[31 March 2014]
I feel like I can safely say that I called it. After a rather rocky initial episode, The Walking Dead Season Two‘s second episode manages to deliver—at least on a purely dramatic level—their best episode to date. Previously, the developers had been setting up the new status quo, getting the last of the pieces into place, before letting those pieces converge and allowing the game’s prior continuity to come to bear on the present.
Episode Two picks up maybe a minute or two after the first one ends. Depending on your final choice in the prior episode, you will play through one of two opening scenarios, both of which are quiet affairs, as the effects of the “morning after” begin to settle. Within a few minutes, The Walking Dead Season Two shows a side of itself that was largely absent from the previous episode. It is a deeply introspective pair of scenes dealing with Clementine’s relationship with her new group. The effect of the silence and the lack of plot-based choices in the conversation allow the scene to breath. You aren’t taking action. There is nothing to do but wait out the zombies and learn a little bit about who some of your new companions are.
A thoughtful characterization of the new characters was a sticking point in the previous episode, as Clementine was too busy being tossed from one situation into the next. Here you get to spend time with Nick or Pete as they contemplate death. Pete wonders how to accept his injury, and Nick frets over the loss of the last of his family. I was ready to give high marks to “A House Divided” based solely on that scene. And then the game continued to follow the opening scene’s lead.
Most of this episode is a series of character building conversations. An underlying tension permeates them. Clementine is a helpless figure. She is an 11-year-old girl in an incredibly hostile world, and often her only tool to aid in her survival is language. Escaping danger, saving lives, condemning others are all based on the careful application of words. The game makes sure you understand this. While her actions are often manipulated or disregarded, her words are often looked to provide support for others or are being examined by others to be unraveled.
This is no better seen than than in a scene with a character named William Carver, who represents another first for the video game version of the zombie franchise—a distinctly human villain. Previously, dangers in the series were based on the struggle for survival and internal threats to group cohesion. Any external enemies were either one offs or left so far off screen that they were more representative of the danger of the zombie apocalypse as a whole than on a specific antagonist to be eventually dealt with. Carver, voiced in quietly menacing tones by Michael Madsen actually does quite little in his first appearance, yet instantly gets across just what a threat he is.
The extended conversation between he and Clementine is a masterwork of writing. Each character knows more than the other is willing to let on and wants to know what the other knows. Yet to find out means that they will have to over extend their own position in a delicately controlled teasing out of of information. The player, as Clementine, is, of course, at a further disadvantage as Carver, as an adult man, presents a constant physical threat to the girl should the encounter turn sour.
You have to engage in concealing information and dealing with the duplicity that arises from doing so. Clementine has entrusted her safety to this new group, but as time goes on, the more she realizes (and we realize) how little we actually know about any of these people she is now accompanying. However, as a result, in later scenarios Clementine has a better grasp of the situation and how much she wishes to reveal to everyone else. There is a constant precarious dance between creating new bonds and giving up too much information that is represented though all the dialogue options in the latter part of the episode, and never before has the “he will remember that” notification seemed more dangerous.
No matter what happened or what stand Lee took in the first season, there was always the option of fighting his way out. He was an adult and had the power to do so. His social standing was also different because everyone else that he came across recognized that he was capable and tough. Both action sequences in “A House Divided” reflect the stark difference that playing as a child makes. The times that Lee struggled with a zombie became a simple battles of strength, as he tried to push a zombie off or away from himself. Clementine’s struggles during the two action sequences here continue become far more desperate affairs. Her efforts end up throwing her about as much as they do the undead. The message is clear: you are not strong, danger is everywhere, even among friends, and fighting back is not just a last option, but a losing one.
While the message was there in “All That Remains,” it wasn’t as clearly spelled out. Being confronted by situation after situation involving physical violence just doesn’t carry the same weight as a relatively low key situation of implied or potential violence. The latter winds the spring up tighter and tighter, and when the scene is over, it eases back somewhat yet remains taught. But then the situation tightens that spring a bit too far. It snaps and everything goes to hell, which is where this most recent episode seems to leave the player, at the verge of that breaking point.