I just sent this to firstname.lastname@example.org, regarding episode 4 of The Walking Dead: Season Two. Massive spoilers for that episode within.
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.