A House Divided centers around familiar moral conundrums — food, life, trust — though never in a way that felt tired. This series continues to find new and ingenious methods of ripping my heart out. There’s plenty of good stuff worth digging into, but the theme I keep circling back to is childhood. In my eyes, that’s the meat and potatoes here.
Mild spoilers ahead.
One of my favorite scenes in Telltale’s first Walking Dead game is the part where Lee teaches Clementine how to shoot a gun. He doesn’t want to, and she’s a bit scared. But when she finally gets it right, they smile at each other with pride — him in her, her in herself. It’s a strangely tender moment. Arming a kid made me uncomfortable, and I futilely hoped she’d never have to put that skill to use. The phrase “necessary evil” came to mind.
It’s quite a contrast to the reaction I had during A House Divided, the most recent episode of The Walking Dead: Season 2. In an unsupervised moment, a clueless youngster whips out the handgun she’s found. Clementine ducks as the girl obliviously points the business end toward her, asking what they should practice on. I was furious. “Holy hell,” I thought. “Has no one taught this girl to shoot?”
Apparently my ethics are rather conditional.
At first, in A House Divided, I was surprised by — maybe even skeptical of — the amount of trust Clementine’s adult companions place in her. She regularly accompanies others to gather supplies, out where the walkers prowl. Her opinion, while not taken quite as seriously as those of the adults around her, holds weight. At one point, she’s tasked with watching a homestead — supplies and all — on her own. There’s the occasional question of whether or not she can handle such things, but those doubts have quieted quickly. I initially questioned whether a group of adults would actually place their lives in a little girl’s hands, or willingly put her in situations that risked her life. I chalked that up to the need for player agency. How else would you grant the (presumably adult) player a sense of freedom and purpose while still making this a story about an eleven-year-old girl? The more I think about it, though, that explanation falls short. While the plot was unquestionably crafted with gameplay in mind, reducing Clementine’s actions to a mere matter of giving the player something to do ignores the best part of this story.
The Western concept of children being incompetent and fragile is a relatively new thing. Before things like mandatory education and child labor laws, kids were expected to contribute to the well-being of their families. Kids had jobs. That remains the case in many places throughout the world. While I see twelve years of basic schooling as right and just and Good-with-a-capital-G, I also have to acknowledge that it’s a privilege. (It speaks volumes about my own privilege that I am considering these points within the context of an effing video game.) Clementine has stepped into the kind of role that children often have when resources are scarce. She scouts. She scavenges. She keeps watch. Having someone small and quick on hand is an asset to the adults around her. They trust her with important jobs because she has proved herself capable of performing them. The world has changed. Former ideas about what children can and cannot do are no longer relevant (or, as I’ll get to, they shouldn’t be).
There’s a moment between Clementine and a former teacher that made me realize how much my expectations have changed. He references a book, and when it’s clear that she doesn’t know it, he says, “We’ll get you caught up on your reading.” Oh my god, I thought. She’s supposed to be in school. It felt like a completely alien idea, something pulled out of an alternate dimension. An hour of having my head buried in a game was enough to shift my priorities.
That shift makes sense, given the way the series has progressed (though I’m surprised and impressed that it took root in me without my notice). The first game was set during the early days of the zombie apocalypse. People’s primary goals changed, but for the most part, they clung to culturally typical notions about kids and family. In that light, I saw Clementine as someone who needed protecting, both physically and psychologically. Smart and brave as she was, she was little, and innocent. She needed me. I had an obligation to defend her. The second game, on the other hand, is years in. Things haven’t gotten any better, and they don’t seem like they ever will. I’m not only comfortable with Clem getting her hands dirty — I’d be concerned if she didn’t. For her to not be capable of pulling her own weight by now would make her a liability.
That point is brought into clear focus by Sarah, the daughter of one of the survivors Clementine’s currently staying with. Sarah is older than Clementine by at least a couple years, but she’s definitely the younger. She’s been treated with the same protective zeal I felt toward Clementine in the first game, but in Sarah’s case, it hasn’t stopped. Sarah is never brought scouting, or hunting, or out to defend her home. She stays in her room, surrounded by books and games. She never knows where her father’s gone, or how dire things really are. I feel sorry for Sarah, but she scares the hell out of me. I don’t think there’s a single character in the game that makes me as nervous as she does. Screwed up as adults can be, at least they have the good sense to shut up and stop panicking without being told.
A House Divided continues the thing I liked best about the first episode: Despite her achievements, Clementine feels like a kid. The questions she asks suggest an incomplete understanding of adult motivations. She sometimes tries to pass herself as more knowledgeable than she really is (as in the moment when she claims to recognize the purpose of an alcohol still — her companion calls her on it). She says a bad, bad word with both utter sincerity and the hush of inexperience (this, too, is a departure from Season 1 Clementine, who chastised Lee for swearing). When zombies appear, and the player is handed the reins, the feeling is not one of power, but of fear. Often, the only option is to dodge out of the way, which Clementine does as a kid would do, skidding and stumbling. Bashing in an undead brain is a major effort. On the rare occasion that I had a gun in my hand, aiming was a struggle, and required me to spend a precious second or two looking up so that the zombie’s head was directly in my pint-sized line of sight. This is no FPS, and Clementine is no crackerjack shot. She’s a little kid who can’t fire a rifle without getting knocked off her feet. Her physical limitations are tangible. Controlling her invoked memories of how I felt as a kid, my body always in flux, my knees regularly scabbed and bruised. I would’ve stumbled as she did, but I don’t think I would’ve been as brave. I would’ve wanted to hide away, like Sarah, hoping that I’d wake up to find the monsters gone. Knowing that makes me love Clementine all the more. I believe her, and she’s a better hero for it.