This past weekend, I found a little girl amidst a zombie apocalypse. I took her with me and protected her—not only against the hordes of ravening zombies out to devour all remaining humans, but also against the remaining humans out to devour her trust and innocence.
I chose not to kill people who deserved it, not to steal from people who didn’t, and to stand up for people who shouldn’t have gotten a second chance. All because I knew this girl was watching me, taking in everything I did and being shaped by my choices and actions. I didn’t want to disappoint her or destroy her simple faith in the world. I felt all of this for a little girl who was a piece of scripted AI, beautifully rendered but in the end, nothing more than lines of code.
It made me wonder how the writers behind this game (The Walking Dead, by Telltale Games) had made me form such a strong emotional connection to this character. And it wasn’t just me—thousands upon thousands of other players have felt the same way. How did they create a character that players connected so closely with, that we all wanted to protect at any cost?
You find the girl, Clementine, all alone—her parents were out of town when the outbreak happened, her babysitter was turned into a zombie—and she’s been holed up in her tree house for a few days. She has no one left… but you. And that’s where it starts: You’re responsible for the safety and well-being of a child who can’t protect herself. A child who, amidst the bleak, hopeless landscape and the violent, primal struggle for survival, holds on to her moral compass with childlike innocence. She continues to believe in the goodness of people: in the need to do what is right even when you’re cold and starving and could fix it with a simple theft, in the team dynamic and how you never leave anyone behind even when they’re a liability.
And that, I think, is the power of the narrative. The world is dark. People are dying all around you, in the most gruesome of ways. Survivors are turning on each other, and your little group isn’t immune. Every city you flee to is overrun with zombies. Each time you think you’ve found a safe haven, your hopes are cruelly dashed. Even your last resort escape plan gets scuppered. But always, always, there is a little girl who is the sole driving force that keeps you struggling onwards. She is the goodness in a world gone mad, in a world that is crumbling around you. You are not simply fighting to keep her alive—you are fighting to keep that small flicker in the darkness alight. You are fighting for hope.
That, I think, resonates deeply with us in the real world. We don’t need a zombie apocalypse to see it going bad—not when people are gunned down in shopping centres and movie theatres, or when children are killed in classrooms. Not when change will happen slowly and with great resistance, if it happens at all. Not when these events are only a symptom of wider, societal issues.
There are times, like the weekend just past, when we wonder about the state of the world, and whether there is any hope that things will change for the better. And what this game, this story, states so plainly is that even if it continues to deteriorate, as long as we nurture and protect our humanity… well, there is a reason to keep moving forward. There may not be the happy ending that we’re all looking for, but there is still the hope that there is goodness in this world, and that it will not be extinguished.
That, I think, is worth fighting for.
Leanne Yong is an aspiring author who is working on her second young adult novel. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing. Her thoughts and prayers are with the residents of Newtown, Conneticut.