A Clockwork Clementine

Oh yeah, this site exists.

My posts as of late have been anything but copious, no johns from me though. Been universitising the last few months, honing my understanding my understanding of film. Part of this is watching films, part of it is making films, part of it is analysing films. So what’s today’s topic? That’s right!

Video Games.

The tears are just about dry, so I think it’s time I talked about The Walking Dead.

Holy shit, The Walking Dead is awesome. It’s awesomely awesome. In a world where “awesome” is over-saturated, this game really inspires some awe. Everything from the voice-acting, narrative and themes, to the characters, dialogue and choices utterly shine, and this game takes a prestigious seat at the head of my GOTY list.

A veritable Splash-Mountain of emotion, The Walking Dead absolutely nails emotional set-pieces, primarily through a masterful script and a keen eye for pacing. Of course these set-pieces only carry emotional weight when paired with relatable characters, which the game has in abundance. Lee, our dulcet-toned protagonist is joined by a troupe of compelling companions, one of which is the topic of today’s class.

9 year-old Clementine not only neatly demonstrates every intelligent design decision the series takes (eg. solid voice-acting, logical character progression), but functions as the gold-standard for child characters in the medium.

Clementine effectively fills the role of surrogate daughter figure for Lee, a man with no remaining family or friends, who in turn functions as guardian/patriarch for Clementine. The affection that develops between the characters never feels synthetic, but instead mirrors the growing attachment of the player to Clementine. I’m not the biggest fan of kids (they’re just tiny, sticky people), but by the end of the first episode I was entirely willing to put everything I had into protecting Clementine. This relationship blossoms throughout the series, but would never evolve if she was just another Ashley Graham.

The character of Clementine is an ingenious blend of form and function, and serves as a masterclass in matching gameplay mechanics to narrative context. She never feels like a burden inflicted upon the player, but instead serves as the sole inspiration in an otherwise bleak environment. In a fluctuating post-apocalypse, filled with death, deceit and despair, an unconditionally caring character can make all the difference. The series never feels like an extended escort mission, nor does Clementine ever feel like an obligation. She’s an organic member of the cast, not a curly-haired padlock.

I’m a real sucker for great dialogue, but The Walking Dead has an admirable habit of also conveying it’s story through action. Not to suggest that the game isn’t dialogue heavy, but more that the writers understand poignancy. The game is largely about choice and consequence, and nothing demonstrates this better than seeing your decisions resonate with the characters, altering their actions. Never does this feel more relevant than with Clementine, as her personality develops and changes depending on the example you set.

Kids are really annoying. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one, but they’re like drunk dwarfs, and can get really obnoxious. They burst into weepy hysterics, have irrational mood-swings and are little to no use in a fist-fight. Their innate weakness is especially noticeable in the context of a video game, as empowerment and progression are the pillars that most mechanics lean on. A kid’s full of traits that betray that design scheme. They’re slow, weak and inexperienced, three handicaps that really stand-out in a zombie apocalypse.

With this is mind, why doesn’t Clementine make the player feel cumbersome? She should feel prohibitive and annoying, not likable and inspiring. Hats off to Telltale here, as they’re playing upon the innately human desire to protect kids. However irrational it may be, Clementine represents the very last shred of innocence in the post-apocalypse, and gives the characters a streamlined focus. The zombies will always win in The Walking Dead’s universe, but the intrinsic need to protect Clementine gives the player, and Lee, a reason to keep on trucking.

Clementine will crawl under doors to unlock them, slip through areas undetected and console you in moments of stress. She’s useful, but not to the point where she becomes token. Much like the rest of the game, she’s excellently written. Remaining relatable and sympathetic without ever breaking her sheen of childlike optimism. She’s as unpredictable and emotionally complex as anyone else in the cast, but often the only voice of reason when surrounded by mixed motivations. With a strong moral compass, Clementine treads the fine line between objectively lovable and obnoxiously saccharine.

At this point you may be thinking:

“But Jordan, you chiseled stallion, children are inherently likable. You can’t help but feel attached to a young character, it’s human nature!”

You want to talk children in games?

Amy.

Fucking Amy.

To the uninitiated, stay that way; ignorance is bliss. Especially when it comes to atrocious downloadable Survival Horror games.

Amy garnered universal critical panning, and rightly so. It was a cavalcade of mediocrity, seasoned with wank. The game neatly encapsulates everything deplorable about the direction of modern Survival Horror, and packages in the most irritating child escort in the history of video gaming.

The titular Amy is bound to you from early in the game, and acts as a poorly modeled ball & chain throughout the experience. The player character can only remain alive by keeping Amy in close proximity at all times, which is as mind-numbingly grating as it sounds. Escort dependance isn’t an inherently bad mechanic, as 2010’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West shows. Enslaved balanced the mechanic of a powerful lead character whose abilities were more than enough to protect himself, with the hindrance of a three-dimensional, interesting escort character, who functioned as a second, more fragile health bar.

Amy provides no such perks. She’s dull and her character is wafer thin. In essence, she’s a formulaic child character, scared and defenseless, with the burden of her protection falling upon the player, who has no motivation to do so. Bland. Predictable. Clockwork.

The character of Amy is silent, and imbued with no likable traits or affectations. She functions exclusively as a hinderance, and provides nothing but occasional, context-sensitive, gameplay progression.

And she’s got weird beetle eyes.
Compare this to Clementine, the Walter White of child characters, and see how she provides gameplay assistance, as well as emotional stability. More than just a four-foot plot-motivation, and more than just a cheap token. The inclusion of such a rounded, inspiring character changes what would be another solid entry in the pantheon of Telltale adventure games, into a truly groundbreaking experience, and what I’m sure will become a landmark in video game history.

P.s. I like the game.

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