The value of social capital, to put it simplistically, lies in the collective. You've probably heard it before: "we're stronger as a group."
Typically, I rebel against this idea. That's just not my style. I'm more of the lone wolf type of person: I rely on myself and myself only, if I can help it. Playing through the first two episodes of The Walking Dead has made it clear to me that in the zombie apocalypse, relying on strangers is equally as necessary as it is risky. Worse: developing feelings for strangers may be unavoidable, regardless of how reckless it is.
The first episode begins with Lee, the protagonist, taking a little girl called Clementine under his wing. She's alone, scared, and despite being clever—she hides in a treehouse to keep herself safe—helpless. She's just a kid, you know? In first grade. There's no way she could make it on her own.
Still, my first instinct when Lee decides to take her with him was outrage. I thought to myself, Lee, you idiot! Don't you see? This girl right here is a liability—one that you don't need. What if you get attached and she turns? Can you deal with that? Every person out there is a potential liability. You can't risk taking care of someone else. You've got to look after yourself. Nobody else will—a common theme of the ‘zombie genre,' after all, is that dire circumstances make humans turn into monsters worse than the undead.
So I decided I'm going to keep my distance in the game. People don't need to know who I am, where I've come from, who my family is. I'll detach myself from it all, because I figured that was the best way to ensure survival.
That was my personal code at the start of the game: self interest above all else. Screw other people. It's difficult not to resort to that type of thinking, to not acquiesce to the idea that you selfishly ‘have to do what you have to do' in order to survive—regardless of who you harm in the process.
They're not real people, right? This is a game.
I optimize as best I can when I play a game, even if it means, say, accusing a poor little boy of being bitten though I'm not 100% sure that this is the case. Might as well be on the safe side, right? Hell, I found myself annoyed when that same boy survived an attack and not another adult—the kid just weighs us down, he's not as valuable!
Admittedly, a bit of my personal ethos bled into my play style. With the exception of close friends, which are scarce, a series of letdowns from people plus the social climate have created an utter cynic who is wary of other folk.
My identity is a commodity for businesses, there's no shortage of entities who want me to be a slave to debt or to fall victim to vice, and a lot of people and causes aren't heroes we can believe in, but rather salesmen marketing the idea we all so desperately wish we could believe in. I grew up on a street where I could watch women getting raped between cars on a nightly basis, or someone dying on the corner. Often, I fell asleep to gunshots.
When people ask me where I'm from, I say "the Internet"—and that's a place where people like to trick others to click on horrible things, as if on a hunt to assimilate those few idealists and dreamers who haven't given in to the suffocation of the blase yet. As if optimism is a virtue that's just waiting to be squashed, as if the only way to survive in this world is to perpetuate that terrible environment. We all know the zombie axiom well, really: eat or be eaten.
I feel more comfortable in my alienation, in my disconnect, than I do with the idea of trust—because it keeps me safe. I'm harder to take advantage of, even if maybe I'm unhappier for it.
But when the entire world has gone to hell, relying on yourself may not be a gamble you want to take. With others, you can take turns taking watch, or raid a zombie infested location, and if you're ever in trouble, perhaps someone would put their neck out there for you.
People are useful, but they won't run to help you if you're not willing to help them, too—in an honest way. Self-interest is easy to spot, and if anyone thinks you're only sticking around for as long as it's useful, they're less willing to trust you. Sentimentality turns out to be a more beneficial quality than anything else, and you can't fake that sort of thing easily.
I didn't warm up to this idea of letting other people ‘in' in the game by choice. It was that little girl, that damn little girl who ‘ruined' everything with her innocence. I have to give Telltale props, they wrote her character really well. Taking care of Clementine made it so that she tugged at my heartstrings with ease, even if I didn't want that to happen.
She gazes as her shoes when she speaks, and I can see her Ash Ketchum-like hat waver back and forth as she asks me about her parents. Deep down, I think, there's no way they're coming back. I figure the world out there is much uglier than this truth, so I lay it on her—not too monstrously, I hope.
Tact is important with kids.
I know this because I had a Clementine of my own to take care of growing up. Someone whose morality and character were a Tabula Rasa I was responsible for. My sister was born when I was eight, and she was only about a month old before it fell on me to take care of her while my mother worked evenings and nights at a bar as a waitress.
She's a teenager now, in that place where it's impossible to have a conversation with her because ‘nobody gets it' and we all ‘just hate her'—she doesn't remember or recall the childhood I personally gave up to make sure she was safe and had everything she needed.
"So, what do you want to be when you grow up?"
"I don't know. What does it matter? Do I even have a future? Why should I finish high school. Nobody out there can get a job and I'm not smart enough to go to college anyways. Fuck it."
She says this to me with a conviction that seems overly rehearsed, as if this is all something she's trying to convince both of us of. As if she's trying to play the part of world-weary know-it-all who can't be touched by the disappointments of life. She already anticipates it, after all—so if and when it happens, it can't touch her anymore. She's safe.
And me, the only thing I can think of is, jesus, this is my fault. For all the times that I told her "that's just the way things are" when her parents fought, or to explain why we were so poor, or for her to see me lash out at things when I didn't know how to cope with responsibilities I shouldn't have had at that age or....no, cripes, this is my fault. She doesn't deserve to feel that way, but I raised her, and she turned out like me. Jaded.
I think about this as I try to take care of Clementine. I think of all the things I can't shield her from, regardless of how hard I try. She likes soccer, like I do. She spends her time coloring. Kid stuff, you know? Stuff that she'd indulge in if she had a normal life, stuff that she would still do if I could create this perfect little bubble where she didn't have to see what the world has become.
To me, she is a reminder of something—someone—that I've forgotten how to be. She's watched me kill other men in the name of survival, but even so, it's clear that there's still this sliver of untarnished humanity that I'd like to keep intact if I can. I'm not sure if I can do it, but I've resolved to put my life on the line in the game to try—regardless of how much of a damper on my survivability it puts. I figure, if the world is ever going to change back, it's not going to need people like me. It's going to need people like her.
Maybe this realization has come too late.
My girl, she asked me if things were going to get better.
Me, the cynic, the one who wished she wasn't my responsibility then, I say no.
I wish I could take it back.