Review: The Walking Dead: Season Two

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The second season of The Walking Dead adventure game has come out to build upon the impressive first season of episodic games. Fans of the television show and comic book will enjoy this game as it features the same level of character interaction spurred by a need to survive in a world thrown to anarchy as well as the menace of the constant threat of being devoured by the roaming undead. It is not clearly stated in-game whether the events take place in either universe or are considered canon, even if there are a few nods towards the characters and events of those other stories. This game is almost an entirely separate side story. In fact, it is not beyond belief for there to be a group of fans that only follow the adventures of Clementine and really don’t care for anything involving Rick Grimes as the game is so self-contained. However, as much as it is possible to enjoy the game without picking up a comic book or turning on a television (if you play it on a computer monitor or a Vita), most of the story beats will not hit for you if you did not play the first season.  The game mechanics are as unimpressive as ever, but The Walking Dead, now done with its second full season of five episodes, more than makes up for this shortcoming with emotional and theme-based storytelling.

Between this season of Walking Dead episodes and the string of episodes for The Wolf Among Us, describing the gameplay in a Telltale game – what the player will actually, physically do in the game – at this point seems to be purely a task to be completed for the benefit of those who have not played any game made by the developer since the first season of The Walking Dead. To put things mildly: players don’t do a lot. Most of the time interaction is limited to choosing from four dialogue options as the survivors are moving along or sitting down, giving three vague impressions of what Clementine might say and then “…” where she will just look away or squint at the person talking. Sometimes this is a better option, because in tense situations people can explode if you say the wrong thing, and silence is also the default choice if a response in not picked quickly enough. Other than talking, players will be confined to very small areas with less than half a dozen items to either examine or touch. It is possible some of the time to either interact violently or softly (kick a door down or knock) but most of the time it is “click on this to make the game go.” When there is action it is always a quick time event and if the right button is not mashed or the correct directional button pressed players will be treated to a grisly scene of a child being murdered in front of them and the phrase “You Are Dead” before being prompted to restart a checkpoint. It is easy to avoid most of these situations, which is a good thing because it is horrifying to see a ten-year-old girl eaten by zombies – no matter if all of the action is digital.

(WARNING: The next few paragraphs contain minor spoilers.)

As with the first series of episodes, the significant antagonists are not the walkers (zombies), but the living people around them.  As Clementine encounters a new group of survivors she comes to learn that they are on the run from another larger group that was more of a dictatorship than an extended family like her last (Season One) group.  The initial episodes deal with this external problem and address whether or not it is better to be a safe slave or someone free to make their own decisions, but also free to starve and die. But as it would be sort of dull to play a game where you live in a compound and nothing happens, the status quo does not last.

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The later episodes focus on the tension in the group between Jane, a capable loner new to this season, and Kenny, a returning survivor from the first season who has lost his family and is prone to outbursts of rage.  On the surface the two argue about where the group should be headed, but in actuality the argument is about whether or not the group should even stay together at all.  The conversations and arguments will frequently put Clementine in the middle asking her to support one person’s position or the other.  At times it strains belief that half a dozen adults, or even these two strong personalities, could care what a pre-pubescent middle-schooler has to think, but if they have all seen her destroy eight zombies in the last thirty seconds, then maybe she gets a vote. And voting for either side is not just a simple matter of saying where there might be food, but saying something about how Clem thinks she can survive. 

Kenny will talk about family and loyalty, reminiscing about the good times he has had with Clem and his family, even after the world ended.  And then a few moments later he will fly off the handle about some seemingly trivial offense. Jane will not only clearly say that she has had to do terrible things to survive, but that she has been apart of groups of survivors before and has seen all of them fall apart, usually leading to everyone else’s death.  She will even say that there are some people who are just not built to survive in the new world and aren’t even worth trying to save.  As she puts it when she is alone with Clementine, “When you are a part of a group, the others just slow you down and get you killed.” Arguing either for the absent Kenny or for the conflicted part of herself, Clem responds, “Yeah, but when you get hurt there’s no one around to help.” How players resolve this conflict between accepting the flaws of others to maintain a community and brutal selfishness, between social consciousness and self-interest, determines what kind of person Clementine will be just as much as anything Lee did in the first season. And to be clear: the final episode has a very memorable, snow-blinded scene where this is all resolved definitively by her hand. One way or the other.

No matter what choices have been made in the game, assuming players get to an ending they will find that Clementine’s character has gone full circle. A cynic might see the first season as an extended escort mission where Lee has to constantly protect the little girl he befriends and comes to love shortly after the zombies come around. Many of the moral decisions made in the first game are done with this little girl looking at him, and by extension, looking at you, the player. It is an easy thing to kill a cannibal responsible for the murder of a member of your group, even more so if you know he isn’t real and do not have to point a physical gun, but it is a harder thing to do so while a child is watching. I found myself tempering what I was initially set out to do because of the scarring effect it might have on the child. Players that have a save from the first season will be able to see several ways in which Lee’s actions have influenced his adopted daughter. In effect, Lee’s story continues through Clementine’s and by the end she will end up having the same concerns Lee had in the first game.

In Season 2, Clementine grows up and is confronted by more choices to make.  Many of these choices will affect the story or what dialogue options are presented later, but many of the same set story beats are going to happen no matter what. This zombie horde will always attack or these people will betray some other people regardless of what buttons you press at any time.  The narrative choices are more of an extended personality test that reveal more about you than they do about the game’s world, particularly if you stick what you would do as Clementine in that situation, not what you think will get you the “good” ending.  That is not how you should play this game, and I can tell you that none of the endings are “good”; they’re all bad from several points of view.  Helping her mature in the first season and directly shaping what kind of person in the second can give you a sense of connection with the character that is rare and unique to video games.

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Unless there is some amazingly subtle and meaningful graphical upgrade that has evolved between the seasons that is completely lost on me, Season 2 of the game looks exactly the same as the first season. In this case this is not a bad thing as the game mirrors the comic book’s art style, giving the human characters the most detailed and expressive faces. The undead certainly are there and numerous, but unlike George Romero movies there is no focus on the gore and horror of walking rotting corpses. They are nasty things, but they are only shown in a way to emphasize that they are inhuman – sometimes literally – faceless threats that have caused the general state of lawlessness in the countryside and only serve as a story mechanism to justify a low population in the United States and drive the survivors onwards. Part of the reason all incarnations of The Walking Dead have been so successful is because the emphasis is on the people and how they interact, not glorifying the gore (the television show does use action and viscera more than people talking when compared to the game or comics, but it still has more character depth and interaction than most primetime dramas). The environments are all washed-out wastelands and faded buildings which also serve to highlight the people who are the real focus of the tension and action. Even without any reflections or high-poly counts, the art style perfectly complements the storytelling, and as a bonus the relatively simple graphics means the PC version should be able to run on most systems.

Telltale announced a few months ago that there are plans for there to be a third series of games for The Walking Dead, to be released “sometime in 2015.”  There are several endings to the last episode of Season 2, No Going Back (a very fitting title), and they could all very easily serve either as an ending with strings attached to be picked up later, or a legitimately final ending to Clementine’s story. I personally hope that the story continues to use the characters that have already been introduced, but Telltale will certainly have to introduce more in a hurry if the games are to follow the general structure of the comics and show where the survivors advance from a ragged band to an established settlement with larger problems than simply avoiding individual zombie attacks. Either way, if the stories and characters stay as strong as they have been for this series of ten game episodes, a new season is something I will look forward to playing. And you should too.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Great dramatic moments
+ Graphics engine complements the story
+ Believable dialogue and emotionally resonant voice acting

Cons:
– More of a cinematic Choose Your Own Adventure than a video game
– Story does not change enough to make it worth replaying

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PC, also available for iOS, Mac, PS3, Vita and Xbox 360
Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 8/27/2014
Genre: Episodic Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.