I am Clementine
With the new season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead now underway, I was able to pick the brains of Game Designer Sean Ainsworth and Writer Pierre Shorette about the changes this season brings to the series and some specific elements we saw in Episode One: “All That Remains.”
EGM: Clementine isn’t your typical video game protagonist and she’s a drastic shift from when you play as Lee. How do you strike a balance between making her a character all kinds of players would want to play, yet still maintain the vulnerability she naturally has being a little girl?
Sean Ainsworth: It was really difficult for us to figure out what that balance is. You don’t want people running over her with a bunch of adults telling her what to do, but you also can’t have her speak up and take charge of things because she’s 11 and that just wouldn’t happen. It’d be ridiculous. So, coming up with ways for her to have agency in the world and to feel like you have things to do with her is quite a challenge. But it feels like it’s worth that effort. It’s so different from being a big, burly, black guy now. You just can’t intimidate somebody and I think it factors more now into the group dynamics. We had to figure out ways around that and that was really cool.
Pierre Shorette: I think in Season One that you’re so enamored with protecting Clementine that it’s an interesting approach now where you have to go through a season where you’re protecting her literally, but then you’re also trying to role-play. I think it’s almost like striking a balance that’s realistic, but also allowing players to express themselves and get out of each situation what they really want. The last thing we’d want is for this to feel like some 90s kid-friendly movie and they’re running around, taking charge, driving cars around, and handling every situation. But it’s the first stumbling block we have to overcome in every scene, trying to figure out how to make her important in it.
EGM: You mentioned that Clem can’t really intimidate people, but through her dialogue choices, she can have a bit of an attitude to her depending on how you wish to play her. She can be antagonistic. She can rile the group up. She can make enemies. Is this just the natural evolution of Clem after everything she’s been through?
SA: Yeah, I think so. Living in this zombie-infested world, she’s had to grow up a little quickly to survive. That’s definitely part of it. Part of making her a little older now is that she’s had some experiences since last season. She’s still speaking straight from her heart, though.
PS: Of course, you don’t have to say anything at all. You can often choose to remain silent.
SA: Right, but she at least knows enough now to know what to say because she’s talking from experience. And depending on how you’re playing, you can extrapolate that there may be repercussions for what you say.
PS: I think it’s interesting because depending on the scenario, I’m sure some people would be like “Clementine would never say that”, but sometimes when you’re in the moment and you’re role-playing as the character, some of those one liners are just too shiny a nugget to pass up and not see what happens next. They want to see what happens and the drama of the moment is what’s so compelling. People just want to know how it would play out. If you’re that into the role, then it can take you in a different direction and then it’s the decision you live with and it becomes the reality you’ve chosen.
SA: Yeah, it’s weird because you’re now playing as someone who was an NPC in Season One. So it’s interesting what direction you can take this NPC now as the player-character. We were a little worried actually when we started talking about making Clementine the main character, if there would be a disconnect, but when you’re playing it you just get into it and really, that’s our goal. That you get into it enough that you forget all of that.
PS: Can we ask you, now that you’ve beaten it, how did you play it? Did you go in with the goal of just protecting Clementine? Were your decisions affected by that? Or did you role play?
EGM: I went into wanting to make the best decisions possible to continue protecting Clem all I could. That was my main goal. But after the first couple of sequences and seeing what choices I had to make, I really started to play as if I was Clem and not some ethereal protector. The best way for me to protect Clem was to be Clem.
PS: Right. You began to identify yourself as her. That’s cool. I’m glad that happened with you because like Sean said, there was a fear people would be removed from the story and make everything black and white in their minds and just play god and control Clem’s existence but be detached from it. But I’m glad that you got into it.
EGM: In the group of people Clem meets, there’s a father/daughter dynamic there that reminded me a lot of Clem/Lee from Season One. The girl is a bit naïve and the father is protective of her, and its interesting that Clem is now on the outside looking in on a relationship like that. Was that parallel an intentional addition on your part?
PS: I think it just sort of emerged naturally. The opportunity to see almost a more naïve version of the girl Clem used to be is unique because now she can have an opinion on how the father is raising his daughter. I mean that’s crazy that an 11-year-old would have a valid opinion on his parenting skills and how he may be doing some things wrong or what he should be doing more of and that’s actually an example of giving her a level of agency that, from the outside looking in, might not click with the group. But we know from being in the background that Clementine has valid opinions to share on how to grow up in this world and stay safe and survive. And that’s the kind of stuff we’re seeking out all the time to make sure this is a compelling experience.
EGM: Talking a little bit more about this first episode of Season Two, it ended on even more of a cliffhanger than usual. Why did you guys decide to end the episode where you did?
SA: We obviously can’t go into a lot of detail without giving too much away, but I think we ended it here because all the ramifications that stem from your last decision in the episode will trickle out and affect the rest of the season. So, to dig into even the beginnings of that, and dig into those ramifications would require a lot more time than we had at that point in the episode.
EGM: At the beginning of Season One you guys had Glenn as part of the group, and made your way to Hershel Greene’s farm. Have you guys ever entertained the notion of intersecting again with the comics?
SA: We have an ongoing discussion about it. We’ve never ruled it out. It just has to make sense. It can’t be something that we’re shoehorning in.
PS: What’s nice is this addition, with the game existing on its own and what we did with it, shows that The Walking Dead is just a really big universe. That this is unique for the IP and not just a story that’s somewhere in a pocket in Georgia. It’s something that’s shaking up the entire world and I like that it makes the universe feel large.
SA: Also, it’s really hard to tie in dead people. [Laughs]
PS: Yeah, we were just talking about this the other day where if you go to The Walking Dead’s wikia page and under the comic book section for the characters, everyone just has a big red “X” on their faces. It’s just what they do. It’s what happens. If you stay with the main gang long enough, you’re going to get killed. So, that’s part of it, too, for sure.
EGM: Alright, last question. Telltale has worked on a lot of licensed properties over the years (Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, etc., etc.) and you just announced two more with Borderlands and Game of Thrones. If you could add another new license to the list, what would it be and why?
SA: There are so many I would love to do, but it would have to make sense for us to spend the time on it. And it’s hard to even say because we never know what we may be working on in the future. It’s just so hard to say.
PS: And even that, everyone is so excited for what we have coming up, like with Game of Thrones. It just fits what we do so well. I will say, though, that before I even worked here I was a fan. I played the first three episodes [of The Walking Dead] before coming on, but I always thought that in terms of what Telltale does, even before I was an employee, that Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets would be a cool adaptation because of its nature. I mean, it would be a game where the bullets matter a lot. It’s not just a number up in the corner of the UI. When a gun gets shot, it means something, when a person gets shot, it really means something. So how precious that is, or how devastating that is was something I always thought was interesting.