The first season of The Walking Dead videogame was lauded for its emotional and narrative achievements. It gave us a world after the zombie apocalypse in which people had to make hard choices to survive, and those choices were delivered to us in the Telltale adventure game model: get things, use things, make dialogue decisions. The Walking Dead was a success because its world was one where the social fabric was unraveling, and it was filled with characters who were constantly trying to grasp at those trailing threads. Families die off, so family gets redefined. Loner survivalism seems to be the only way, but emotional connections happen regardless of whether they’re the best choice in painful times. When we reached the crushing climax between the protagonists Lee and Clementine, there was pain, but justified pain that didn’t feel manipulative because of how heavy it was.
Flashing forward to my review of the first episode of The Walking Dead: Season Two, most of that has dropped away. The story stops focusing on the relationship between two people and instead tries to zoom in on Clementine’s relationship with herself and what she has to do to survive. Loss is compounded on loss, and manipulation through wanton betrayal and violence seemed to be the primary way of delivering emotional content to the player. That first episode isn’t the slow burn we had been trained to expect. Instead, it was a revolving door of “good thing/bad thing” that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I finished that review hoping for something better from the next four episodes.
It didn’t get any better.
A strength of the first season of the game was the slow burn into a strong climax. The group steadily worked their way to Savannah, Georgia, and after several escalating conflicts, escaped from it as an incredibly fractured group. Each episode functioned as a stop along the road toward that goal, and it gave the game strong pacing. We always knew where we were going. Season Two tries to replicate that magic with a constant reference to Wellington, a city somewhere north, but each episode lacks the strong feeling of progression that the first season had. In The Walking Dead: Season Two it rarely feels like the characters are moving, and the dynamic flow of the first game is traded in for what feels like several two-dimensional characters walking around on a sound stage.
However, in the fourth episode of the season the plot begins to slowly chug forward, and along the way, there are plots about accidental murder, the ramifications of that murder, the price that one has to pay to be part of a group, and the toll that the brutal reality of the postapocalypse takes on the human. These stories are delivered with varying degrees of skill, but almost all of them share the weakness of The Walking Dead multimedia franchise: It is almost a guarantee that most characters will die. The game is at its best when it defers that for as long as possible by giving a character as much personality as possible before they meet their end. If we think the character is special, then we’re taken off guard when they’re taken from us. Sadly, because so many of the characters in The Walking Dead: Season Two feel so flat, this characterization strategy never seems to work. A sack of potatoes walks onstage, screams, and is taken offstage again.
While the building of the season is lackluster, the real pain comes from what the game builds to. The last episode gives us a broken group who is split along ideological lines. Kenny, a character who was thought dead from the first game, becomes more central to these last few hours than Clementine, and we see his slow dissolution from a strong person into a strange shadow. I wrote “pain” above because this could really build into something that is powerful and unique, but in a weird turn, Telltale makes a game known for its balanced portrayals of a diverse cast of characters into yet another story about a white man at the end of the world and the lengths he will go to in order to save the people he loves. While I do think that Season Two is able to be more critical of this plot than similar games like The Last of Us have been, ultimately we’re given a game where the struggles of a huge group are reduced down to very traditional apocalyptic manpain.
The first game had some of this as well, but it balanced this out with the strong connection that the player-as-Lee had with Clementine. Part of that connection was built on me, the player, knowing that I had to protect Clementine from both zombies and the other people living in this world, and that my failure would cause her death. The dramatic tension was always amping up because of that. However, Season Two puts you in Clementine’s shoes, and it becomes so much easier to see the world in a two-dimensional self-vs-group mentality. You were forced to care about at least one other person in Season One because you had no other options. Season Two encourages a retreat into Clementine to some degree, and it suffers for it.
This leads me to an unhappy conclusion about The Walking Dead as a game franchise: It might have only worked well one time. Season Two’s biggest failing is merely that it is a sophomore slump that pales in comparison to the game that came before it. Lacking the key structural (in plot and emotional) elements that made the first game work so well, it seems to wander around in a mire for hours and hours, getting nowhere and delivering very little to me. I wanted to love it, I really did, but there’s not much there to love.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com.