Everyone’s a hero. Or rather, everyone wants to be hero. There’s a part of you, some slice of the core that everything else builds upon, that can’t help but want to make the sacrifice play. It’s why seeing the Captain America throw himself on a grenade and pilot a plane into the ocean makes our backs straighten and our eyes open; we so easily see ourselves in those shoes.
Think on the games you’ve played in the past year or so. How many include a Heroic Sacrifice? Actually, let’s skip this past year since that the grace period for spoilers hasn’t quite passed, but beyond that, we have Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed III, finales to epic sagas that both end with lives being laid on the line. Halo 4, Darksiders II, The Darkness II, and, most importantly, The Walking Dead.
That is why the first season of Telltale Games’ adventure game adaptation was so stupendous. Playing as Lee Everett, you saw yourself as the hero for little Clementine. Heading to prison, Lee wasn’t exactly prepared for a zombie outbreak, but he definitely wasn’t ready for finding an abandoned kid waiting for parents that would never come back.
And neither were you, but the desire to be the shield for the good from the bad in the world is innate. What happens to Lee, what he does, and what he says were all choices, but they were all in service of Clementine, and it all builds implicitly through the narrative and reminders of consequences (“She will remember that”).
The master stroke, however, is the perversion of the stock structure. Lee, as much as it seems to be otherwise, is not the hero. His growth, the defining characteristic of a protagonist, is nothing compared to his ward’s. We are the sidekick, but we are making the choices that dictate the direction of the hero’s journey. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t dead so much as they are driving the car now.
Playing All That Remains, the first episode of Season Two of The Walking Dead, brings that into stark relief. Whether you’ve finished the first season or not, the trailers tell you all you need to know: Clementine is alone now. She is the playable character, and your choices reflect her.
Lee was a magnificent character—written and acted to a superlative degree—but his most significant trait was his ability to represent the idea of wanting to be a hero and having no idea how to do it, how decisions you make in the moment are instinct instead of rationalization and it’s that instinct that makes you someone worth telling stories about.
But now, playing as Clementine and making choices as the person you want to protect instead of for the person you care about, the idealism, no matter how warped in a world of walkers and morally gray decisions, is gone. Being a hero for yourself isn’t being a hero; it’s being a survivor.
There’s compelling stories to tell in being someone who has seen and overcome all. Castaway, Trapped!, 127 Hours, and many more do just that, but we’ve already spent five episodes with Clementine. We are hardwired to think only of her safety. There is a moment early on in All That Remains when I ran. As soon as I was able, I ran away. There wasn’t immediate danger, but tension was building and I couldn’t risk it. Not for Clementine.
But that’s Lee making that decision, not Clementine. Even on the admittedly unstable assumption that she can’t die, the Lee inside of me told me to grab her and run, so I did. Now whether Lee would have actually done just that is a different matter, but rest assured, he was thinking it. Because I was thinking it.
This ingrained perspective has not necessarily diminished what I’ve played of the episode so far, but it certainly does color expectations. Telltale, as smart as they are in weaving narratives with nary a single black or white thread, can’t forget what we went through last year. There’s no forgetting that. They must know that we remember, and they must be taking that into account.
That is perhaps the only explanation because this shift in perspective isn’t a shift so much as it is putting a new name tag on it and telling you to call it Clementine instead of Lee. I can’t say I’d rather this be a brand new cast in the same old world, but I can say I’ll stop wanting to be Lee. I’ll never want to stop being the hero, even if I have no idea how to be.