At this point in The Walking Dead, both Clementine and I have been trained to work through problems using a frighteningly similar thought process.
I was nervous when Telltale announced that you would be playing as Clementine in The Walking Dead: Season 2. She was a powerful tool of emotional manipulation (and I mean that in a good way) during the first season. One sad look from Clem could be devastating, and the series constantly toed the line of overusing her. It didn’t overuse her, of course, bringing her out at just the right moments to give a situation a memorable gut punch of sadness. Putting Clem in danger was an easy way to raise the stakes of any situation, but raise those stakes too often and they lose their power. My fear with Season 2 was that Clem’s vulnerability and my desire to protect her would be abused and overused if I was with her every second of the game.
Thankfully, Season 2 doesn’t abuse my love of Clementine, even as it puts her in more horrible situations. But as I played through the first episode, "All That Remains", I began to realize that taking control of Clem was perhaps the best possible choice Telltale could have made because by this point in the series both she and the player have been trained to work through problems using a frighteningly similar thought process.
When playing as Lee throughout Season 1, I always tried to be nice to people. Part of this was that I wanted to set a good example for Clementine, and part of this was a practical strategy for survival. When the shit hits the fan, it’s always better to have more friends than enemies. Right?
Except that plan was never as successful as I thought it would be. Some characters just hated Lee, and they wouldn’t change no matter how friendly I acted towards them. Some characters genuinely liked Lee, but that didn’t mean they would always side with him in an argument or fight. And some characters were true friends, but that didn’t stop them from dying. If Season 1 taught me anything, it’s that people will never be happy with you, and kindness rarely goes unpunished. You’re always going to piss someone off, no matter your intentions, but that’s okay because they’ll probably die soon anyways. All my relationships, the hateful ones and the loving ones, are temporary.
So at the start of Season 2, I found myself, through Clementine, being more combative than I was with Lee. She challenged authority, purposefully antagonized a pregnant woman, and refused to make a pinky swear with another little girl because: “I don’t want to say I’m your friend and then have to do something unfriendly.” That’s not to say that I was cruel, but I was guarded, distant, and practical because I, Nick, the player, had learned from Season 1 that niceties were pointless.
About halfway through the episode, I realized how in sync I was with Clementine. Here is a girl who has watched every friend and loved one she ever knew die before her eyes. It only seems natural for her to be guarded, distant, and practical. It’s only natural that she too would have noticed the futility of Lee’s politicking and decided for herself not to make that same mistake. The meta-narrative of my changing playstyle is mirrored by the actual narrative. Clem and I have gone through the same emotional arc.
Now that I’ve actually played The Walking Dead Season 2, I feel a kinship with Clementine that I haven’t felt for any other video game character. We’ve both gone through the same trauma, and we’ve both learned the same lessons. I can’t imagine playing as anyone else because I am Clementine.