[24 January 2014]
Telltale has been around for nearly a decade now and has been making adventure games for all that time. It was founded by former LucasArts employees. This isn’t their first sequel. They’ve done a number of them, but it is the first sequel to be done prior to a game that cemented what can legitimately be called the Telltale-style adventure game. The Walking Dead was a great video game, a work of nuance and master craftsmanship. They did a bridging episode as DLC, but all eyes have been on Season Two to see if Telltale’s previous effort wasn’t just a fluke. Episode 1 doesn’t really manage to do that, but it does leave the door open for future episodes to ramp back up to those heights.
Initially, this episode has the player stepping into the shoes of Clementine, the young ward of Lee Everett from the first season. Its events take place immediately following the conclusion of that season, in which Clementine joins her previous companions a man named Omid and his pregnant girlfriend Christa. Explaining the episode’s introductory scenes any further would spoil things, but suffice it to say that Clementine bounces from one scene of unfortunate events to the next with only the barest plot threads stringing them together. The episode wants to set up a new status quo, but the situation is still shackled by the ending of episode 5 of the previous season.
The game seems to lack a cohesiveness that every episode of the previous season managed to produce —even episode 3, which was nothing less than an overwriting of the established status quo. When I look at the first episode of the second season, I see a collection of scenes that work by themselves as mini-narratives, but that lack the narrative and thematic cohesion expected from Telltale. There are connections—this is Clementine’s story, and it’s about dealing with the loss and the lessons that she previously learned being put into practice, not just those taught by Lee, but by those he dealt with as well—but they seem thinner than in those of the first season.
While playing the game, it took a little while to get into the swing of things. I won’t say back into the swing of things, though, because the first season grabbed me also immediately. I was fully engrossed in that opening car ride. With Season Two, I wasn’t fully grabbed by the story. I felt like I was going through the motions, answering Christa and Omid’s questions and checking out the bathroom environment that is the first scene of the game. It wasn’t until about halfway through that I finally got the feeling that I was back to playing The Walking Dead. It’s about the time that the game settles down from pushing Clementine from one scene to the next in order to get her in position for this new status quo and she finally arrives there.
If I may speculate, assuming the rest of the season will be the high quality material that we’ve come to expect from this property and this developer, then Telltale may be doing one of two things. The new writing staff has a radically new direction to take the story in now that they don’t have the outbreak itself to use as a narrative crutch and has sacrificed some of the thematic density and narrative cohesion to get things into place as quickly as possible. Alternatively, the new writing staff could have changed the structure and are now playing the long game with the narrative.
The first season featured an overarching storyline about bringing up Clementine and even some elements from previous episodes that came back (to bite you in the ass), but the structure was firmly episodic, each episode had its own beginning, middle and end, despite the larger narrative. It seems possible that this episode, “All That Remains,” signals that Telltale is taking a page from the style of dramatic storytelling of HBO and AMC, in which the full arc is spread out over the whole season. One can think of the difference this way. Much of episodic television features a lot of the major details of a single episode’s story contained within each episode with only some details concerned with advancing the grand story/mythology of the fiction. Think X-Files, Star Trek, or The West Wing. Whereas, television with an emphasis on continuity insists that every part of the episode matter to the greater whole, with each episode only being a chapter in that greater whole. Think Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or The Wire.
Noting this change is, perhaps, the most significant thing about this episode because most of the moral decisions and tough choices aren’t interesting enough or all that compelling to talk about in and of themselves this time out. I can only think that their purpose must be to play a greater significance down the line to build, brick by brick, towards a greater conclusion.
Honestly, I’m only down on The Walking Dead Season Two thus far because of how high the first one reached. I’d be gobsmacked if most other developers had managed such a level of quality with their interactive fiction. When the game remembers that not everything has to be about rushing from one plot point to the next and settles in to focus on character and tension, The Walking Dead shines as it always has.