The Walking Dead and Community

The more I think on Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the more confident I am in Extra Credits‘ assertion that the line “For whom the bells toll” is at the conceptual heart of the game. To recap, the line comes from John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, a series of meditations the metaphysical poet and minister, Donne, wrote while seriously ill. In full it reads:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

But that ending line – “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” – is not merely a reminder of our mortality. It is the recognition that we are a part of a community, of society, of the great mass of mankind, and that we share in their struggles as they share ours. The death of my neighbour does not merely foreshadow my own, but is my own personal loss, just as my own end will be my neighbour’s loss.

Simply put, mankind is the business of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. We can see this idea at work most clearly in the fourth episode of season two. There, after having escaped Carver’s fiefdom, they spend most of the episode amidst the ruins of an American Civil War memorial that features, most tellingly, a statue of one soldier carrying another – a symbol of brotherhood and support. Interestingly, this is not the only reference to that conflict in the series: the title of the second episode is “A House Divided,” which comes from (among other sources) one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” At once foreshadowing the events of the ultimate episode (where the group that has been cobbled together finally splits due to insurmountable differences) its presence, along with the setting of episode four (“Amid the Ruins”) also calls to mind the aims of the civil war: one side attempts to dissolve a union, the other to keep the union together. And Clementine, throughout the whole season, tries to keep her groups together, despite everything.

The first season of The Walking Dead is, above all else, concerned with parenthood. Where the conventional logic of games emphasizes empowerment – you gain levels, you learn spells, you get better armour – Lee’s story is one of decrepitude. Lee begins his story at the lowest point in his life: his wife has cuckolded him, and he was arrested, charged, and convicted for the murder of the ‘other man’. And things get worse from there: people die as he is faced with a series of impossible choices. Do you euthanize the woman in the motel in the very first episode? Do you draw attention to yourself while foraging for food in order to spare some stranger further suffering?

And every decision must be explained and justified to nine-year-old Clementine. Almost every action is taken for her sake. Though the game’s central conceit is loss – friends, morals, even appendages are stripped away out of cruel necessity or the immediate demands of survival – the one avenue for any sense of salvation or justification is this little girl’s well-being. Lee is hollowed out, but all that he has is given to Clementine.

If we must speak of empowerment in the first season of The Walking Dead, it is certainly not the player’s character, but the character the player must protect. At the end of the game, the player has nothing left – no avatar to parade, no vicarious future to enjoy – save for this girl, who must go out into a dangerous world armed only with what the player has given her. This is the logic of parenthood: you continually give yourself to the child, even as the rest of your life bleeds away. Lee reminds Clementine to keep her hair short, even as he is on death’s door.

But season two inverts this logic: you play not the parent, but the child. You play the heir to the lessons that Lee has taught Clementine. The flashback, in the final episode of season two, to season one makes this clear. The transfer of the player’s agency from Lee to Clementine gives us a sense of how she views her surrogate father: a source of wisdom, support, and comfort. The matter of their conversation is, of course, heartbreaking given the distance between that moment and the present. It’s made all the more touching by the fact that Lee comforts Clementine by offering advice:

Lee: “Part of growing up is doing what’s best for the people you care about. Even if, sometimes, that means hurting someone else.” Clementine: “I don’t want to hurt anyone.” Lee: “It’s not that easy.”

This advice is particularly salient, given what comes next: the bloody choice between Jane and Kenny. The decision to hurt someone – or let someone be hurt – in order to save whomever you care about. The player is repeatedly prompted to intrude into the fight and break things up. The option to remain silent is, of course, always present, but only as a moment of cowardice. Every other choice is oriented towards keeping Clementine’s threadbare community together.

Indeed, we can see this concern with community in episode three, where Carver offers justifications for his despotic actions. Reggie is pushed to his death because he was “weak,” and “We can’t have that around here. Not anymore. Not with what we’ve got at stake.” Or, just after the player chooses a response, “You see, Reggie put us at risk with his incompetence… Killing one in order to save many is part of survival.” Note the pronouns: “we” and “us.”

Carver is running his own group, or flock, but his presence in season two should not be reduced to a mere morality tale. Rather, he serves as a foil for Clementine’s own actions: he refuses to allow people to leave his camp and even goes through great effort to bring his lost sheep back. But Clementine – though she can try to convince Jane otherwise – ultimately lets her friend make her own choice. Indeed, one of the many differences between Clem and Carver is his possessive response to the question of whether he is the father of Rebecca’s child: “He’s mine anyways.”

Ultimately, most of the second season’s plot is concerned with different groups and societies. The first two episodes are spent inserting yourself into a family model: there’s an uncle and nephew, a couple awaiting the birth of their child, and a father and a daughter. The third episode sees Clementine and company in a brutal commune, run by a tyrant. The last two episodes focus on the utter disintegration of a group, as people leave or die; again, the fourth episode takes place among the ruins of an American Civil War monument – that the game should examine social coherence in the context of civil discord is not to be ignored.

People join and depart from Clementine. At the end, everyone she met in the first episode is dead, while others have left or fled for their own reasons. But almost all of the endings reinforce the idea that the characters belong in a group. If Jane is saved, then she and Clementine return to the ruins of Cutter’s encampment and are given the opportunity to start another group. If Kenny wins, and Clementine stays with him, she is ultimately presented with the chance to join a resurgent civilization, or keep her cobbled-together family together. Narratively speaking, Clem is never far from another. In contrast with the ending to season one – where the father, dying, watches his child go on without him – the ending to season two represents the burden of the child: living in the wold, finding a way to become a part of this common body of mankind.

To conclude, season two’s beginning and end have an interesting parallel: childbirth and loss. At the beginning, you watch as events beyond your control kill Omid; at the end, you have to choose which of Kenny or Jane lives in their final brawl, only to be told either “I had to” or “it wasn’t your fault” by Kenny. People die, and Clementine cannot stop that. The first episode’s second scene takes place sixteen months later after the first scene, and there are no hints given as to the result of Christa’s pregnancy, save that there is no infant present; little AJ is almost lost three times: once at birth, once in the hands of his undead mother, and once in the snow. But, at the very least, he lives; the possibility that things can actually get better exists, and that very possibility represents a goal worth aspiring for.

This is a game of choice where the interest lies not in the way the narrative forks and bends. This is a game that scrutinizes the reasons behind your choices. Indeed, the almost casual way that death is dealt out at random renders the player’s narrative agency merely an illusion – as, it might be argued, all games do. The point behind the player’s ability to choose is more psychological: you are constantly faced with moral and mortal decisions that must be taken, so what do you do? Decisions are less narrative and more symbolic. Though this is fiction, we find ourselves engaged in the very real moral world when we choose between crawling to safety or saving an infant during a firefight. The symbolic weight of this game, and the way that you are constantly placed in a position where you have to scramble to keep the sinking ship of an emaciated society afloat is harrowing – but, ultimately, we demand that from our art.

This parallel also interests me because I cannot but see in it another reference to Donne’s Devotions – to Meditation XVII, which includes “for whom the bell tolls:

The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one author, and is one volume[.]

While we would nowadays discard the language surrounding the Church, baptism, and authorship, the idea of a common humanity and the importance and responsibility of our places within that body do not age. The language and circumstances are altered with the context, but never the sentiment.