(Caution: This article will contain spoilers for The Walking Dead by Telltale Games.)
I am a twenty-seven year old male standing in the foyer of the doctor’s office. I have been sick for several weeks, with snot and mucus pouring from every inconvenient slot or hole possible. I had made this doctor’s appointment myself and had made sure it worked with my health insurance.
Yet I stand paralyzed at the entrance, looking at the different desks and the other ill patients sitting in old, rickety chairs. They stare — at the crusty carpet, walls, even at me — with a grief-stricken grimace that looks like how I feel. I stand here and wonder what, for the life of me, I am supposed to do. What was it my parents always did when walking into a doctor’s office? I don’t know. I had always just found a corner and powered on my GameBoy or opened the pages of one of my books.
No one in my family saw it coming, but I have become a victim of the parent characters in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
Alright, so I’m not exactly a walking zombie, but I certainly am not prepared for life in the dark and dangerous world beyond home. Even throughout my years at college, I could always count on my mother refilling prescriptions and scheduling dentist appointments before I realized it was time for a check-up. To this day I have to tell my mom — in strict terms — that I’ve got my own medication covered now and don’t need her taking care of it for me.
It’s something I had always complained about, and my mom’s overbearing nature caused a lot of conflict with my father’s approach (which is more responsible for my fear of screwing up). Yet it never occurred to me the ramifications of her actions until I had played The Walking Dead.
The way I see it, Telltale’s The Walking Dead isn’t about a zombie apocalypse. It’s about being a parent. Sure, this is obvious in how Lee, the player’s avatar, becomes surrogate father to Clementine, an eight year old girl left alone in this frightening world. But what I never picked up on during my run through the game was how many other parents were present, or how often the subject of children came about.
I could probably sit here and ramble on for several paragraphs about how Hershel doesn’t seem to pay much mind to his son’s stories of the outbreak beyond the farm, or perhaps how Kenny’s family-first attitude tends to drive him to frustrating points of irrationality — and let’s also not forget how Lilly certainly proved herself to be the daughter of her asshole father, Larry. I instead want to focus on two very specific moments in The Walking Dead that illustrate the difference between protecting one’s child and preparing them.
Lee is given advice throughout the game on how to take care of Clementine by many other parents, each of whom somehow fails and loses their own child. Yet the advice that keeps Clementine alive is received by a train-hopping hobo. He tells Lee to prepare the girl, to cut her hair so she can’t get snatched by a zombie too easily and to learn how to fire a gun. He is essentially telling Lee to toss aside any notion of a child’s innocence and to prioritize her survival.
Throughout the rest of the game, Clementine will have several opportunities to defend herself, all coming together in the final climax when Lee is too weak to fight for her. He must instead instruct her, his final lesson before he passes on.
Contrast this to a moment in episode four, where Lee and company arrive at an empty and deserted house. Up in the attic they find a zombified child, a little boy that had been left up there alone. Thin and frail, he poses no threat; his legs snap beneath him as he struggles to reach Lee. The child's parents had locked him up in the attic in a desperate attempt to save their son, and instead doomed the child to a cruel and lonely fate.
The post-credits cut-scene delivers the final sucker punch to Telltale’s thesis. If you want to protect your child, you must prepare them. One day their fate will be out of your hands, and the only reassurance you will have is that you tried. This is what makes the final sight of an uncertain Clementine so gut wrenching. You still want to be there for her. You want to make sure she is okay.
Parents will not always be around, however. Their child will either become the starved young boy in the attic, a victim of the cruel realities of the world, or they shall be Clementine, armed to face those same realities with the lessons taught by their father and mother.
I leave the doctor’s office with a prescription for more asthma medication and the revelation that I have allergies. It turns out that a trip to the doctor’s office was a simple task to complete. It was not this big, complex thing that only grown-ups could do. In fact, aren’t I a grown-up now? I’m twenty-seven, after all.
Yet I will repeat this process several times throughout my life. That very same day, I approach the back of the CVS and realize I have never dropped a prescription off before. I become paralyzed every time I file my taxes, scared of making a mistake and summoning the irate steeds of the IRS upon my home. Any time I must do something generically “grown up,” I find myself frozen, uncertain of what I’m doing and frightened of screwing up.
It is in those moments that I realize I am the boy in the attic, and my parents have failed to prepare me.
Credit for the title goes to Roger "TinPeregrinus" Travis, and his wonderful typo.