Have you ever spent countless hours vigorously playing a specific game only to reach the end and be blindsided by this strong emotional reaction? Well this exact situation happened to be not too long ago while playing TellTale’s The Walking Dead.
Being a huge fan of the show and the graphic novels of Robert Kirkman, I anxiously awaited the release of the game and even pre-order it to ensure I could get my hands on it. When I finally began to play the game, I was slightly taken back by it’s game play. The game is split up into five episodes and takes place in the same fictional world as the graphic novels, with events following the onset of the zombie apocalypse in Georgia. It centers around the experience of Lee Everett (pictured below), a university professor and convicted murderer and instead of being a point and click adventure game, the game focusses on story and character development.
Each game is a tailored experience, seeing as you are faced with different dialogue and physical choices and your actions and choices affect how your story plays out throughout the entire game.
On GameStop.com, the game is accurately described by one sentence: “Live with the profound and lasting consequences of the decisions that you make…”(1)
And they not joking…
The very first character you (Lee) encounter is Clementine and she is the one character that I ended up caring far too much about, and according to writer and creative lead behind the game, Sean Vanaman this was no coincidence.
In an interview posted on GameInformer.com, Vanaman states that, “Lee and [Clementine] are the main characters, so I wanted to get them together as far as possible…The first character you meet is the one you’re going to care about, the first thing on your brain.” (2) Melissa Hutchison, the voice actress for Clementine adds to the importance of this character by saying, “ The whole backbone of the story is the relationship between Lee and Clementine, and the choices Lee makes in order to protect Clementine.”(2)
The creators of the game truly manipulated the physical and personality characteristics of this character in order to build a connection between the gamer and Clementine. Art Director Derek Sakai, stated that from the “beginning, the designer knew they wanted a character that would act as a moral compass for the main character as he progressed through the game…The designers envisioned a smart, honest and capable girl around eight years old.”(2)
As the game progresses, difficult decisions have to be made on the part of the gamer and the longer I played, the faster my emotional attachment for Clementine grew. I no longer was concerned about “beating” or finishing this game, I only cared about making the best decisions for Clementines ultimate survival.
But what compelled me and many others to feel this way over one specific character that our own (Lee’s) well being became secondary? Was it simply her physical demeanor and the designers ability to create a likable personality? Or could it all boil down to instincts?
According to a report published in the open-access journal PLos One, there seems to be a region of the human brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex that rapidly responds to the faces of unfamiliar infants but not to the faces of unfamiliar adults. (3) It is located in the front of the brain, just over the eyeballs and is the key region of the emotional brain and it appears to monitor reward-related stimuli in the environment. Dr. Morten Kringelbach of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry who was part of this research stated the following, “What we fond was that the medical orbitofrontal cortex shows high activity within a seventh of a second of a person seeing an infant face but not an adult one…These responses are almost certainly too fast to be consciously controlled and so are probably instinctive.”(3)
So is it in fact “instinct” that lets us recognize a child in need, even if she isn’t necessarily real? Or was it just a combination of writing, physical appearance, voice and personality that allowed people to create this bond with Clementine? Regardless of the definitive reason for why gamers seem to have real feelings for virtual people, it’s clear that there is a important and unavoidable emotional connection between the gamer and the game itself.
From the very moment Clementine entered the screen, I was pulled into her world and became protective and concerned for this virtual character which is a feeling I had never experienced when playing a game. This feeling is ultimately significant proof of the importance of each character as an element in every game. “If Clementine came off annoying, people would be trying to find the button that sends her straight into a herd of walkers.” said the woman who was the voice actress for Clementine, indicating the importance of character development and it’s impact on the gamer. (2)
Clementine undoubtedly became the star of the game and as we speak there is a hastag (#ForClementine) on Twitter (pictured below) where fans express “just how far they’d go for her” (2)
Vanaman commented on Clementines unexpected popularity by saying, “The fact that people care about Clementine is invaluable…I have seen people get downright pissed at other characters in the game if they try to put Clementine in dangerous situations. It is awesome to see how protective people have become of her.”(2) And that I was, until the very end of the game as my decisions lead me (Lee) to have been bitten by a walker and painfully watch myself await my unavoidable fate, I attempted to inform Clementine of everything I could so she could survive successfully without me. The most overwhelming feeling was that I had let her down, I felt real guilt for my inability to protect this character and I felt remorse for putting her in the position I did. The game ended for me when Clementine realized what she had to do as my character slowly died, she raised her gun…
…and the screen went black as I sat there ,still contemplating where I went wrong.