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This article contains major spoilers for The Walking Dead Episode 2.
I don't often openly admit this, but as a parent, my brain is a constant pool of fear, paranoia, and overly-exaggerated desires to defend my child from any and every imagined danger. Alright, maybe not constant, and these thoughts aren't so prevalent that I forbid any sort of fun in the name of safety, but they are definitely there. I once worked myself into a mental panic while riding a late-night ferry back from an island just thinking about what I would do if we hit a big wave and my kid flew off into the water.
While all of this internal instability might one day prove useful if one of the outlandish scenarios I've thought up actually pans out, it has never once entered into the way I approach video games…until now. While playing through the recently released second episode of developer Telltale's The Walking Dead, I suddenly realized the game was tapping into my parental paranoia. The way I played the game and the decisions I made were all being affected by elaborate and harried thought processes like the ones I have when I'm out somewhere with my daughter.
I treated Clementine like I would my own child in an actual zombie apocalypse. When given a choice in the game, my immediate thought is how my in-game adopted daughter will react to the decision. I don't want to put her in harm's way, I do my best to keep her young eyes away from the horrific things that are playing out, and I try my hardest to be as moral as possible and teach her that we need to keep some humanity in the world no matter what the circumstances are.
When I discovered that our group's would-be saviors were serving us the meat of one of our own, my first instinct was to blurt it out before Clementine put any in her mouth even if it meant the jig was up. When the asshole party member that had threatened me multiple times had a heart attack in front of us — the risk of him coming back alive and eating us looming — I still attempted to help resuscitate him. Otherwise, what kind of example would I be setting if I just assumed he was dead and crushed his skull in?
The only time I slipped was in the case of Danny. I'd witnessed Danny murder a woman earlier that day. After he tried to turn us into unwitting cannibals, he imprisoned us in a meat cooler. After we broke out and I won the battle against him, he laid on the ground decrying our outrage at his deplorable actions. He deserved my vengeance, and the game allowed me to deliver it to him via a pitchfork to the chest, so I took it. Had I known Clementine was standing right behind me, however, I might not have.
I was simply playing a game, a form of media that should theoretically allow me to act out any type of revenge fantasy I pleased without any sort of guilt or remorse, but I genuinely felt like complete shit when I saw my in-game child's face. I was relieved when the game offered me a chance to talk to her about it later. I didn't lie or make excuses, I just owned up to what I'd done and told her that it was the wrong thing to do. This is exactly what I would have said to my own kid, if for some reason I'd murdered somebody right in front of her.
Moral choices aren't rare in games these days, but The Walking Dead's group dynamic actually gives them some consequence. When you're a singular hero in a completely action-oriented game, no one is there to judge you for the choices you make except the people directly affected by them. In The Walking Dead, you've got a whole cast of companions to remind you of what you've done.
For me, the father of a four-year-old daughter, Clementine is my biggest motivator to remain a good person. For others, maybe they want to impress Lily in the hopes of furthering a romance or get on Kenny's good side and ride that bromance all the way to survivordom. Whoever you are as a person, The Walking Dead likely has a crafty way of bringing that out in the game. Let's just hope we never have to use these virtual experiences in real life.