Warning: This post contains spoilers from both seasons of The Walking Dead
The first season of The Walking Dead was phenomenal. It provided one of the strongest narratives in video game history, full of memorable characters and emotionally charged moments. All around the world players instantly latched onto the harrowing and heartwarming tale of Lee and Clementine. The bleak world and tough choices made the game stick with you days after you played an episode. The overwhelmingly positive reception put Telltale on the map, moving them from a company that made niche adventure games to one that can handle some of today’s biggest franchises. The Walking Dead was a success in so many ways, meaning an eventual sequel was a given.
Despite standing on the shoulders of its amazing first season, The Walking Dead Season 2 is not living up to that potential. I loved every aspect of Season 1, which is why I’m disappointed I can’t find Season 2 nearly as captivating. So far, three episodes have released, and like last season they’ve all received critical praise. Unlike last season, I’m not feeling the hype; the story’s not engaging, the characters are underutilized, and the format’s becoming stale. The game’s saving grace is Clementine, but even that may be a problem.
Who are you?
The Walking Dead may be about zombies on its surface, but at its core the game was all about building relationships. Lee and Clem’s relationship was always front and center, but the rest of the group also felt important. We all remember getting annoyed with Ben, or hating Larry, or loving Carly. We may not have liked everyone, but Lee had a unique relationship with every character guided by player choice.
Season 2 introduced a whole new cast of characters, and three episodes in I still can’t remember everyone’s name. It’s not that the new characters aren’t well-defined, it’s that we just don’t see them enough. The group is full of individual characters, but they’re usually presented as a singular unit. In Episode 1 they were just the group that locked you in a shed, and in Episode 3 they were the group that got caught by Carver. Episode 2 was a highlight, because it was the only one that brought the characters forward and individually introduced themselves to Clementine. It was the only episode I felt invested in their story, because they were proven to be strong individual personalities.
I have yet to mourn a character’s death in Season 2. In Season 1 I felt every loss, from Doug’s sudden loss to Lee’s emotional final moments. Telltale went the extra length to make sure we felt every blow; when many players didn’t like Duck, they had him help Lee solve a mystery to try to create a stronger bond before his untimely demise. The most recent death we had in Season 2 was Carlos, and the last thing we saw him do was hit his daughter. There’s just not enough effort put into developing characters, and their loss merely pushes the story along.
The lack of emotional depth may be due to one simple fact: you play as Clementine. Don’t get me wrong, I think she’s an amazing character; seeing the sweet little girl from Season 1 become a capable zombie slayer is cool, and playing as a child offers a unique perspective on the apocalypse. The problem is I’m playing as the character I care about most. Unless Telltale pulls off a huge surprise, she’ll no doubt be safe at least until the final moments of the last episode, which ruins any tension when she’s in danger. Lee was an interesting character, but you cared more about Clementine and fought to protect her. In The Wolf Among Us, Bigby is awesome but you care more about solving the mystery. The most compelling part of The Walking Dead Season 2 is being Clem, and playing the character that is the center of attention makes everything around her dull in comparison.
A rushed apocalypse
The problem of being Clementine is put further in jeopardy because of the way Telltale has crafted the story. Their unique take on dialogue and choices were a huge hit in the first season, but they’ve come to rely on it too heavily in Season 2. The game is almost entirely pressing buttons attached to dialogue, with some quick-time events thrown in for good measure. As a result the story moves at a brisk pace, much faster than last season, moving quickly from scene to scene with no time to breath. Episodes have become too short for their own good; Clementine went from captured to free in no time flat, leaving behind the corpse of an amazing villain who deserved more screen time.
The constant rush has been muddling the story, making some scenes feel very awkward. Clem befriends a dog, and it suddenly attacks her when it wants food. Clem becomes friends with the group almost instantly, despite them locking her in a shed with an open wound. She’s proven herself to be more capable and grounded than the adults around her, yet she still sticks around and is forced to deal with the problems they’ve brought on themselves. The biggest story misstep of all was the return of Kenny, as Telltale committed the worst storytelling crime by bringing back a character who died off-screen. His presence feels largely unnecessary, yet all he does is hog the spotlight. You can’t even sit with your new friends at dinner without him barging in the scene. These moments take me out of the game, wondering why any of it makes sense.
I’d also like to point out something that’s bugged me since Season 1: the “Next time on…” montage are unnecessary. A well-planned cliffhanger is more than enough to make me excited for the next episode. I don’t need to see glimpses of the turmoil that will soon follow. I remember the days when Sam and Max would find their own dead bodies, and all players got was a “to be continued” screen. Now, when an episode ends with Clementine being captured by Carver, we’re immediately shown scenes of her in Carver’s camp. Knowing what happens next ruins the tension of the final moments, and ruins the surprise of the next episode.
A Telltale adventure
The major gameplay feature Season 2 is lacking is hub areas, ones like the motel and the train from Season 1. You would solve some simple puzzles in those areas and spend some extra time there chatting with characters, which slowed the game down and let you take in the world. Season 2 could do this so much better, especially because you really feel just how small Clem is when you control her directly. Episode 3 was the worst offender, taking Clem to Carver’s giant shelter and never letting players see any of it. Instead of spending time looking around and talking to the shelter’s inhabitants, we were guided via cutscene to areas we couldn’t interact with. The Wolf Among Us is also dialogue-heavy, but it spends a little more time showing off the world. I love the moments you can search crime scenes because you can see Fabletown at a closer, more personal level. The Walking Dead could be doing a lot better at letting you poke, prod, and examine the harsh world around you.
What I find most odd is that Telltale currently has the pieces in place to bring a great point-and-click to consoles. They’ve created a clever cursor that can map actions to up to four buttons, and they have an out-of-the way inventory bar that you can navigate with the directional pad. These are gameplay systems I’d like to see more of in the future, even if we don’t see a return of traditional puzzles. With games based on Borderlands and Game of Thrones coming soon, it’d be great to spend time looking around their rich worlds at a pace not determined by conversation.
The road ahead
Telltale is in a unique position making episodic games, as every episode they make in a series can improve on the ones that came before. They’ve been doing okay so far, but they need to be better. With two episodes to go, the entire season can still be turned around for a fantastic final run. Develop the other characters more, take a little more time to tell the story, create a better sense of the world around you. Telltale has been doing great with its branching-dialogue narratives, but it needs to keep them balanced or they will become stale quick. As it stands I’m not very excited for the rest of The Walking Dead, but I do plan on finishing the season. Not for me, but for Clementine.