Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Clementine Mandate: Why The Walking Dead: Season 2 is Important. By Ben Worley.

TellTale’s The Walking Dead is a good game. A great game, even. It’s won countless awards and been Game of the Year for news outlets all around. From the unusually specific “Best Digitally Distributed Game” to the generally praiseworthy “Best Writing”, The Walking Dead has a gallery of trophies behind it. It’s a good game and you should play it. There’s no question nor article there. This is about why The Walking Dead is an important game and you should invest in it.

Video Games are an emerging art form. They are a mad experiment and anything is possible. You can be a plumber who channels the power of big-balled raccoons to fight a dragon. You can be an outlaw exploring a strange planet full of free guns. But you’re probably going to be an underdog hero fighting a great evil in progressively difficult scenarios until you’re inevitably triumphant. Also, you’re probably a White Guy. Most of the time. Ya know.

Make no mistake, video games are amazing and, in my mind, one of the greatest forms of self-expression, when done properly. A huge problem overshadowing the industry is that there are known patterns that will sell. Everyone wants to be the Next Big Thing and no one wants to lose their investment. To this end, companies tend to stick to the true and tested formula. This isn’t something that can truly be begrudged in any sincere sense. The effects of it, however, are increasingly symptomatic of art form unwilling to be artistic. Even slightest deviations, like acknowledging women exist in a game, can be so uncomfortable that journalists will literally go out of their way to actively hide this information.

So when I say that The Walking Dead is an important game that you should buy, I am not just recommending that you set aside time to enjoy a fun, quality game. I am asking you to take part in one of the most effective cannon volleys yet made against the stranglehold conventionality is gaining over a precious form.

Let’s break down some of the most important aspects of the Second Season and why needs to be the best selling game of December 2013 (A tall order, I know).

Morality: Mature Complexity in Story Telling

The concepts of good and evil are relatively new to games. Ever since this, however, game companies have sort have settled on this good/evil binary. Fable made the most sense, contextually, when players could decide if they were the hero or villain of a story. But that’s it. Mass Effect’s main thrust was how much control players had over the story. It’s a great series and I strongly recommend anyone play it, but it’s also true that most of the morality was “Hero” or “Hero that’s pissed Starbucks burned her coffee”. Nothing summarized this as effectively as the controversial finale to the series which, while having different thematic implications, all resulted in the same cutscene. For goodness’s sake, the original morality system of Bioshock was almost exclusively “Do you like to brutally murder little girls that are victims of circumstance?” All phenomenal games, but none pushing the envelope except in rare cases (Does this unit have a soul?).

The Walking Dead’s first season changed this. The morality wasn’t as simple as “Good versus Evil”. You truly live in a world so overwhelmed in abstracts that “Does Good and Evil even exist anymore?” would barely merit a scene. Instead the game places you in the metaphorical role of a parent caring for their child in a world surrounded by symbols of terrible things that could happen. You are tasked, many times, with deciding what sort of example you’d want to set for your own children. More importantly, you are tasked with explaining why. Clementine, your ward in the first game and the playable character in the second, is deeply inquisitive in the most innocent of ways. When you make decisions, you have to justify yourself to her. Deciding whether a teammate “lives or dies” is a common question in games. What isn’t common is having to explain to Clementine that you just killed a good and decent person because he was a burden to the team. Or, conversely, that you let an incompetent person continue to harm Clementine’s friends “because he’s nice”.

Through deeper complex moral systems, as well as scenes where we contemplate why we are making these choices, we reach a new evolution in gaming. A moral system that goes beyond the aesthetic encourages us to look at ourselves and determine who we are. It helps us to connect with our own worldviews on a deeper level. It stays with you. This is what art truly is: A means of communicating indirectly in order to invoke direct connections with one another and ourselves.

There’s a time and a place for binary moral decisions. They are always thrilling and interesting. Complex decisions, however, as a means of causing introspection? That’s a new form of digital life and it should be encouraged and protected.

For Clementine: Representation Matters

More than just the design of the game, the characters and stories in it are something well worth supporting. Art influences public views. It permeates and colors our views of the world. Even at an early age, it affects our self-image and the limits we give ourselves. And video games, dominated in representation by White Men, are only marginally accurate as to the vast diversity of people out there. This is a problem. It’s a problem when one of the only games to consistently have a playable, fleshed out People of Color is Grand Theft Auto, a series about crime sprees. It’s a problem when Nintendo has approximately two recurring female characters in their main roster, both of whom exist primarily to be saved. It’s a problem when masculinity is glorified and femininity equated with weakness that needs saving. And despite steps taken by a wide variety of developers (shout outs to Mass Effect and Saints Row), these issues still warrant addressing.

Enter The Walking Dead: Season 2.  Enter a game about a Woman of Color (her exact race not specified) who is designed to invoke empathy and compassion. It is necessity that one not only empathize with her, but that they actively identify as her. Feel as she does and guide her/yourself to safety.

When Clementine first premiered, she was part of the TellTale gamble mostly because the gamer stigma towards the dreaded Escort Mission. But gamers have embraced her. Massively so, we are told. And to that end, she is being given her own series. If successful, this can send a powerful message to developers and publishers that they don’t need to be scared of who they put in games. They can put in People of Color, women, children, and anyone else they want as a character. As long as the game is good, it will work. As long as the character is compelling, they will be loved. This message needs to get out there. It needs to be circulated. And what better way than with the success of a game that, even divorced from this, is good enough to warrant support?

We Deserve Good Art

Large name developers will, with few exceptions, make games that either reiterate the norm or test said norm in controlled, small situations. A Triple-A title that is truly divergent from expectations is few and far between. It’s understandable, but you deserve better. We deserve better. Innovation and experimentation. Evolution and representation. TellTale is in a unique position to do just the sort of mad science that might just make larger companies sit up and take notice. And with the game’s quality almost assured by developers with a stellar track record, let’s make sure that’s exactly what happens.

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