Playing as Jesus in Telltale’s Walking Dead (Episodes 1-5)

The Walking Dead Episodes Logo

Telltale’s Walking Dead is all about making hard decisions. Who do you save? Who gets to eat? Who to put out of their misery, etc. As with Dishonored and Mass Effect 3, I felt inclined to ask if the choices given allow you to play as Jesus would. In short? As with those previously mentioned titles, the results are a messy mix of yes and no.

Being that the game is approximately 90% story, it’s hard not to spoil it. So, I’m going to talk about The Walking Dead’s decisions as isolated experiences, leaving out proper names and a lot of the context. The two notable exceptions are Lee (the playable character) and the little girl he protects, Clementine. Also, noteworthy is the fact that the content of the game is truly not for everybody. I wouldn’t play this game with my wife around as she gets creeped out by cartoon demons. There is a lot of zombie gore and disturbing situations meant for mature audiences despite the comic book art style. And I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who takes issue with F-bombs. So if you have a problem with me suggesting Jesus would take interest in a game with said content, this is your chance to opt out.

NOTE: For obvious reasons listed above, this article is for adults only. You have been warned.

The Setup

We’re first introduced to our character in the back of a cop car en route to downtown Atlanta where he’s to be put away for a crime of passion. The police officer driving the car talks to Lee and asks him a few questions. Our options pop-up on the screen with a time-bar that tells us our response window is shrinking. Since I’m trying to play like Jesus, I avoid all the responses that include bitterness and vulgarity. I also answer as honestly as I can, speaking for a man who’s story I don’t yet know. This is how we learn Lee’s story: by answering for him and deciding where to let his emotions and decisions take him. We choose how he responds, yet it’s a feigned control. He, like us, is a man in the middle of a story with a pre-existing trajectory. We just get to decide how it gets there: with four-way option wheel responses, brief quicktime sequences, and occasional behind-the-barrel action sequences. But most of our decisions come down to choosing one of those four face-button-assigned options.

Lee meets Clementine when she’s hiding from her zombified baby sitter. Lee decides that his skills as a guardian are likely better than a zombie and he takes “Clem” under his wing as they seek shelter from the impending horde. What ensues for the next five episodes is a deluge of despair with tiny pinholes of hope through which you carve out the best path you can.

The-Walking-Dead-Clementine

Choices, Choices

Drew Dixon called the decisions in the Walking Dead illusions of choice. The trajectory of some decisions in the game are predestined. But the veil is thin on which calls are defined for you and which ones truly belong to you. The ultimate importance is that you own each and every action. So do yourself a favor and let your axe fall where it may. Lee isn’t a man full of the Holy Spirit. His imagination isn’t open to the supernatural. He’s scared for himself and for Clementine. So all his options are ultimately carnal and caught between a rock and a hard place.

Lee has to make a litany of impossible choices, often in a few seconds or less:

1. I can only save one of two people. Who do I choose?
2. This person is trapped. Do I sever a limb to (possibly) save them (granted that they don’t bleed-out) or do I leave them to the zombies?
3. A person is infected and will turn into a zombie. Do you put them out of their misery or let them turn into a walker?
4. Repeat number three. Person is sick and elderly.
5. Repeat number three. Person is a child.
6. Everybody is starving. Who gets food? The adults who do all the labor? Or the children?
7. Your friend just murdered your other friend. What do you do with them?
8. Your friend wants to murder your other friend. How do you keep both alive?
9. A creepy stranger offers help. Do you trust them with your life?
10. Repeat number seven. Do you trust them with Clem’s life?
11. Nazi-like survivalists have what you need and don’t want to give it to you. How do you get it from them? With force?

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So, What Would Jesus Do? Right?

The obvious reality is that these questions are carnal, gritty, and don’t provide a “biblical resolve.” They don’t leave room for a prophetic or miraculous imagination that sees a truly better way. While that may be to the Walking Dead’s detriment in one fashion, in another, they express the worldview of the creators: that the world can be a dark and despairing place where terrible things happen and “it is what it is.”

So, no. You can’t play as Jesus in these options. Jesus would find a way to save multiple people in mortal peril (as with when the disciples were about to die in a storm). He would multiply the food so everybody was provided for (as in the feeding of the four thousand, and later with the feeding of the five thousand). He would be able to keep everybody from death and the grave. And if they did die in the first death, he wouldn’t let their body be re-animated in anything less than it’s glorified resurrected body.

This probably points out the obvious. You’re playing a freaking videogame. And you’re not playing as Jesus. You’re playing as Lee Everett, convicted murderer with many flaws, faults and deficiencies. Yet, somehow, we’re also playing as us, through the limited choices that are given to us. So, the real question is if the questions let us do the best that we can do? To that, I say yes. In as much as we can make decisions that are “right in our own eyes.” You’re even given the chance to defend the choices. Still none of that feels very Jesus-like.

Yet still, I suggest that there is a Christ-like component. Why?

Dying to Self

Clementine is probably the most important part of the game. Why? Because Lee learns what it means to die to himself daily for her benefit. Every decision he makes (you make) is for her benefit and protection. He has to teach her how to survive and somehow retain his goodness (“humanity” as some might call it). There’s a lot that could be said on the lengths Lee takes to keep Clem alive and as mentally healthy as one can keep an 8-year-old in a zombie apocalypse. But I’ll just leave it at the theme of self-denial as to preserve the story for those who have yet to play it.

If you want more detail on what it looks like and don’t mind it being spoiled, Steven Sukkau most eloquently summed it up.

Final Answer

So no, you are not empowered to truly save people from death and make decisions in a way that Jesus would. But you are able to walk a Christ-like path, one of self-denial and the noblest of purpose: the benefit of another, offering your strength to lift up the weak.

About M. Joshua Cauller

M. Joshua is a missionary to his basement — where he leads a videogames-and-spiritaul-formation group called GameCell. He makes indie game trailers by day, which you can see at mjoshua.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.
  • Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I really felt that the world of The Walking Dead was one without God. Survival of the fittest rules…even if you have to eat people. I didn’t stop Clementine from eating human flesh…blah.

    • Wait, that happens? Children doing cannibalism is never ok in my book.

      • At one point, they sit down for a family dinner…

        • Yeah. You have to stop Clem as soon as you find out. I didn’t waste any time. I don’t want that little girl getting soiled in that way!

    • Steven Sukkau

      Why did you feel the world was without God? I mean our real world is just as terrible as a zombie apocolyspe at times.

      • I agree, Steven. Same question.

        I loved The Road because I felt like it was all about Daddy God and his relationship with his kids, giving absolutely everything he has for their benefit.

      • I was going to write something like, “It’s a world where fear has replaced any sort of hope.” But that is a great description of our own world. I’d even say that many Christians get easily trapped in fear instead of looking forward in the hope of Christ.

        It all boils down to a feeling for me. I just don’t feel God in the world of The Walking Dead. Yeah, poor defense, I know.

        • Steven Sukkau

          I think I know what you’re saying, and yeah some writers probably are intentionally trying to create a world without God. And I find reading or immersing myself in those worlds can be quite oppressive and grim. BUT, if they also write genuine human experiences into the story, Faith and Hope can’t help but slip through because that’s part of being human, you know? Even if it’s just the search for hope, or questioning faith. IMHO

        • The argument could be made that by causing you to “feel” his absence as strongly as you did, the game was actually pointing you towards an awareness of his presence! You can’t miss what was never there is the first place.

  • Steven Sukkau

    Great piece man! And thanks for the shout-out!!

    If I could though, I’d like to take issue with one point, “So, no. You can’t play as Jesus in these options. Jesus would find a way to save multiple people in mortal peril”.

    I feel like you’re implying that Jesus would make everything all right cause miracles and he wouldn’t have to agonize in these rock and a hard place decisions. And yes, He will make everything alright. BUT, I think there’s an incredible opportunity to also experience a Jesus-like suffering in NOT being able to save someone from spiritual death.

    Yes Jesus can feed a whole ton of people, he can even bring them back from death, but he can’t save people against their will.

    I can think of one moment, maybe there are more, where you are trying to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. It’s absolutely heart-wrenching, but ultimately that is the same pain that breaks Jesus’ heart. It’s a powerful thing to experience. One that I have experienced thanks to a video game.

    So while there are no options to perform miracles, I don’t really want to play as Jesus in a video game, at least not in that way. But I do want to partake in his suffering, in the dying to self, to experience how high the stakes are in life, and to make the ultimate sacrifice.

    I would disagree, The Walking Dead gives you a powerful opportunity to play as Jesus, at least in the ways that matter most!

    Well actually we are probably in agreement, you say as much in your conclusion about being Christ-like, but I would say you also play as Jesus would, though I would replace saving people from death or hunger, with the metaphor of saving people’s souls. Maybe becoming a zombie could also be a metaphor of hell or a second death?

    • Excellent points, Steven. I was super curious what you’d think about this post and I’m glad you were able to process it all.

      Yeah. I don’t know exactly how Jesus would respond in all accounts. And there were times in the Gospels that he didn’t heal some folks. After all, he’s not a tame lion and all that.

      Yeah, I can’t tell if we disagree or agree either. Suffice to say that “yes and no” might be a little too definitive. Either way, it’s certainly a fascinating game to play around the very discussion.

      • Steven Sukkau

        Yeah, man I feel like we are saying the exact same thing, just in different words. Do you think playing a game where you can potentially save everyone all the time would be as good?

        • That would certainly trigger something in the Completionists out there! Especially if saving everybody was exceptionally hard (like the no-kill achievements in Deus Ex 3 and Dishonored). But I think you might be asking on a deeper question of whether or not a game where you get to play “as Jesus” would be interesting? And in that context, I think that you’re landing on the more interesting notion that you cannot. People don’t always want to be saved. And then if you find a way to save them, they might resent you (like Andrea in the beginning of Season 2 of the TV show).

          But yeah, say you could save everybody. That might open up some more interesting outcomes of sorts. Like, most of the folks Jesus healed weren’t exactly “on the ball” when he was on the cross.

          Food for thought I suppose.

  • Interesting comments. What I’m surprised to see is that Joshua Cauller writes about God’s holiness more than his grace – which seems exactly the opposite of what you would write. Steven definitely pointed that out by taking the opposite tack.