On The Walking Dead S2, Sarah, and why it all matters

the-walking-dead-game-season-2-episode-3-clementine-screenshot

I just sent this to feedback@telltalegames.com, regarding episode 4 of The Walking Dead: Season Two. Massive spoilers for that episode within.

Hi, Telltale.

Let me introduce this by introducing myself. I’m 30, born female, genderqueer, white. I have a couple of cognitive disabilities, and I’ve lived with mental illness since I was very young. I’m a PhD candidate in sociology with a focus in technology and society, and I’m a huge, huge nerd.

More to the point, I love video games. I’ve loved them since I was just coming into a difficult adolescence and immensely dependent on fantasy escapism to keep myself whole and functional. I found strength in all kinds of stories, but especially in games, especially in the kind of narrative adventure games of which your games are descendants. These days I spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about and writing about games, both from the perspective of an academic and a player, but underpinning all that thinking and writing is a love that remains strong after all these years. I believe that games are so important to the future of storytelling. I believe they’re so valuable. I believe that games have the ability to make us feel empathy in ways other storytelling media do not, that they can humanize in ways nothing else can.

So I take them pretty seriously is what I’m saying. I think they matter. A lot.

I think The Walking Dead matters, and I’ve loved it since I played the first season a long time ago. One of the things I love – or loved – most about it was how it did what I said above: it humanized. It could have done things easily and presented flat stereotypes the way so many games do; instead you guys took the more challenging path and presented difficult, complicated characters – especially women and people of color, the kinds of characters who usually get shafted – as human beings, and made the player care about them. Or you made me care about them. This was a game that did what so few games have the courage to do: show a world that is as rich and hard and haunting as the one in which we actually live, through people who are rich and hard and haunting as well.

Basically, you guys did something amazing. And up until episode 4 of S2, I would have said you were on track to do the same.

Then you killed Sarah. In an ugly way, for ugly reasons.

Look, Telltale. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to send you an email like this. I’m guessing I’m not the first person to send you a long email like this. I’m guessing you’ve gotten some angry stuff, and I’m guessing you’ve gotten a lot of feedback to the effect of “fuck that girl, I’m so glad I don’t have to drag her around anymore.” You did what you did, and I doubt I’m really adding much to anything by saying my piece, but here goes:

You had an opportunity to do something incredibly, incredibly brave with Sarah: to show that someone with a cognitive disability could find strength in themselves and in others, that they could defy everyone’s expectations and persevere, at least for a while, for longer than people believed they could. You could have dealt with disability so much better than almost everyone else does, ever. You had a chance to make a narrative choice – I’m guessing it might seem like a small one, to you – that would have had such an enormous impact on the lives of people who are used to seeing themselves presented as stereotypes, as useless, as burdens, as liabilities, as less than human.

And you pissed it down your leg. Sorry, guys, but you did.

Maybe you don’t care. Judging by the interview you did for IGN, you don’t very much, or at least you don’t regard it as any different than any of the other deaths or choices in the game. But I’m telling you: for people like Sarah – because people like Sarah exist, and they play your game – it probably would have meant a lot.

You had a chance to make people feel more human, and you didn’t.

I think one of the reasons why I’m sending this at all is what’s been going on in the game community in general lately. I’m sure you’re aware of it; it would be impossible not to be. I’ve been watching so much ugliness getting slung around regarding something I love, so much evidence that there is an extremely vocal group of people who do not want me in their clubhouse and a large group of people who are content to sit by and do nothing while this goes on. In the context of something that big, this seemed minor; I played episode 4 a while ago, got upset, then had to put it aside to deal with things that seemed more immediately important. But now I’m coming back to this, this small thing that really is not so small, and I wanted to tell you about it and about what I feel. Because again: I really and truly believe that games matter, and I believe that your game matters, and I think small things like this can add up to more than anyone might be able to anticipate. It’s small things like this that wear people like me down, that make us so tired when we have to face the fact that the world of games is not a world friendly to us, that the people making games don’t care about us because – at best – they don’t realize that we’re there.

And I guess I just wish you’d done things differently here. It makes me angry and frustrated that you didn’t, but more than that, it makes me sad.

So yeah. I have no idea what I’m trying to accomplish with this, and again, I don’t really expect to accomplish anything. If you read it all, thank you. I hope you take it to heart. Because you can’t go back and un-kill Sarah, but I’m sure you’ll have a chance to do something like this again.

I hope, when that happens, that you make a different choice.

Thank you for your work, and for your game, and for the chance to play. I’m looking forward to seeing what you do next.

– Sunny

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18 responses to “On The Walking Dead S2, Sarah, and why it all matters

  1. Thanks for writing the above post, it was very interesting and I enjoyed reading it.

    I would be interested if you could outline how you would have written series 2, If you had full veto over the storyline? is it specifically that she died, how she died or how her storyline was handled while she was alive that you don’t like?

    Looking at the Walking Dead world, it is brutal and there are very few characters who make it through into the following season. In fact in my play through of series 2, there were 4 disappearances, 2 beatings, 1 fall from a building, 1 exhaustion, 2 zombie food, 1 drowning, 1 stabbed and those are just the ones I can remember.

    Could it be considered a reflection of the Walking Dead world itself, showing that this new danger doesn’t care about race, creed, sexuality, age, religion or who you are, everyone is fair game.

  2. “Everyone is fair game” works great when it’s in the context of a world in which everyone is in fact “fair game”. But that’s not the world we live in, and when you’re examining a story that needs to be taken into account. Stories are written in their cultural context, and that means they’re going to reproduce toxic culture. And very often the people who are hurt by that culture are the only ones who see it, because that’s what privilege is.

    I think I explained the problem above: Telltale wrote Sarah’s story in the context of an intensely ableist society that *really does* value people with disabilities less than able-bodied and neurotypical people, and everything about that story reproduced that ugly culture. Now, you could say “well, they’re just being realistic” and I guess if that’s all you want from a story that’s fine, but the fact remains that they had an opportunity to do something else without entirely tossing realism out the window and didn’t.

    Sarah’s story arc and death are not like the story arcs and deaths of the other characters. Sarah’s disability is the most important thing about her. I wouldn’t have written her that way. The idea that Sarah is a burden and is dragging the group down is pounded hard at every turn; it’s the absolute core of her plotline. I wouldn’t have written it that way. The idea that Sarah is going to die is pretty clearly a certainty from very early on. I wouldn’t have written it that way. Sarah, for all intents and purposes, ceases to be a character shortly before her death and becomes a plot device driven solely by a negative view of cognitive disability. I wouldn’t have written it that way.

    Note that I’m not saying I wouldn’t still have made it possible for her to die. It’s how people die in these kinds of stories that matters.

  3. I guess your ‘privilege’ comment covers it. If TWD had introduced a character whose OCD was ham-fistedly introduced as a dangerous fallibility from the start, I would feel the same.

  4. Thank you for introducing me to this genre! I am totally oblivious, at 52. You have the younger generation writing style, that expresses thoughts in the old-style stream-of-consciousness. It is refreshing.

    I am in a very unique relationship with a transgender woman, being a woman myself, and not considering myself a lesbian. As to the mental illness, I feel compassion because that is sth I take medications for twice a day.

    Have you heard of “BringChange2Mind.org” by Glenn Close?

    Please keep on writing…

  5. Reblogged this on terjilapak and commented:
    Game keren….

  6. oh my god its gooooooooooooooooooood posting i read it thanks alot

  7. Good job in taking the time into writing this interesting piece. xD

  8. I read what had to say, it had alot of merit. I am truly sorry the gaming community has ostricsized you for your disability. I am a female gamer, and have learned that, games are a heighted simulated scenario of real life. Although most people do not realise, narrative games such as Walking Dead, that gives choices, also show how people, truly feel deep down. I love the Walking Dead series, but honestly, I’m happy Sarah is gone, she suffers no longer. Now please do not flame me yet, please hear me out. If sarah would have stayed in the ‘game’ eventually, the fan groups who hated her would have flat out demanded she be killed. Human nature. The death would have been more tradgic and gruesome. The reason behind my theory, TellTale is in the business of making money, not to say they are heartless and do not care about more fragile characters, but the must please fans to operate. If a larger percentage wants something, then usually they get it. The minority strikes out, its be going on for centuries. Your not invalid in your point but, business is business. I feel like another fatal flaw in Sarah’s characteristic was her overly protective father. The world is falling apart and man eating monsters are literally everywhere, why shelter your daughter to the point of telling her everything is ok ‘All’ the time. Coping mechanisms spawn from experiencing tramatic time. Im not saying, ‘Let her face a horde, or even a single zombie alone’, but teach her means of escape and light combat skills. Bringing her to quips it the current reality as soon as possible would have given her a fighting chance, at least longer then what she already had. Retrospectively, many players sheltered her from minor problems that she needed to get stronger from by experience. TellTale never really gave us those options either. Having a disability shouldn’t qualify you for death in an apocalypse, but never having someone to at least try and teach you survival is a death sentence. Again, Im sorry for the hurt you were dealt, I know you wanted Sarah to rise, I did too, but the platform set for her as jigsaw from the beginning, disability or not. Anyone can be strong, in different kinds of ways, human resilience. Sarah was, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually(if you believe in religion that is) unprepared, stunted and did not have the life skills because she was carried all game, by her dad, the team members and Clementine(player). In my opinion with each passing event she worsened, until she bottomed out. Leaving her to die was wrong as well, but most people are out for self preservation, and push come to shove, those decisions happen when people delay preparing the ignorant of situations. Duck even was better off then Sarah. Kenny might have been a terrible father as heck, but Duck was able to last longer because Kenny wasn’t nice, and told him the truth, still didn’t give the right to be so mean though.
    Last words, TellTale could have done better with the Sarah character then running to familar sterotypes and carrying them out. Hopefully, if another ‘Sarah’ comes about, then the chance is made to correct the error and a new light will be shed on the disabled characters abd gamers in gaming community, to give them a fighting chance at change. To unshroud ignorance.

  9. Reblogged this on best4dsystembet's Blog and commented:
    Nothing else matter on games yet that be really adventure on reality

  10. I absolutely love the Walking Dead and the Walking Dead 2, but I have to agree with you about Sarah. To be honest, I was one of those players that was relieved when she died, not because she was a burden but because I found nothing real about the character to connect with. I was just sick of the game harping on at me about it. She was written so wholly as a plot device that it was clear that the writers had no interest in who she actually was.

    We see it all the time with female characters and perhaps it’s more stark here because diversity is embraced within the story as a whole and because Telltale gave us such a wide range of sympathetic companions. I don’t think she’s the only character that’s reduced to a plot point. Duck, in season one, was just a trivial, although perhaps not in such a problematic way. It makes me wonder in what way they were treated differently by the writers?

  11. Great post, great perspective. To be fair to Telltale they do a pretty good job of killing off characters you like regardless of their abilities/value/fan-following. Which continues the tradition of the Comics and TV series.
    But your perspective on Sarah really made me look at her journey again. Like many players I’m used to games being a bit of a power fantasy and focusing on getting the best items/companions etc. As you know TWD works a little differently from most games.
    Sarah was, more than most characters, defined by those around her and their attitudes to her. Her Father is overprotective, and trying to keep her in a bubble. Jane sees her only as a liability, likely to drag the group down. My Clem always defended her and tried to do the best for her – even if that meant slapping her (one of many decisions that continue to trouble me).
    Importantly my take-away was that they were both wrong. These are the conversations people have on the edge. Conclusions that you could jump to because it’s easier. Easier than looking at how you are treating this human right now.
    Sarah stood out for me too, for starters she was the first person in the group to be actually help you, even though she was scared. She also asks for one thing from you – a friend for the apocalypse. In a narrative where pretty much everyone else is asking me to choose between them and someone else’s side in every argument. Choices which cost you. She just asks to be your friend – and you can say no with no consequences.

    Please please please take a look at my less deep ramblings. I’d love to hear your take on them http://filthycatflap.wordpress.com/2014/09/23/conflict-and-redemption-in-the-walking-dead/

  12. My show!

  13. Persego's Words

    Great post and very interesting point of view, thanks for sharing.

  14. I completely agree with you, and I enjoy you’re perspective on the subject. Telltale is a great game company, and does a great job of telling stories, The Walking Dead being one of the best story telling, kinda choose-your-own-adventure style games. However, they have a habit of tearing down characters, much like Sarah, within a heartbeat for what may seem like a improbable reason. Sarah is essentially the new Carly in that she was killed for no discernible reason, and would’ve only brought more to the story and could’ve died a more meaningful death if not survived through the end. Sarah living also would’ve been a great model for other people with anxiety to show that they can go through their life and handle the tough situations.

  15. Hi, I simply must ask – how did you come to the conclusion that Sarah had a mental or cognitive disability? To tell the truth that never even entered my mind. And secondly, I think the fact that Sarah could not survive is a plus – in that it shows that they didn’t feel ‘sorry for her’ and let her live JUST BECAUSE she was somehow mentally challenged (if she was, that is). She was treated just as everyone else was treated, i.e they all/or almost all, died.

    Realistically, in such a difficult and rough reality as that presented in ‘The Walking Dead’ it would be terribly difficult for highly intelligent, highly strong people to survive, so obviously the survival rate of someone with less physical and/or mental advantages would be much less. I, for one, find the continuing survival of Clementine herself to be deeply unrealistic. Sure she’s a smart kid and she knows how to shoot a gun, but really, the decisions given to her to make by the rest of the group are simply ludicruous. They never expected Duck, Kennet’s son, to face such decisions or crawl/slither/climb/run into such danger did they? So why burden a young girl like Clementine with going into almost death-like situations, when strong adults loiter about doing god knows what instead?

    And that is why Sarah’s death (whether or not she has a disability) is a very realistic fatality and one which totally fits in with the rest of the story. It is a cruel world, a dangerous world, a nightmarish world. People die and become flesh eating zombies, even nice ones like Leah. If Sarah had remained alive, that would not only defy the forces of ‘reality’ such as it is, but would be preferential treatment, she would only be spared because she is ‘different’ and THAT would be unfair to people like Sarah! People with disability and others without disability should be treated in the same way, both when it comes to the good and the bad stuff.

  16. Reblogged this on Darkly Dreaming Moonsong and commented:
    Hi, I simply must ask – how did you come to the conclusion that Sarah had a mental or cognitive disability? To tell the truth that never even entered my mind. And secondly, I think the fact that Sarah could not survive is a plus – in that it shows that they didn’t feel ‘sorry for her’ and let her live JUST BECAUSE she was somehow mentally challenged (if she was, that is). She was treated just as everyone else was treated, i.e they all/or almost all, died.

    Realistically, in such a difficult and rough reality as that presented in ‘The Walking Dead’ it would be terribly difficult for highly intelligent, highly strong people to survive, so obviously the survival rate of someone with less physical and/or mental advantages would be much less. I, for one, find the continuing survival of Clementine herself to be deeply unrealistic. Sure she’s a smart kid and she knows how to shoot a gun, but really, the decisions given to her to make by the rest of the group are simply ludicruous. They never expected Duck, Kennet’s son, to face such decisions or crawl/slither/climb/run into such danger did they? So why burden a young girl like Clementine with going into almost death-like situations, when strong adults loiter about doing god knows what instead?

    And that is why Sarah’s death (whether or not she has a disability) is a very realistic fatality and one which totally fits in with the rest of the story. It is a cruel world, a dangerous world, a nightmarish world. People die and become flesh eating zombies, even nice ones like Leah. If Sarah had remained alive, that would not only defy the forces of ‘reality’ such as it is, but would be preferential treatment, she would only be spared because she is ‘different’ and THAT would be unfair to people like Sarah! People with disability and others without disability should be treated in the same way, both when it comes to the good and the bad stuff.

  17. I know it’s late but thank you for taking the time writing this. I’ve been struggling with emotional problems and while seeing a character like Sarah made me feel very unnerved because I know full well people who play the game are going to call her a ‘liability’ and a ‘burden’, and I was right. I feel so much of me in her and it just hurts how people keep commenting they were glad that she died. I know characters dying from time to time is realistically how a zombie apocalypse would turn out to be, and it would be very hard for neurodivergent individuals to pull through, but still… I guess my problems with the game at this point come from the fans who play this game and their hurtful comments…

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