The Walking Dead: The False Promises of Telltale’s Masterpiece

Telltale's The Walking Dead serves as a reminder of the studio at its best and worst.

It’s been said that the internet’s fondness for boiling everything down to memes can be attributed to an individual user’s desire to feel like he or she is part of a more traditional social circle. Memes turn certain events and ideas into an image and a couple of lines. Being able to understand these memes on sight inspires a sense of community and belonging.

Ultimately, it’s almost impossible for any popular entertainment release to not ultimately be boiled down to a series of memes. They turn cultural touchstones into an inside joke and sometimes strengthen the connection that people feel with the original product itself. For instance, when Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One released in 2012, it was hailed far and wide as the future of the adventure genre. Telltale had experimented with the game’s “choose your own adventure” story structure before, but The Walking Dead was the studio’s first game that truly showed the potential of the concept. It’s also the game that many point to when lamenting the studio’s apparent closure

Gamers immediately identified with the game’s branching narrative and classic characters. It resonated with millions who immediately realized they’ve always wanted to shape an episodic adventure they were emotionally invested in, but simply figured that such a thing was not possible. Naturally, this incredibly popular and revolutionary game was eventually boiled down to a single line that became something of a meme: “Clementine Will Remember That.”

The phrase “Clementine Will Remember That” references an on-screen message that appears early in the game shortly after the player decides how to address Clementine, a little girl whose parents have gone missing right at the start of the zombie apocalypse. Dialogue choices in gaming are nothing new, but it’s the ambiguity of that message that makes it so iconic. “What will she remember?” “What did I say again?” “Is that going to matter later on?”

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“Clementine Will Remember That” came to summarize The Walking Dead because that game’s storytelling suggested that the future of single-player narratives was bright and complex. The moment that dialogue appeared on screen, gamers everywhere began dreaming of stories in which choices in gaming moved beyond simply selecting a pre-set path and extended to inflicting consequences on the player that were beyond their direct control but still influenced by the nature of their actions. It was powerful enough to make you feel kind of silly when realized that the “Clementine Will Remember That” phrase ultimately came to be associated with online jokes involving the blue shells from Mario Kart, theoretically witty political remarks, and another such meme humor. 

Then again, “Clementine Will Remember That” turned out to be more of a joke than it was a glimpse into gaming’s future.

Take a look at this flowchart that shows the outcome of every major choice in The Walking Dead: Season One and how they affect the rest of the game. The first thing you’ll notice about this chart is how linear it is. The only episode in The Walking Dead’s first season that is split into two distinct paths based on previous choices is the second episode, Starved for Help. Even then, most of the differences involve which characters participate in the same basic events.

You may also notice that this chart features almost no mention of how the relationships you establish with your fellow survivors affects the flow of the story. Put simply, that’s because those particular choices don’t really affect the overall narrative. They may result in some occasionally altered conversations, but it turns out most of the people you interact with in The Walking Dead have the memory of a goldfish and struggle to hold your words against you for more than a few moments.

Looking at an outline of the game’s plot from a bird’s eye perspective, you begin to understand why it is that Telltale felt the need to need to constantly ensure the story returned to a designated path. Try to imagine a version of that chart where every significant dialogue choice and fork in the road decision caused The Walking Dead to branch off into new paths that occasionally intersected. The final flowchart for that narrative would likely resemble an even more complex version of Final Fantasy X’s impressive skill tree. Every single dialog choice would veer the story slightly into an entirely new direction. 

As impressive as such a plot would theoretically be, you have to consider the kind of story such a structure would result in. Even though we often compare Telltale games like The Walking Dead to choose your own adventure stories, the two styles are not actually similar. Choose your own adventure stories can conclusively end at any time and often offer little more than a series of barely simplistic plot threads vaguely tied together by nothing more than the binding of the book.

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The Walking Dead doesn’t suffer from that particular shortcoming. It’s a tremendous story that speaks to people in ways that the much larger Walking Dead show does not. It is, however, a story that would have been nearly impossible to tell had Telltale strayed too far from a more conventional act-based structure. Because of this, you want to forgive Telltale for creating an illusion of choice in order to tell a story which still benefited greatly from the options presented to you. After all, they were still trying to understand how their own design formula worked and such a process usually involves heavy amounts of trial and error.

You want to forgive them, but then you remember that phrase “Clementine Will Remember That,” and you realize that there was deception behind that suggestion that still cuts deep. It sometimes feels wrong that The Walking Dead‘s legacy has been boiled down to a phrase that is ultimately meaningless within the context of the game itself. You can curse at Clementine, be the father she needs, or vary between both at your leisure. None of it really matters. In the end, she is going to end up kneeling beside Lee as his wounds slowly consume him.  

When you realize that, you start to wonder what the point of it all was. If the only real choices in the game were the obvious ones that inevitably led to the same path, were you really being offered choices at all? What happened to the idea that your every decision could lead to ramifications down the line? As it turns out, such decisions often offer about the same level of meaningful progress as walking left in Super Mario Bros. does. 

As easy as it is to become disheartened by the realization that The Walking Dead is partially built on smoke and mirrors, you have to understand that the legacy of any influential game and the studio that made it is not always confined to its original code. In the case of The Walking Dead, the game’s ideas about non-linear episodic storytelling proved to be far more influential than its execution of that concept. 

With Until Dawn, developer Supermassive Games utilized a slightly more intricate choice system to finally give gamers a proper ‘80s slasher adventure to call their own. It wasn’t perfect, but consequences can spring from the most seemingly minor choices in that game. In Life Is Strange, developer Dontnod Entertainment delivered a serialized story that features some of the most intricate choice-based conversations you’ll ever participate in. Just look at this breakdown of the various ways a single conversation in that game can develop based on simple dialogue choices. 

Outside of that particular sub-genre, other games which preceded the release of The Walking Dead, such as Heavy Rain, Silent Hill 2, and Alpha Protocol, have featured various endings which are triggered through the player’s natural actions rather than specific options that determine the direction of the story. It wasn’t a new concept pioneered by The Walking Dead, but it was one that The Walking Dead helped reignite. 

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Even when you take into account these exceptions, you’re still left with the feeling that developers are still trying to solve the riddle of how to incorporate organic consequences into serialized storytelling in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the integrity of the overall narrative for the sake of options. We’ve seen the legacy of franchises as beloved as Mass Effect forever compromised by the developer’s inability to capitalize on their promise of a truly dynamic choice-based system. It’s enough to make you wonder whether the fear of failure will dissuade future developers from fully realizing the potential of a promise made long ago. 

But what of The Walking Dead? Years after its release – and after the apparent sudden fall of its creators – how should we remember a game that’s trademark features ultimately served to hide the man behind the curtain? It’s tempting to disown it. To write off its success as a product of the times and playfully mock it’s once iconic moments with the rest of the online brigade. “Clementine will remember that? Lul.” Yet, The Walking Dead’s role in history should not be so easily brushed aside. Whatever its shortcomings were, it inspired many to believe that games can deliver the kind of compelling narrative that only games can deliver; one that is dictated by the individuality of the person experiencing it.

No, Clementine won’t remember you told her everything was going to be alright, killed that man in the barn, or gave the last cheese and breadstick snack to Duck. However, the millions that experienced those moments and dreamed of a new age of video game storytelling will certainly never forget moments like those. That’s the game and developer Telltale’s real legacy. They were the light that showed us a path to a future that we haven’t quite fully-forged just yet.