Spoiler-Talk: The Walking Dead and survivor's guilt

In Spoiler-Talk, we take a no-holds-barred look at some of the biggest games and discuss what the future holds for these franchises. Expect many, many spoilers.

The Walking Dead was one of this year's most talked-about games. Speaking from personal experience, I spent hours meticulously discussing my decisions with a good friend. While we both prioritized protecting the precocious Clementine, the ethical twists and turns to that end left us divided on issues in the best of ways. The water cooler conversation became one of my favorite parts of the Walking Dead experience, and I know I'm not alone. So let's review some of those tough choices, and what it might mean for the next season.

Doug or Carley

The first major life-or-death choice came at the very end of the first episode, just as Lee and Clementine were starting to develop relationships with other survivors. The motley band included Kenny and his family, Glenn, Carley, Doug, Lilly, and Larry, all looking for a way to move out of the abandoned pharmacy and on to safety elsewhere. But that safe haven failed to hold up, and as Walkers attacked Lee had to make a choice: save the hapless nerd, Doug, or the sharp-as-a-tack reporter, Carley. The choice was more transparently binary than we saw throughout most of the series, but it set the tone for the types of grandiose decisions we would be confronted with.

Telltale's stats show that approximately 76% of players saved Carley. Having been spoiled before playing the first episode and knowing that even the early stats heavily favored the attractive woman over the geeky man, I chose Doug--mostly to be contrary.

What's for dinner?

The twist could not have been more telegraphed if it came straight out of a bad pulp novel, but the second episode introduced one of the most self-contained stories of the series thus far. The St. John family, consisting of brothers Andrew and Danny, and "Momma" Brenda, always seemed to have a sinister side. Something about them seemed a bit too clean-as-a-whistle, and they kept offering more food. This was a turning point for the series, though, as it introduced the concept of survivors themselves being the threat. After discovering that your traveling companion Mark had his legs lopped off to make a delicious home-cooked meal, the villainy of the St. Johns became clear. The family actually chooses to eat people, and would carve them up as living flesh to make sure the meat didn't get spoiled -- i.e., turn into a Walker. This also presented one moment that was easy to flub, as choosing the wrong dialogue option wouldn't prevent Clementine from taking a bite of roast Mark.

According to Telltale, only 17% players killed both of the brothers, while the rest let at least one of them live. If leaving Andrew bloodied and beaten while his Mom-bie shambled towards him counts as letting one live, that was the option I went with.

Larry gets a facelift

While holed up in a makeshift prison after calling out the St. Johns, Lee, Kenny, Lilly, and Larry faced a whole new kind of problem. Larry started to clutch at his chest, suffering an apparent heart attack. He always had a vicious temper, and never much liked Lee anyway, but his daughter Lilly begged to help save him. Kenny, meanwhile, was concerned that the large man was already dead and would turn into a Walker at any moment. In the tight confines of their cell, the three would be helpless to stop him. Kenny wanted to smash Larry's head in with a block of salt lick, and asked Lee to help hold Lilly back. Whether Lee agreed or not, Larry's skull promptly got a large dose of sodium.

Roughly 68% of people tried to help Larry, while the remainder held Lilly back. I tried to help, futile as it was, and I was shocked to see Larry's head suddenly replaced by gore and salt.

Duck's Demise

One of the most emotionally devastating moments of the series came near the end of the third episode. Kenny's son, nicknamed Duck, was always something of a goofball. But he provided some much needed age-appropriate company for Clementine, and he was a signal to Kenny that the world still had some normalcy to it. As long as he had his family to protect, Kenny was determined and light-hearted. When Duck sustained a bite because the motor lodge was being overrun, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable took hold. His parents, and the player, watched helplessly as his condition deteriorated. It was his mother, Katjaa, who made the call that it was time to end his suffering, even as Kenny was still in heavy denial. But Katjaa took her own life, leaving Kenny's rapidly worsening son as the last remnant of his family. Lee had to decide if he would encourage Kenny to shoot Duck, or do it himself.

A heavy majority, 79%, took it on themselves to spare Kenny the grief of killing his own son. I was among them. The other 21% are clearly just bad people.

The Bite Heard Round the World

As if a creepy stranger abducting Clementine weren't bad enough, the last moments of the fourth episode raised the stakes even higher. While checking to see if Clementine had run outside a fence, Lee was bitten. From that point on, it was not only a priority to save Clem from her kidnapper; it had to be done fast as well. That left Lee to decide whether he would tell the rest of his group, and even if he would amputate his bitten limb in an attempt to buy a little more time.

81% of players revealed their bite to the group, 71% cut off their own arm. I was among the majority on both choices. The final act plays out essentially the same despite those choices, but it was a showcase of the player's commitment to taking Clementine to safety before it was too late.

The Stranger's Revenge

From the very first moment that I heard the Stranger's voice taunting me through Clementine's walkie-talkie, I had one thought: I am going to kill you. I even told him as much, despite a warning to choose my next words carefully. But the identity of the Stranger became a mirror reflection on the player's own compromised morality. Whether you chose to take supplies or not at the end of episode two -- one of the most evenly split decisions of the stats at 55/45 -- it ruined the Stranger's life. His already strained marriage fell apart, and his wife and daughter subsequently died without him. He was motivated by revenge, but as Clementine confided in him over her walkie-talkie, he found a new purpose. His addled mind decided he could raise Clementine better than the man who has been forced to dwell in the ethical gray areas. The Stranger was never named, because he didn't have to be. He was the ultimate test of accountability, to make the player question if they truly are creating a safe environment for Clementine if it means she's witness to so much of the ugliness of humanity. Dealing with him was the last obstacle to protecting her, or so it seemed.

59% of players surrendered their weapons to the Stranger, while a slim minority kept a weapon hidden just in case. That may also be why a majority of players, 56%, had Clementine kill him. I choked him out with my bare hands, making good on my promise.

Lee's Last Moments

Even once the Stranger was dispatched, Clementine wasn't safe. The Marsh House, where she had been held captive, was surrounded by walkers. After covering themselves in undead-muck, the two safely walked out among the crowd, but Lee's sickness got the better of him he passed out. Clementine had to drag him to safety inside a locked store. She asked to wait it out in the store, forcing Lee to explain that he had been bitten, and no longer had that kind of time. Keeping Clementine's safety in mind, Lee could choose to have her handcuff him to the radiator in case he turned. He gave her advice, which the game notes that she'll remember. His final decision was to ask Clementine to shoot him so he wouldn't turn, or to say goodbye and remember him as he was in life.

63% told Clementine to shoot him before he turned. I was in the minority, presuming that being handcuffed would prevent Lee from being a threat after he turned, and ultimately deciding that maintaining a shred of her innocence was more important than the world containing one less walker among millions.

Shadows on the Hill

The final shot of The Walking Dead: Season One is of Clementine, sobbing and alone in what we can only assume are the outskirts of Savannah. In the distance she sees two shadows. It could be Christa and Omid, who Lee might have told to take care of Clementine after he was gone. It could be two walkers. It could even be two more unknown characters, for good or ill. Lee's last words of advice were on what she should do next: find Omid and Christa, remain alone, or find a city with people.

The choice to have her trust in others, or trust only herself, hit at the crux of the lessons Lee had been preparing her for throughout the entire game. It was at this point that the game reached the apex of its emotional resonance. Lee acted as a surrogate parent: instilling a sense of safety and trust, imparting functional lessons for survival, and finally, giving a philosophical lesson on how to live her life once he's gone. As Clementine appears ready to call out, but hesitant, we're left to wonder what will happen next.

Whatever the next season brings for The Walking Dead, it seems likely to include the resolution of this major plot thread. Clementine may or may not be the star of the next game, but the player was explicitly told that she would remember Lee's advice, and the final shot showed her on the verge of acting upon it. I can't wait.