On the character of Sarah in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 2.
This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for The Walking Dead Season 2.
You get absolutely no prizes for guessing that the character I ended up most attached to in The Walking Dead Season 2 was Sarah. The fact that she was the only character not brought back from Season 1 or 400 Days that I actually cared about should not diminish this fact – I mean, it does and demonstrates one of several reasons why this season just plain hasn’t worked, but that’s getting away from the point of this article. Upon first meeting, this was because she was Clementine’s age and I felt that Clem would want a friend that was her age going forward. However, by the time of Episode 2, that attachment grew into something deeper. It became clear that she was suffering from some kind of anxiety disorder, at the very least. Her father, Carlos, had told Clem that Sarah would basically shut down if she were to ever discover how bad the world had gotten. She seemed incapable of reading basic social cues, like on the first morning at Carver’s, and she was naively unable to understand why anyone would ever want to or need to inflict violence on anyone.
And as I spent more and more time in her presence, I realised the reason why I was so attached to her. I self-identified. I saw myself in her. Maybe not completely, but enough to suddenly feel like I had personal stakes in the game. Videogames with zombie apocalypses almost always encompass casts that know what they’re doing or, at the very least, are aware enough of their situation to be able to survive for a good while, and that’s when they’re not just power fantasies about mowing down as many zombies as is humanly possible. I’m sure that many of us like to think that we’d be half-decent in a zombie apocalypse, or an apocalypse of any scenario, but the reality is that most of us would be terrible. I, specifically, would probably end up a lot like Sarah. Hell, strip away the zombie apocalypse stuff, and I still feel a lot like Sarah, rather ill-equipped to deal with the outside world, prone to anxiety attacks and, whereas her mental disorders are left undefined, living with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fact of the matter is that it wasn’t just about Sarah’s survival to me anymore, this was now about my survival and how I’d end up in this sort of situation.
I’m not naive, I knew that Sarah was going to die at some point. This is The Walking Dead, after all, no matter the medium (comic, TV show, videogame), everyone will die at some point because that’s how The Walking Dead works. I knew it was coming at some point and it would end up destroying me. Quite frankly, I thought she was a goner the second she ran off into the zombie horde during the ending of Episode 3. This is why I was on the edge of my seat, genuinely on the edge of my seat, with my heart racing and practically hyperventilating during the trailer scene in Episode 4 because, quite frankly, it seemed like that was the end for her. I did everything, I even slapped her because I was desperate to get her out of that damn trailer. I felt horrible about it, absolutely horrible, because I feel like that would have made the situation worse if that was me in that predicament, but I got her out and the sense of relief was irrefutable.
And even though I knew her character outcome was inevitable at some point during the series run, I went out of my way to keep her safe, to keep her happy. I looked after her at the house when everyone else was out, I threw Carlos’ shouting at her for taking a picture right back in his face – which the game interpreted only as me blaming Sarah, an early indicator that this season wasn’t even going to pretend to offer up the illusion of proper choice, but, again, off-subject – I engaged her in conversation at Carver’s because I wasn’t about to be a dick to her, I cut her blueberries for her, offered her a hug, everything. The game kept telling me, practically shouting at me, that she was dead weight who would cause more trouble than it was worth, and all of the time I refused to listen. I defended her at every opportunity by vehemently mashing the appropriate response, only for Clem to half-heartedly express my sentiments. The game was screaming at me that Sarah was worthless and that the group would be infinitely better without her, and I didn’t want to hear it. I wasn’t ready to and I didn’t want to. I had too much investment.
So, obviously, a lot of people hated Sarah because, quite frankly, it seemed like the game did, too. No wonder a fair number of people left her behind at the trailer park (a good 50% when I last checked). The game hadn’t exactly given people who weren’t self-identifying with her reasons to care and it practically wanted you to despise her; everybody, even her own father at times, treated her as The Load who would have been better off being fed to the Walkers. Most people probably felt the same about Duck last season, only the game actually treated him as a person and crafted moments and scenes expressly designed for people who don’t identify with him to like him (I’m focussing on the detective hunt, primarily). It feels really unseemly to have a game that openly treats a child character, and one with some kind of mental disorder no less, as The Load and is all but inviting you to wish death upon them.
In any case, though, I managed to get her out of the trailer, in the first scene since the first episode of the season to get me 100% invested and terrified for the possible outcome. For the rest of the episode, I kept checking up on her because I’d nearly lost her once and that wasn’t going to happen again. The most heart-breaking scene of the episode for me was a tiny little optional conversation afterwards where Clem asks if Sarah is OK and she just responds, “No.” That, more than anything else in the episode, was the thing that got me, but the big picture remained bright. She was safe. I mean, she was probably going to die in the final episode because, quite frankly, considering the unbelievably shoddy application of excess misery on display in this episode, I’m pretty sure that everyone will die at season’s end, but I had bought her some time and the tiniest hope sat within me that she might even make it out of the season slightly intact. I’d gotten her out of her pre-ordained death scene, practically flipping the bird at the game in the process, and proving that I (due to self-identifying with her) wasn’t totally without hope in this kind of scenario. She was OK which meant that I was OK.
And then, fifteen minutes before the end of the episode, she gets crushed by some debris and torn apart by Walkers.
The one nice thing that I can say about that scene was that it got the reaction that I expected it to. I shut down. I dropped the controller and for a good 30 seconds afterwards I did nothing, only snapping back to attention because the game needed me to input some QTEs. Other than that, the scene is atrocious. It comes out of nowhere, is appallingly written, nothing you do causes any difference of any kind, it reveals the game, more than ever before, to be that of the designer’s only and that your choices mean absolutely nothing in even the micro scheme of things (which has been an overall issue with the entire season due to poor writing in general). Worst of all, though, it proves that the game was right. All of that time that it had spent bleating about how useless a character like her would be, because her various disorders and neuroses kept her from evolving and getting with the program, was proven to be absolutely right. I wasn’t exactly expecting her and Clem to ditch the rest of the group, stumble across a unicorn and then merrily ride it off into the sunset, but I expected better than this, than what the game was telling me: she was The Load and things would have been easier if she’d just been left to die ages ago.
Do you know how I know this? Because nobody mourns her. Rebecca’s baby is born about 15 seconds after Sarah dies and everyone basically goes “Sarah, who?” (In a similar example of dreadful writing, Luke doesn’t seem to give much of a crap that Nick died a bit earlier on in the episode either.) Even Clementine, who I had throw Jane down there to try and get Sarah out even though it wound up doing bugger all, didn’t seem to care; she gets more broken up about Jane leaving, who she’d known for about 14 hours! The game had basically told me that not only would I be a useless waste of space in this scenario, but that my eventual death would be a blessing to everyone and that nobody would mourn me. Thanks, game. Thanks a lot, I feel really special.
“But maybe this was all meant to feed into some point?” you might be thinking. “The idea that the apocalypse would not be suitable for all kinds of people and that, yeah, some people with mental disorders just wouldn’t be able to cope. That seems like the intent, it was just sunk by bad writing, atrocious pacing and unfettered misery.” And do you know what? That’s pretty much what I was thinking because it fit in line with the general mood of the season, trying to do things and tackle themes about survival but having them crippled by dreadful writing. I may have been profoundly disappointed at the lack of quality and poor handling of it, but at least it was just poor writing, there was no malicious intent behind any of this.
Then this got out. (Start at 0:52, run to 6:25.)
I am unfathomably angry. Folks, you really have no idea just how angry I am at this. My anger is not completely aimed at Greg Miller – although some of it is; I mean, c’mon, man, I liked and respected you – it’s at Mark Darin, Jason Latino and, by extension, the entire Telltale Games staff. See, whilst Greg’s off spouting these really uncomfortable opinions about Sarah – and, by extension, people like myself with her kind of mental disabilities, even if a later blog post had him semi-apologise and admit that he didn’t realise she had a mental disability – they’re sat there agreeing with him. They support his viewpoints, not once do they stop him and go, “Dude, you sound like a terrible person right now,” or “Actually, that wasn’t our intention.” And I know for a fact that this isn’t caused by professional niceties in the interview format, the fear that taking your interviewer to task for these opinions will lead to negative publicity somehow, because, once again, this was a real thing that they said happened in the office.
“…because there’s just so many people in the office… who were just, y’know, ‘Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, I can’t wait to get rid of her.’”
This shit is fucking inexcusable.
As you may have gathered by the fact that I never even posted a Top 5 Games of 2013 list, let alone returned to Petchulant writing, I have drifted away from gaming this year. I was just sick and tired of the entire medium, its shitty attitudes towards anyone who wasn’t white, male, straight and not suffering from any disorders, how barely a day could go by without some big controversy flaring up or somebody doing something wrong. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t even derive joy from actually playing games anymore, the medium was negatively impacting my mental health and there’s enough stuff going on in my life that I don’t need gaming adding to that pile. So, I pretty much cut ties to the industry, stopped writing about games, stopped paying attention to games, went back to movies instead and have been markedly happier, all things considered, as a result – which, yes, is rather ironic seeing as the movie industry is just as, if not even more, shitty as the games industry.
The only current games I’ve kept up with are The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead Season 2. Telltale have been one of my favourite developers for a good while, now, and, even though only The Wolf Among Us has been up to the standard I expect from the company, I still derive enjoyment from their games. In fact, they’re one of the few I’m still able to do so. And though the writing of Sarah wasn’t exactly anything close to stellar, I really respected them for attempting to create a character that I could self-identify with, along with the general diversity of the cast of their games.
To find out that most of the team were all but actively rejoicing in the opportunity to kill her off, that the game’s constant bleating of how useless she was actually reflects the team’s viewpoints more than it should, and that they pretty much agree with the derogatory comments thrown at her, that characters like her deserve to die for refusing to “get with the program” and that the slap was a completely deserved action instead of a morally grey action… I am angry, unfathomably so, but I am also hurt. It’s like I am not welcome because I am not “normal” enough. They treated Sarah like shit because they wanted to, almost as much as they wanted it to be a part of Clem’s character arc. This was not just crappy writing on accident due to a lack of skill, this has turned out to have been done on purpose because a good amount of the team also hated her for not being “normal” enough. And so the utterly abysmal way her unavoidable death was handled now makes total sense; I’m amazed that had the restraint to keep the cast from firing off party poppers and holding an impromptu disco in celebration.
At time of writing, Telltale have yet to apologise for the remarks and sentiments expressed during IGN’s Playing Dead, but I honestly don’t know if that would make it better for me. What’s done is done and, honestly, this feels like a betrayal. Considering the studio’s well-done track record with regards to strong characters from multiple diverse backgrounds, I thought that Sarah was actually just a victim of Season 2’s sub-par writing and that the one-sided treatment of her undefined mental illnesses was just a result of the unfortunate implications of that sub-par writing. Instead, it turns out that a lot of the staff share the sentiments of those throwing ablest slurs at her and now I can’t help but think that that informed her poor treatment. Sarah was The Load because of her disorders and she died The Load because of her disorders. She never got a chance to show any other, more capable side of herself because apparently nobody at Telltale cared enough about her to do so. And now all I can think about is that they feel the same way towards me, that they think less of me and would find me a nuisance, a drain on the team and nothing more. The Load.
I thought that they were better than that. By merely creating Sarah, I really thought they were. And maybe they still are, but these comments make it hard to believe otherwise.
Fuck videogames, folks.
Callum Petch wants you to tell them what they want to hear.