There are spoilers below. Just giving you a head’s up. If you don’t want to know what happens in the game before you play it, choose wisely.
The first season of The Walking Dead, following in the footsteps of the comic book and television series, was a deep look at what is left of humanity after the death and zombification of most humans. It followed Lee and Clementine, an unlikely pair, and their group of survivors. The five episodes of the season were less like episodes of a television show and more like episodes of strife; they came upon the videogame playing public like a storm and settled there all year, making us both sad and elated until the tragic completion of the saga. The narrative and emotional weight that The Walking Dead Season 1 dumped on us caused a collective reaction that put the game in the number one spot of many game of the year lists, and since that time we have been awaiting the further adventures of a now-alone Clementine. The Walking Dead Season 2 has arrived to sate our desire, but if the first episode speaks for the rest of the season, it cannot even approximate the capabilities of its predecessor.
Mechanically, there is nothing wrong with this second season. The game continues the legacy of the first as a further refinement of the classic adventure game formula, and the only significant difference that I can see so far is the introduction of a slightly more complex inventory system that has you carrying two or three context-specific items instead of the one or zero from the previous game. Narratively, the pacing of the game has picked up a new and different rhythm. The two hours or so that it took me to play The Walking Dead Season 2 were punctuated by action and conversational downtime that seemed to come at predictable beats, which gave the whole experience the contours of a Hollywood action film. This is not necessarily bad, as I never really “felt” the time that it took me to play the game, but I do worry that the slow narrative pace of the first game is being pushed out by a videogame version of the screenwriting “ten page rule”. However, it will take the release of more episodes before that can be verified or denied.
All of this is predictable, of course, because Telltale has proven that they are a capable studio working with capable tools time after time. Writing about the object status of this game always turns in on itself, because it is possible to intuit what is going to happen. In the zombie apocalypse, some human beings will bicker and fight with one another, leaving them open to being brutally slain by either zombies or other humans, and the tragic protagonist character will be left to make a difficult decision and pick up the pieces.
This is the true measure of The Walking Dead Season 2. The first game managed to leverage these tragedies with small, beautiful moments of humanity at its best. The most powerful scenes of that game were ones of sacrifice, of giving up something that you, the player, knew you needed to give up because it was the “right” thing to do, despite it being the “wrong” thing to do from the perspective of playing the game optimally. The fact that Telltale managed to design the game in such a way to encourage the player to act truly altruistically is an immense strength, and it changed my perspective on what is possible through narrative design. The second game somehow manages to turn this in on itself, twisting it until it is unrecognizable.
Let me spoil something for you to make a point: Thirty minutes into the game, Clementine limps from a river she was washed down unexpectedly. She stumbles along until she meets a dog. The dog’s name is Sam, and Sam is a very friendly dog. Clementine wanders around some more with her new companion until she finds a campsite, and after a few little adventure game things, she finds a can of beans and opens it. She eats a little, and Sam sits down in front of her and begs for some food. You can then choose to do a number of things—I chose to feed Sam a little of my food. The can was knocked out of Clementine’s hand. Sam is eating, eating, eating. Clem says “stop!” and grabs the can. Then Sam lunges at Clementine, clamps down on her arm, and proceeds to attempt to murder her in an event more surprising and graphic than anything else I have ever encountered in a videogame. The scene ends with Clementine kicking Sam over a log. Sam becomes impaled on some tentpoles, and Clementine has to make the choice of letting the animal whimper and suffer or cutting its throat. I chose the latter. Clementine wandered down a trail, foodless and wounded.
The scene solidifies something that was with me from the very start of the episode: The Walking Dead Season 2 wants very badly for you to take it seriously. You think Season 1 had surprise deaths? The deaths in this episode are more surprising! You think you had to make hard decisions? Get ready for harder ones! Did you like the action sequences in the first game? Get ready for lots of quick time dodging action events!
The events in this first episode are trying so hard to intimate that this season of the game is very, very mature and serious. The problem is that I already took The Walking Dead seriously, and amping up the violence and trauma of playing only works to push me away from the game, not draw me closer. I don’t need to be irrevocably wounded to enjoy and understand a videogame as an emotional experience. I don’t need to be traumatized to think of The Walking Dead as a true evolution of the kinds of stories that popular and profitable videogames can tell. I, and most players of the first game, are totally on board with the project, and to see it take such an overblown path toward so-called mature storytelling is as disappointing as it is depressing.
I want to keep the book open on this season of The Walking Dead. I want to like it, and I feel like the story beats laid in place here in the opening will pay off in significant ways later in the game. But I can’t get the bad taste out of my mouth. When the credits rolled on this first episode, I had the distinct feeling that this was somehow the younger, x-treme, nu-metal fan, teen sibling of the extremely gratifying previous game.
Like Lee and now Clementine, I have hope, and I will keep trudging on, thinking of a brighter day.
Cameron Kunzelman blogs at thiscageisworms.com and tweets at @ckunzelman.