After finishing a play-through of Telltale’s penultimate episode in The Walking Dead Season Two, I went back over my reviews of the other three episodes to see what my reactions, reservations and predictions were for the directions of this Clementine-centric series.
Reviewing episodic games is never all that easy, because as a player you’re deliberately being kept in the dark about where the story is going. What feels like a reasonable episode in isolation can turn into an amazing one in retrospect. Likewise, what seems decent at first can easily lose significance if the narrative fizzles out (we’ve all seen TV shows where this has happened, I’m sure.)
This review will have spoilers for prior episodes in this season, but will try to steer clear of any overly specific plot details for Amid the Ruins. It’s been out a short while now, but it still seems a bit soon to be tossing out references to character deaths or other important events from episode 4.
So, looking back through my thoughts on episodes one to three, I’ve been pretty consistent in praising how Telltale has managed to make playing a twelve (I think?) year old girl in a zombie apocalypse seem perfectly natural. It would’ve been incredibly easy to make a horrible mess of Clementine’s character, but instead she’s been written with believable dialogue and an intriguing narrative arc.
The criticism that Clem’s status as protagonist means she gets a bit shoe-horned into doing almost everything is a fair one, but difficult to avoid without removing player agency. Telltale has even addressed this in a couple of in-game scenes (and the adult’s over-reliance on her small size is chastised in this episode too,) so they’re well aware of the contrivances needed to always place Clementine in the center of things.
“What type of person will Clementine turn out to be?” is still the main (and only, really) hook for the narrative. In Amid the Ruins, this progression of character manifests itself in the specific question of whether she’s better off as a capable loner or as part of a flawed group of survivors.
It’s a group of survivors that we’ve seen being continually reshuffled throughout the season, and you can expect the same to happen again in episode 4. At this point, it must be intentional on Telltale’s part. Since characters come and go so easily, it can be simple to dismiss them and not make any kind of emotional attachment. Maybe the question here is supposed to be “look, you can rarely rely on people now, so should you even bother getting attached?” and making the player question what kind of person that would turn Clementine into. Episode 4 even offers a glimpse of a possible future where that occurs in the form of Jane.
But the problem with trying to explore that kind of question in a game that relies almost entirely on dialogue and character interaction is that if the player does truly check out and stop caring, then you’ve lost them as an interested audience. I think that’s in danger of happening here.
It’s an issue compounded by what, for most players, will probably be an over-familiarity with how Telltale’s mechanics operate. Those who’ve played Season One and perhaps The Wolf Among Us will be finding it easier and easier to predict what will happen as a result of “big choice” moments. There’s a scene in episode 4 where you’re given the choice to steal something (or not,) but after so many other Telltale episodes where this has been the case, you know that whatever you choose to do will come back later to bite you. This isn’t entirely Telltale’s fault, and genre familiarity is a problem for other games too, but it’s a sign they need to start subverting their formula or adding new choice mechanics sooner rather than later.
There’s actually been some regression to the consequences of your choices. If you think back to the moment with Larry in the second episode of Season One, that decision pretty much shapes the Lee-Kenny relationship (and has obvious long-term effects with Lily too.) I’m struggling to think of major decisions I’ve made in this second season that influence and inform the relationships Clem has with the other characters to this degree. Partly because she’s with such a revolving carousel of companions this time. There are short-term references to things you’ve done, certainly, but little that seems to shape interactions to the degree the Larry choice did.
We’re not at the point where these cracks widen to completely consume an otherwise reasonable enough episode, but they’ve been consistent, nagging problems that only become more obvious as the season moves towards the finale.
Amid the Ruins has some wonderful isolated moments, like a tense stand-off in a trailer park and (I kid you not) a raccoon-chasing mini-game, as well as a pretty strong “loner vs group” theme and some terrific character exchanges. The backdrop of an American Civil War memorial, museum and gift shop serves as some ironic symbolism to an episode where Clementine’s group risks turning on one another, though in a prime example of Season Two’s unsteady nature the nuance is rather lost when the camera lingers on a statue of a man literally carrying another man with a slogan about not forsaking one another.
The zombie-slaying action sequences continue to be informed by Telltale’s experiments in The Wolf Among Us and are, at this point, about as solid as time sensitive quick-time events are going to get. I was pleased to find more moments where the player is given control to let Clem wander around, look at things and talk to people in her own time, too. It’s slim pickings in what is now almost entirely a dialogue bit, action bit, dialogue bit structure, but welcome all the same.
Towards the end of my look at episode one, I suggested that what was on offer implied that The Walking Dead could survive the departures of lead writer Sean Vanaman and co-lead developer Jake Rodkin. That’s clearly still the case, as Telltale has just announced a third season for the game. But surviving and thriving, as the game so clearly demonstrates, are two very different things. The new team are feeling their way through and managing to pull off some outstanding scenes, but there has been a dip from Season One’s incredibly high standards, especially regarding long-term narrative. Maybe Carver was dispensed with a little too swiftly.
Putting a score to these incremental pieces of the full story always feels awkward, and so far I’ve tended to use them as a reflection of how I feel about the series so far. Up to now Season Two has been trucking along at the level of “mostly good” (or a bunch of 7’s if you want to get all numerical about it,) but after this episode I’m feeling slightly less confident about how this tale is going to wrap up. Or even if it will wrap up, given the upcoming new Season.
Prior to loading up Season One’s concluding episode, I was feeling nervous excitement. Before Season Two’s finale, I think I’ll just be feeling anxious about whether it’ll provide a worthy and coherent conclusion to what has turned into a mixed season.