#My(Darling)Clementine: Keeping girlhood innocence from being ‘lost and gone forever’ in Telltale’s The Walking Dead games

Curator's Note

I’ve been thinking a lot about “my” Clementine lately. Which is what Telltale Games wants, having sanctioned the #MyClementine hashtag to encourage players to share via social media who “their” version of the scrappy 11-year-old has become through the moral choices and gameplay actions players have made on her behalf. The trailer released prior to the Season 2 finale, however, seems to have a clear opinion about who “my” Clementine should be, bracketing its depiction of Clementine as battleworn, ruthless survivor with reminders of the naïve little girl she once was, fetishizing this prelapsarian innocence as a quality to be preserved at all cost, even if returning to it proves impossible.

Clementine’s voiceover stitches together flashbacks of her rescue and self-defense training by Lee, the adoptive father figure/playable character in Season 1, whose paternal approval tacitly legitimates the violence Clementine commits as our playable character in Season 2. The recap suggests Clementine faces an impossible decision, when a sudden dissolve to video of sweet little Clem at home with her babysitter before the apocalypse pointedly reminds players of their obligation to preserving Clem’s innocence. We cut back to bloodied, gun-clutching present day Clementine, before the question “Who Will You Become?” flashes up, followed by the #MyClementine hashtag. For all the promise of crafting our own, unique version of Clementine via the game’s affordances (which I’ve tried to use to make "my" Clementine one that subverts the conventions of childhood femininity to cold heartedly kick all kinds of human and zombie ass), the game’s paratextual materials privilege the Clementine that remains connected to that innocence.

One could argue, as the game’s creators have, that this desire to preserve Clementine’s innocence has everything to do with her age, and little to do with her gender. While executive producer Kevin Doyle insists that “we certainly haven’t set up the game to make it about race or gender or sex,” one must only think of Carl, Clementine’s male analogue in AMC’s The Walking Dead television series, and how the series repeatedly validates Carl’s premature launch into protective, and often ultra-violent, masculinity. Have we ever flashed back to the sight of little Carl, playing with LEGO in a blanket fort, and been nostalgic for boyhood innocence lost? Why must we wish Clementine back to her treehouse, when she’s proven so capable and kickass now that she’s out of it?

Comments

Matt Smith's picture

Intertexts

Jessica, this is thought-provoking for me as a fan of The Walking Dead in its many forms (I have been a long-time reader of the comic, and have engaged in all of the other media produced from it as they’ve come along). I have yet to play any of Season Two from Telltale, so I can’t speak to the game’s portrayal of Clementine at this moment (and no, I didn’t watch the spoiler video), but the relationship between her and Carl in the comics and TV is an interesting dynamic to explore.

I didn’t know that the game designers, for instance, have attributed her innocence to ager more than gender, but it’s interesting to note that the universe(s) of The Walking Dead differ significantly in their portrayals of Carl’s aging as well as in who else is considered powerful within the group. While in the show Carol (a new character) is positioned as more than capable of handling herself and making tough decisions, in the comics it is Andrea who becomes not only a constant strength of the group, but also a core member of its identity, not unlike Rick or Glenn. I’ve always found it interesting that in the show the strong female character was ostracized from the group in both instances, though for different reasons. I also find it intriguing that the innocence the developers seem to be wanting Clementine to hang on to as one of age rather than gender is in direct correlation to Carl in the comics, who really has a tough go of coming into his own and is certainly treated by his father and everyone else in the group (as well as the comic’s plotting) as an innocent child for far longer than he has been on TV.

What I guess I’m getting at is that the gameplay dynamic here, the choice to be innocent or not, seems to be the way around either portrayal of age and gender, though the plot and story certainly retain the emotional elements of traditional relationships between them no matter what your actions are during gameplay as a means of character building. What does it mean to you or other players, then, when the game’s mechanics of choice are actively undone by the emotionality of the narrative?

Jessica Aldred's picture

Playing innocent

Matt, your observations of the differences between Carl of the show and Carl of the comics are spot on and I’d love to see (or do) a cross-media comparison of both versions of Carl in relation to Clementine. (I’m especially interested in how each media form uses different portrayals of age and gender in relation to “child” characters to evoke what Paul Booth calls “transmedia pathos,” which both links and differentiates each node of the franchise without being bound to the narrative restrictions of transmedia storytelling.) In the context of this post, I felt the comparison to TV Carl was apt because of the way this trailer imposes a particularly cinematic/televisual tool (the flashback to pre-zombie Clementine) to evoke nostalgia for her girlhood innocence at a crucial point in the player’s in-game decision making…a tool that the show could absolutely use in relation to Carl but chooses not to. (Perhaps in part because, beyond certain expectations around character gender, viewers aren’t directly, morally implicated in what Carl does thereafter? A thread worth pursuing further…) But a more nuanced consideration of the similarities between Clem and comics Carl is definitely warranted.

But yes, as far as gameplay goes, a paratext like this one is an overt reminder of how the game’s choice mechanics are consistently undermined by the emotionality of its narrative. One of the most interesting choices one can make “as” Clem is to foreground a feigned girlish innocence to deceive new survivors she meets. If you were to pair this line of performance (and is indeed very much a performance, and a fascinating one at that) with the kind of hard-edged ruthlessness/selfishness Clem can enact later in the season, as I have consistently tried to do, not one of the game’s multiple endings can square with “my” Clementine as I’ve tried to play her. The game pushes me back to an essentially nurturing, still-redeemable girl - not my Clementine at all. (Interestingly the trailer, released just before the final episode of the season, gives away how different its version of Clem is from mine, since it features many of the characters I’ve allowed to die in horrible ways much sooner in the game…)

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