The genius of The Walking Dead’s Lee Everett

It’s been eight years since we first met Lee Everett. The Georgia man was on a one-way trip to prison after being convicted of murder and wreaking havoc on his life. The writers of The Walking Dead cleverly intertwined Lee’s backstory with a very big secret: Did he murder his wife’s lover?

As is so often the case, the reality was much more complicated than it first seemed. I began my journey desperate to uncover the truth about Lee’s past, but I stuck with it because of his warmth, selflessness, and courage.

When the zombie apocalypse struck, the world changed forever. The rules that governed civilized society went out the window when panicked survivors adopted an “everyone for himself” mentality. Lee was different. He defied our biased expectations based on what audiences believed they knew about his past and showed us the importance of compassion and collaboration. He also taught Clementine – a helpless young girl stranded in her own tree house – how to survive against almost impossible adversity. That relationship would lay the foundation for season one, touch the hearts of gamers around the world, and forever change the way we think about zombie games.

It’s hard to believe that Clementine has been almost completely removed from the game. The developers were initially concerned about tying the player to a character they didn’t like for hours. Fortunately, actress Melissa Hutchinson convinced her otherwise with her performance in the recording booth, establishing a father-daughter dynamic that was so seldom explored in video games at the time. In doing so, Telltale paved the way for other fatherly-driven games, including The Last of Us and God of War.

We should point out here that we are about to discuss some key plot points in the first season of The Walking Dead. It came out in 2012, but notice that spoiler Warning if you intend to play it someday. If that is you, you can buy The Walking Dead here.

The Walking Dead also challenged conventions surrounding racing. At a crucial moment for the industry, both were protagonists of the game People of Color. Telltale approached the issue of race with moderation and empathy, avoiding symbolic attempts to introduce racist issues where they don’t belong or make no sense. Instead, we got more subtle allusions to racial disharmony, undercurrents of just part of the bigotry that Lee, a black university professor, may have experienced in his previous life.

Telltale avoided symbolic attempts to introduce racial problems where they don’t belong

The Walking Dead’s creative directors discussed it at length at the Game Developers Conference in 2013. “When you make decisions about your characters, you define the context of your game. But you don’t define the thematic direction of your game, and that’s very different, ”said Sean Vanaman, lead author of the first season. “Games that show women, minorities or someone of lower socio-economic status as protagonists – basically any atypical, non-male, non-white protagonist – do not automatically have to be about these things.”

Although The Walking Dead is purportedly about hordes of shuffling zombies barking for human flesh, developers have not simply ignored Lee’s race or previous experiences with racism, but rather contextualized it. Racial politics, Vanaman explained, was vital to ensure that the context of the game stayed genuinely honest. Lee’s skin color may not define who he is as a person, but the way others have reacted to his race has undoubtedly shaped his character.

Lee, from The Walking Dead game, is reading a letter outside of a motel

The task of the authors of The Walking Dead was to recognize this lived experience and to present it in a lifelike manner. To do this, they spent a lot of time thinking about who exactly Lee was before it all went wrong. “We wrote a very detailed backstory on what happened between Lee and his wife,” Vanaman recalls. “We know what Lee was wearing to work, we thought about the specific events of his time that made the race count, we thought about what sparked him, we thought about how he responded to aggression and how far he could be driven. “

Lee’s skin color may not define who he is, but how others have reacted to his race

The entirety of these life experiences filled a source from which the rest of the development team could draw. The depth of that backstory is what makes Lee what he is. It guides its response to everything from flirtatious advances to encoded racism. Much of Lee’s story – the arguments with his brother, his marriage, and so on – will remain a complete mystery to players, even if the developers worked out those parts of his life in the early stages of development. While this process brought additional work to the writers, it undoubtedly resulted in a more nuanced and authentic character representation.

Telltale also opposed the inclusion of harmful racial stereotypes that permeate so many other black character games. Gone were the tasteless visual representations and bizarre language patterns seen in previous attempts at representation. Lee demonstrated that black men had a place in games outside of generic shooters, fighters, and sports titles.

Lee from Telltale's The Walking Dead game shows Clem how to shoot a gun

Lee’s role as Clementine’s surrogate father, protecting her from danger and teaching her to survive in a senseless, violent world, was equally important. It showed that there was more to the medium than gruff macho men who shot other gruff macho men with bullets. Male protagonists can be caring, loving, and vulnerable – they can have an emotional side.

And when it was finally time to break up with Lee, we all felt the same sense of emotional connectedness as if we were losing a dear friend. We went through hell with this person, dispatched legions of the undead, took on cannibal farmers and (worst of all) navigated the minefield that is intergroup politics. This was a man who was even willing to chop off his own arm to save someone he loved. Lee wasn’t just a one-dimensional ship to slide around a map in search of quest items. He was so much more. And that’s why we cried when we witnessed his tragic death.

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