Confession time. I only ever played through the first two episodes of The Walking Dead‘s first season. That was all I could take. Even now, the thought of playing the rest bores me to tears. It didn’t help that my friends who actually had finished the season were all in agreement over episode three being the worst of the bunch. And so I set the series aside and wrote Telltale off forever as that one studio who tried to jumpstart the future, convinced the world that they had, and has been falling far short of their potential ever since.
One year later, The Wolf Among Us was announced, released, and acclaimed throughout the Internet as another bold step forward for cinematic gaming. But all I could do was yawn. How could anyone take serious such a stupid universe of fairy tales where Snow White gets decapitated and the Little Mermaid’s a pole dancer? It came across as fan fiction of the worst possible sort.
Soon after, Telltale announced their plans for season two of The Walking Dead. This time around, you’d get to play as Clementine, the heart of the first season, without whom the game would have never succeeded like it did. With her, Telltale had set the bar anew for the next generation of games’ potential for emotional attachment and dared us to care about someone who, in a traditional videogame, would have been perceived as either an annoyance or else reduced to a naked combination of stats and algorithms. From that perspective, it’s almost appropriate that they won so many “Game of the Year” awards.
Playing as Clementine intrigued me enough to check the game out again. Not just because it was Clementine, but because of what this change might entail. There was an opportunity here. Anytime that you see an atypical protagonist like this, it spells the possibility for something new, and the Telltale cinematic framework could actually deliver on that promise, unlike say a third person platformer, where most of these kinds of experiments are done these days.
But sad to say, it wasn’t as bold a step forward as I’d hoped. It’s a shame because this was the perfect chance for Telltale to stay at the top of their field, but now it seems that Supermassive Games will be overtaking them. What do I mean exactly? Think about the first season when you were playing as Lee. It makes sense that he’d be able to fight somewhat competently against zombies with various weapons, tools, etc., and indeed he often does. This necessitated the possibility for failure, and since he’s on the front lines, failure often means dying and restarting from the last checkpoint, which isn’t an interesting situation since most of the Telltale Tool’s action sequences are far too primitive and unexciting to warrant replay. Not to mention the weak branching.
Enter Clementine. At first glance, she’s not a fighter. There’s no way she should be tackling zombies or other villains in this game head on. So she shouldn’t be directly involved in such classic gaming scenarios, leaving the developers free to develop more interesting branches rather than the “You Died” one. And yet in this season, you’ll often find her doing just that, complete with the sometimes shocking game over cutscenes.
And for what? So that Telltale could develop their story of the little girl who outlasted them all — the timeless tale of the little girl who became a gamer.
This intermingling of the two spirits expresses itself clearly from the first episode when Clementine sits down to eat with her new group and the dialog options appear. I have to wonder at where on Earth some of these choices were coming from. And why she would ever say half those things. It’s hard not to imagine at this point the battle-hardened gamer behind the controller manipulating Clementine into a dance she’s not suited for — the independent manipulator who despises everyone and trusts nobody.
It’s not a path you have to walk down, thankfully, but it pervades the whole experience. One of the very final choices in the game involved such a dialog choice, and it was so out of the blue, so unbelievable, so out of character, and so shocking, that I chose it just to see if she’d actually do it, and boom, there she is. The cold killer.
Speaking of which, this season brings us a new villain, Carver, who casts a Nietzschean shadow over the game, as seen in his confrontation with Clementine where he argues that survival depends on the strong who can eliminate the weak whenever necessary. And he ably sees Clementine as a fellow Ubermensch after his own heart. She denies this, of course, because in an earlier quite chilling and intense scene, Carver ended up executing some of her friends. It’s not that she disagreed with him in principle, but only that she found herself opposed to him due to the vengeance burning within her. Carver senses this and tries to stir the monster lying dormant within her.
It’s funny that Carver actually ended up being the best new character of the season. He was well acted, suitably intimidating (with a great introduction in episode 2), and didn’t outstay his welcome, although maybe he did make his exit a little too quickly. His presence never really fades though due to the seeds that he sowed in everyone’s heart. But he was written a little strangely. Almost as if he was originally supposed to be a religious cult leader. He never seems to be more than a word away from quoting Scripture in justification of his brutality, as is the trend in all the modern mockeries and caricatures of Christianity. But it seems as if at the last moment, they opted to make him a humanist.
It was a good call. After all, if he was just a crazy guy, doesn’t that mean the player is safe from ever becoming him, since he doesn’t suffer from the same delusions? He’d be free to block his ears and disregard it all. But give him the same beliefs as the player, and suddenly Clementine’s transformation seems less like chance and more like an inevitability.
What was it that Lee was supposed to have taught her again? All Clementine seems to remember is that he taught her how to survive. How to shoot a gun.
So is it better than season one? Well, I actually finished it this time around, which is more than I can say for the first. The environments are more impressive, the animations have improved, and they’ve done a much better job hiding false branching paths. The engine runs everything more smoothly, making it that much easier to forget you’re playing a game. Unnatural puzzles have also been almost entirely removed, which is far better than having an abundance of stupid, simple puzzles all over the place. One thing I missed from the first season though was the highly effective jump scare events in the middle of a dialog choice. Either these were missing entirely, or I’ve somehow developed a tolerance for them such that they didn’t faze me, though I doubt that to be the case. If you’re going to hang on to the aforementioned game over scenes, why not give us a few more of those surprise QTE’s again? I quite liked them.
Its most notable shortcoming though is in its characters. None of them are all that likable, which is kind of strange given Telltale’s achievements from the first season. Maybe the intention was that no one should outshine Clementine. Certainly none do. Every NPC besides Carver is dull, although Kenny and Sarah can have their moments. This leads to a lack of a connection with most of the others, making for a far lonelier experience than before. You can’t rely on anybody. There’s no Lee, no rock, no nothing. Just yourself. I suspect this was a deliberate design decision to further emphasize Clementine’s transformation. But you lose something in the process, and everyone who’s played season one will feel that loss.
Now it’s not a terrible game. The basic interactivity makes for a moderately enjoyable drive through its narrative. But the sadistic nature of this series and its impossible, contrived scenarios make me wonder if Telltale couldn’t have chosen a better universe to license. Surely there’s better out there than this.