good. There is no way for this to end well for Clementine; even if I help her out of her current predicament, she’ll still be an orphan living in a world of monsters. This is a heavy cross to bear that drudges up palpable sense of dread each time I boot up the game. It’s a little horrifying, a lot stressful, but also worth it if it means helping build Clementine into a stronger, more nuanced character. This is a kind of agency that’s lacking in most games, and certainly in games about the lives of girls (themselves so few and far between). It’s something I look forward to experiencing more with Clementine–even if I’m a little nervous to see where it takes us when that agency is inevitably taken away.