Telltale’s The Walking Dead is not a game that overtly discusses racial issues throughout the course of its narrative. While the game’s main protagonist, Lee, is African-American, this is a fact that largely goes unmentioned by the other characters he interacts with in his story. Racial undertones are on display in The Walking Dead from its opening moments, however, and are largely utilized by the game’s developers in order to subvert the player’s expectations.
As the game begins, the player is introduced to Lee as he sits in the back of a police cruiser on the way to jail. Though it is not revealed until later in the story that he is being hauled away for the murder of a man that was sleeping with his wife, The Walking Dead still situates Lee in a position that fits with the sort of stereotypical position one would find an African-American character in modern media. Running immediately counter to this, however, the player can learn through conversation that Lee previously held a job as a professor at the University of Georgia, a position in life that runs counter to the standard, base criminality the player intially expects of Lee. From these opening moments, The Walking Dead exploits the player’s expectations about race and directly subverts them, foreshadowing the unexpected nature of events to come. As if to answer this calling for the unforeseen, moments later the police car hits a zombie and runs off the road, setting the game’s story in motion. Ultimately, The Walking Dead relies on these unspoken racial themes and biases in order to establish its tone.
Lee’s backstory as a murderer is not one that I personally have a problem with. In fact, I would guess that the developers gave Lee this portion of his backstory as a way to make his transition into zombie-slaying survivor a bit more believable (Lee does, after all, shoot a zombie in the head with a shotgun shortly after the police car crashes). His role as a murderer also has the potential to cause narrative conflict as Lee is forced to defend his relationship with Clementine, a young girl that he takes under his wing at the story’s outset. In this way, Lee’s murderer backstory creates a reason for the player to lie to other characters, causing tensions later on as more life-and-death situations present themselves. Furthermore, the murder that Lee commits is “sympathetic” in a way, fueled by a relatable passionate hatred for a man sleeping with his wife. As far as murders go, Lee’s is on the more understandable side, which prevents him avoid complete alienation from the player.
I cannot help but think, however, of the class discussion we had concerning race in video games. Specifically, I am reminded of the piece we read on race and video games by Anna Everett and S. Craig Watkins that discusses the ability of games to express racial bias. The article puts forth the idea that games can act as learning spaces, and so they have the potential to perpetuate ideas of racial bias and otherness through the regular utilization of stereotypes. While Everett and Watkins heavily rely on examples like Grand Theft Auto that include overt racial themes, I do see some parallels between the argument posited by the article and the racial undertones of The Walking Dead. While Lee may be a college professor, of course he is also a murderer. It is as if this typical racial trope was unavoidable given his African-American identity. As I have expressed above, I do think that Lee’s violent backstory is incredibly important to the game’s narrative and I do not consider it to be a poor choice on the part of the developers. However, I do think that it warrants consideration that Lee is characterized as a murderer despite all of the elements of his character that run counter to stereotypes. While I certainly do not think that this was done by the developers with any sort of ill intent, it is interesting that the game’s attempt to give Lee depth ultimately falls in with racial cliches that accomplish the opposite.