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Games

Moral Perspectives in 'The Walking Dead'

Make no mistake, this is not a coming of age story. There is no moral truth to be had here, only complex, ever shifting moral perspectives to grapple with.

As soon as I plunged the pitchfork into his chest, I knew I had made the wrong decision. Clementine’s shocked response stoked my sense of moral repugnance. This was the moment in The Walking Dead’s first season that I knew my decisions in Telltale’s world would irrevocably change not just how the in-game characters saw me, but how I saw my own moral rationalizations within this extreme environment. Throughout the first season, I was in a perpetual state of moral stress.

Two episodes into the second season, and the moral landscape of The Walking Dead has shifted dramatically. It creates what Miguel Sicart calls ethical gameplay, that is it “forces players to address their actions from a moral perspective,” (Beyond Choices, MIT Press, 2013) and these moral perspective shift and change and dramatically so between seasons. While mechanically the game largely remains the same, the new context makes my reassess my actions from a shifting moral perspective. As the world changes around Clementine, so do I.

Decision making in The Walking Dead’s first season is a burden. Lee, as Clementine’s caretaker, is responsible for her well being and that of his group. At the same time, Lee navigates a particular social environment. His fellow survivors see him at times as a capable leader, sometimes as an unknown presence, or sometimes even as a threat. At the same time, his personal history influences my decision making. Lee is a convicted murderer that has been given a second chance during the apocalypse to atone for his mistake, to elevate himself above the savagery of the world, and to help others do the same.

On the other hand, Clementine is rarely afforded the respect of someone who has agency over their own life. Luke, easily the most amiable survivor in his attitudes towards Clem in Season 2, seems to treat her as a fragile ward. At times she is seen as a threat or a liability, someone that could drag down the group as a whole.

Near the end of Season 1, another survivor, Charles, shares some advice with Lee: “You’ve got to consider her a living person.” Among the ruined remnants of mankind, Charles explains, “You ain’t strong or smart. You’re alive.” Charles's description of Clementine is precisely our own description of ourselves as players. When controlling Lee, even burdened with so many difficult decisions, it is easy to feel justified in your actions in the pursuit of survival. As Clementine, you must prove yourself in the face of those who fail to share Charles’s insight.

My moral perspectives change with this new social context. Suddenly, dangerous or aggressive actions become morally acceptable. I find myself being more curt or antagonistic as Clementine than I ever would have been as Lee, if only to allow Clementine to assert herself as something more than a helpless child.

Clementine’s first encounter with Carver is a perfect example of the changing social landscape that leads to such new moral perspectives. Shot from Clem’s perspective, Carver is a large aggressive male, wielding a gun no less. He speaks to Clementine from a place of power, like an adult speaking to an inept child. Yet underneath his outward presentation, he also knows that she hides something more. Their conversation is a wonderfully written duel in which both characters play their normative social roles of unknown adult and solitary child while knowing (but without acknowledging) how meaningless these roles have become.

Sarah, Carlos’s pleasantly ignorant child, is the antithesis of the battle-hardened Clem. She represents how others might see Clementine at first glance. To be treated like her then, especially as the player, is an enormous slight. Carlos asking Clementine to stay behind while the group searches for Nick or Alvin asking Clementine to turn a blind eye to his hoarding of food are moments that hammer home a severe misunderstanding of Clementine’s role as a survivor, imbued with agency as our protagonist. Thus my hostile reactions, alien from my version of Lee, make perfect sense to Clementine.

The game’s most brilliant shift though comes when Clementine meets up with Kenny, who she presumed dead. In my favorite line from the season thus far he asks, “Are these people with you?” That simple line, “with you,” makes all the difference. Yes, these people were with me, I wasn’t with them. I am the one making the hard decisions not them.

Then I went for the hug, and in a second, my moral perspective shifted dramatically. Clementine is just a child, I thought to myself. Should she be carrying this burden on her shoulders? Should she be having to make these moral decisions anyway? As Sicart says of the first season, “the game asked me about my complicity, and through that device I was forced to face some of my moral flaws.” As a player, had I made the right decisions? Was I putting Clementine through a moral hardening that she was too young to endure?

The answer, I concluded, was yes, and it came to me in another brilliant moment. Sitting at a dinner table, Kenny accidentally calls Clementine his dead son's name, "Duck." Back and forth, Telltale spins your moral perspectives. The desire, as the player, as someone who once watched over Clementine as a father might look after a daughter, cannot give her back her childhood. She is not Duck, and she is not the Clementine that we once knew. The world of The Walking Dead shambles on incessantly, and we move on with it. Make no mistake, this is not a coming of age story. Clementine already came of age, the rest of the world has to catch up. There is no moral truth to be had here, only complex, ever shifting moral perspectives to grapple with.

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