Posted on Monday, 3 November 2014 by Jack Darwin
Guess what I did this holiday weekend! If you guessed “sat in a dark room, eating candy and playing video games” then fuck you and your assumptions about my life.
But yes, that’s exactly what I did.
And I had the best time ever! With Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 2 newly available on PS4, I decided to finally check out this series I’ve been hearing so much about. I’d heard positive word of mouth since the game’s debut in 2012, but I had some trepidation because I wasn’t quite sure about the gameplay. Was it a video game or an interactive movie?
Well, it’s both. And it totally works. Set in the world of Robert Kirkman’s comic, The Walking Dead game runs concurrently with the events of the comic and TV series, but tells the story of a group of original characters. In Season One you play as Lee Everett, a college professor recently convicted of murder.
As your luck would have it, on your way to being transported to prison, the zombie apocalypse occurs. Good timing for you, not so great for everyone else in the world. The sheriff’s car you’re inside gets into an accident and caroms off the highway. You awaken moments later, still handcuffed, as the newly-walking dead surround your overturned car. But before you get into too much trouble to handle, you’ll receive some welcome assistance from an unlikely source: an 8-year-old girl named Clementine.
Clem was home alone when the dead started walking so you take her under your protection and the two of you set out to find her parents. From here on out, it’s up to your duo to decide how to survive: you’ll meet up with a diverse selection of other survivors, travel out to different locales, and get out of the many dangerous scenarios that present themselves in this zombie-infested world.
The gameplay is a combination of classic point-and-click adventures and modern quick time events. Presented in a highly cinematic style, you’ll explore your surroundings and engage in conversation with other characters, choosing your words carefully and influencing the direction of the story via your choices. You’ll find and collect items to solve puzzles or decide what strategy to use to cross a zombie-infested parking lot, or who to take with you on a dangerous mission. And when walkers attack, you’ll also be called upon to react quickly, lest ye become zombie chow. The combat sections are fully integrated into the rest of the game so you never know if the corner you’re walking around or ledge you’re peering over will put you face-to-face with a horde of undead or even a belligerent human with a shotgun. The tension is palpable as you’re always on the lookout for unseen dangers.
At first glance, this style of gameplay seemed like it could have been shallow, but it winds up making for an extremely engaging game, as it puts you in the driver’s seat of a cinematic story and makes you responsible for all the tough choices and actions that have to be made. It doesn’t just feel like watching an endless series of cutscenes, but lets you be the group leader in a fully cohesive interactive experience. You’re in control of every dialogue response, you organize and plan how you’ll forge ahead, you must search frantically around the room for weapons as zombies close in, and aim and strike every blow yourself in hectic real-time. In some cases your choices and how quickly you make them will determine who lives and who dies. Nearly every action has consequences further down the line, as the story shapes itself around your individual choices.
But all of that engagement would be for naught if the story weren’t good. But it is. It’s very, very good. With video games still in their tween stage as a medium, where “get revenge” and “rescue the damsel” are still valid “stories” for triple-A games, the Walking Dead proves that video games can do so much more. This is writing on par with the best TV and movies and sets a new bar for storytelling in video games. Video game plots are often spread too thin, with basic plots having to stretch across dozens of hours of gameplay using the minimal amount of dialogue and cutscenes to avoid breaking the flow of the game. But since The Walking Dead has no discrete difference between story and gameplay, and your choices during conversations are often vital to the direction of the plot, the storyline is much richer and more involved than any other video game to date. At several key points in each episode, you’ll have to make choices that have lasting consequences, because each one you make affects episodes further down the line, and can even carry over into subsequent seasons. Each episode is about 2-3 hours long and an entire season spans a course of 12-15 hours, just a bit less than a typical television season.
Season One’s story focuses on the burgeoning father-daughter relationship between Lee and Clem, exploring how far you’re willing to go to protect your family, and how morals and compassion become compromised when survival is at stake. Lee and Clem are the heart of the show here, and their relationship is appropriately rich, heartwarming, and poignant, with each growing and developing as they help each other through the worst of times.
At the same time, the story around them is dark and our protagonists aren’t immune to the harsh times they live in. As time goes on, with humanity losing its centralized government and suddenly not being on top of the food chain anymore, people break up into hunter-gather tribes that must react suspiciously and often violently towards strangers just to protect their own well-being. How can you be sure the innocent-looking guys foraging for food nearby aren’t scouting you to come back and take your shelter from you by force? Do you kill them, or let them go? Do you steal food and supplies from another group’s stash? Sure, maybe your own kids are starving, but are you condemning another person’s child to death by doing so? Will you try to protect Clementine from the harsh realities of the world, or will you sacrifice her innocence to teach her what she needs to know to survive?
Season Two takes place two years after the end of Season One. Clementine, now 11-years-old, is promoted to player protagonist, which is the ovariest and most exciting direction the series could have gone. As the heart and soul of the first game, it feels perfectly natural to continue on with Clem’s story, with Season One acting as a prologue to her character’s journey. After being separated from her Season One group, Clem finds herself alone and in unknown territory. All her growth and development from the previous season are put to the test as she ventures out into the world on her own, making new allies and enemies, and using all the tools that Lee has given her, as well as what she’s figured out on her own, to take care of herself.
She’s not the scared little girl she started off as, but neither is she an invincible ass-kicking machine. She’s smart and capable and incredibly brave but she’s still a kid. I loved playing as Clem and growing her into a capable leader, despite her age and size, and I’m happy to say that the series doesn’t start pulling its punches just because a young girl is the lead. Just like its predecessor, Season Two puts Clem through some truly horrific events and situations that left me chilled and forced me to make impossible choices to get by. The themes of parenting, loyalty, and sacrifice build from the previous season and really resonate strongly here.
Both seasons are excellent and each episode is fully fleshed out and satisfying in its own right, making time for character development, humor, fast-paced action, large set pieces, and everything you’d expect from an A+ series. You’ll build relationships, betray and be betrayed, kill and be thrust into life-threatening danger. To succeed, you’ll have to take sides and trust the right people. The merits of video games as a storytelling medium are a hot topic nowadays, and The Walking Dead proves that it can be done. That video games can be just as well-written, compelling, and heart-wrenching as any other medium.
Additionally, although it shouldn’t matter, it’s noteworthy that in an industry often mired with allegations of sexism, where Ellie from The Last of Us was nearly left off the cover of the game because it was thought that having a female protagonist would hurt sales, it’s a rare treat to see the main character in a video game be a non-sexualized female (and an ethnic minority too)!
For me, there are some games that are so emotionally impactful that I have to take a few hours or days to dwell on them afterwards. Typically this is reserved for games with an epic scope and lengthy play times, such as the Mass Effect Trilogy, but it speaks volumes that Telltale somehow manages this feat with a small, character-driven piece. While the main plot necessarily stays on course, Telltale does an amazing job of making you feel like you’re driving the events forward yourself through your own decisions. I found myself constantly questioning my choices, replaying events in my head and thinking “could I have saved that character? What if I had tried something else? Would things have worked out differently?” Being forced to make snap choices on the spot and deal with the lifelong repercussions of them made this the most engaging experience I’ve ever had with a game. Telltale masterfully manipulated my emotions and expectations. Just when I thought I recognized a trope, they’d turn it on its head.
**WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FROM SEASON 2, EPISODE 1**
After waking up shivering on a riverbank as Clem, I stumble across an abandoned campsite and discover a dog has been fending for itself since its human family died. After some initial mistrust on both sides, I wind up bonding with the dog, talking to it as we scavenge the camp together.
There’s even a cute moment where I take a break from the apocalypse to play a game of fetch with my new pal. I thought to myself “if this game is about a girl and her dog facing down the apocalypse together, that would be so cool” and I immediately thought of all the gameplay and combat advantages a small child having a canine companion would allow. So of course after the dog helped me take down a nearby walker, I happily offer to share my newfound can of beans with my hungry friend. The dog rips the can right out of my hands. I try to pick it up and he goes into a frenzy, sinking his fangs deep into my arm and dragging me to the ground like a rag doll.
I kick the dog off me with all my strength and he hits the ground hard. When I get to my feet I see that he landed badly, impaled through the hip and ribs by two tent spikes. He whimpers, helpless and in pain.
It all happened so fast.
In the blink of an eye, the hopeful world I thought was shaping up to be was torn away and I thought I was going to die. All I could do was react, without thinking. And in doing so I sentenced another creature to death. He was just trying to survive, like me.
I was left with one final choice: to leave the whimpering dog to die slowly, or put him out of his misery.
I swallowed hard and forced myself to cut the dog’s throat before moving on to stumble alone into a woods filled with walkers, now with a deep and profusely bleeding wound on my arm to contend with on top of everything else.
I mean this in the best possible way, but fuck you Telltale. That moment will stay with me forever. But these are the types of moments that permeate the story of both games. Quite frankly, these are some of the best video games ever made and you should absolutely check them out immediately.
Thankfully, I’m not telling the game industry anything it doesn’t already know. As of this date, the Walking Dead Season One has sold 33 million episodes and won a ridiculous amount of industry awards, and Season Two is on pace to break that record. A third season has already been announced and I look forward to it with rapt anticipation.
You’ve got me, Telltale. I’m hooked.
The Walking Dead: Season Two (2014)
from Telltale Games, Inc.
MSRP: $29.95 /ea.