2012’s The Walking Dead: Season One is a profoundly powerful game that takes us from the first edge of the zombie apocalypse to the furthest reaches of its ramifications. It’s a road tale that sketches a broad story about a man, a young girl he feels that he must protect, and the people who stumble into and fall out of their lives. Of course, in true genre form, it ends tragically, but on a high note of potential for the young girl Clementine. Sometime later The Walking Dead: Season Two appeared. More cynical and more wide-reaching, it is something like the crueler evolution of the previous game. Things that were bad get worse, and manipulations of the audience are more pronounced. I didn’t care for it much overall.
No matter what one thinks of the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, I think that one has to grant that they are their own unique experiences. While borrowing the same basic world and rules as the comic series and television show, the games possess a willingness to linger that the rest of the multimedia franchise just does not seem to ever approach. You are forced to reflect on, and live with, your choices. When watching the show or reading the comics, I tend to make statements about the conditions of the characters: “Shane is making a bad choice!” or “That character who is going to definitely die this episode is asking for it by standing near that window!” When I play the games, I often think something like “I shouldn’t have done that.”
The Walking Dead: Michonne gives up all of the unique and interesting parts of the The Walking Dead adventure games in order to appeal to the television crowd, and it makes me sad. The formula is slightly different from top to bottom, but that slight shift on every level means that our starting and ending points eventually land far from one another.
The previous two seasons of The Walking Dead were savvy in their storytelling. They gave us characters with history, and they told us that history, but they strategically removed them from that history. Lee was a convicted criminal, and Clementine was someone who had grown up in the context of constant violence and murder. However, each of those games begin with the excision of any context. The characters are free to get embroiled in whatever comes along, and through that lens we get the basic building block of contemporary writing style: a character possesses certain qualities, and those qualities bounce off the plot devices that appear in sequence.
The episodic, chapter and plot-point structure of those two seasons are sort of like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a long arc of story, but it is tied together with contingency and emotional resonance. We’re concerned with finding out what happens in Savannah (or what’s up with that damn Ark of the Covenant), but that’s not what keeps us engaged moment to moment. Instead, it’s the characters and their relationships, and seeing how those relationships are built from the ground up is important to keeping us engaged with them.
Michonne drops us into a boat filled with a few different characters. They all know one another, and they all have vague relationships that seem sort of important. We aren’t given context for how they know one another, or why we might care about them, but it’s a simple task of paying attention to get some kind of idea of what the game might want from us in these scenarios.
And you know, it’s fine that I don’t know anything about these people. Unlike, say, Kenny and Lee in the game’s first season, I have no access to opening tensions. Instead, I just know that Michonne (under my control) will have to deal with these people. It doesn’t matter very much until I have to make a decision to care about them. The first chapter has a moment where I am able to choose whether to save another sailor from being hit with a sail, and I had no idea whether Michonne would do that. Worse yet, I had no context for why it mattered to me as a player.
Normally in these situations, you can ground a choice in one of two places: the character’s history or my experience so far. When I lied about Lee’s past in the first season, I made a choice based on the history that I knew. When I chose to help or hinder allies and enemies across the next two games, it was based on my experiences with those characters.
While playing Michonne, I often felt like I should be making choices based on how I felt about this preexisting character and what I know about her. It isn’t so much about her history in the game in front of me, but in the multimedia experience in a vast ecology encompassing lots of different media. The opening seasons of The Walking Dead television show are plagued by having to show how badass Norman Reedus’ character is, and it sort of feels like Michonne ends up in a similar narrative trap here: always in control, either through rage or unsettling calm, we are meant to be looking and saying “damn, what a character!” The action sequences only drive this home, cutting into a wider aspect ratio and featuring Michonne spinning, cutting and stabbing her way through zombies in a choreographed sequence that borders on the edge of goofy compared to the almost style-less violence of the previous two games.
Michonne denies its main character any history (other than some Fury Road-style generic zombieworld guilt, and that’s so two-dimensional as to barely count). It denies the player a blank slate through which to make their own choices. Michonne is in a strange space between brand promotional piece and a true season of The Walking Dead game. However, all of that said, the compressed three-episode nature of Michonne could be to blame for that, and only time will tell if the full work coheres into something more than the slight thing we have in the first episode.
Note: This review’s original subtitle, “Sponsored Content,” was adjusted on 2/24/2016.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.