Telltale's Abuse of Nostalgia

The first episode of the second season of The Walking Dead felt like a statement that this season wasn’t beholden to the past. Episode 2 turns this season into one too afraid of change to properly move on.

This post contains spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 2.

True Detective recently ended its first season. One of the most interesting things about the show wasn’t the show itself, but audience reaction to it. True Detective dabbled in some dark philosophy, making allusions to The King in Yellow, a series of weird fiction short stories that can be considered a precursor to H.P. Lovecraft. Because of these allusions, some fans thought the show would go supernatural. Others thought that the Yellow King would be one of the main characters in a “shocking twist.” Fans are wont to speculate, and the show's creator Nic Pizzolatto commented on the speculation in an interview, saying, "I just thought that such a revelation would be terrible, obvious writing. For me, the worst writing generally just “flips” things: this person’s really a traitor; it was all a dream; etc. Nothing is so ruinous as a forced 'twist,' I think."

Which brings me to Telltale’s The Walking Dead and more specifically the most recent episode, A House Divided. This second episode of the second season has been described as one of the best episodes that Telltale has ever made, and I could not disagree more. In fact, "A House Divided" has made me lose a little bit of faith in Telltale as storytellers, and it’s all because of a single, ruinous “twist.”

Kenny is alive. That’s the big revelation that occurs halfway through the episode. Clementine and her new group make their way to a ski lodge, which just so happens to be the current camp of Kenny and his new group. This non-death is problematic because it’s unearned on its own, but then it sets off a chain reaction of unearned sentimentality.

Some context: Kenny was the most important supporting character in the first season of The Walking Dead (personally I think of Clementine as a co-lead, but if you count her as supporting than Kenny would be bumped to second place). He goes through the quintessential Walking Dead character arc; he has a good heart but is willing to commit extreme violence to protect his family, yet he still loses his entire family, then finds a way to carry on without them, and finally dies (“dies”) in a random accident that could have happened to anyone.

What makes The Walking Dead great is that it puts a variety of characters through a similar arc, allowing the writers to examine themes of sacrifice, loss, hope, etc. from a variety of perspectives. We all grieve differently, and The Walking Dead focuses on those differences while also emphasizing our similarities in grief. That’s the core of what makes it an effective and endless story of conflict and camaraderie (this goes for the show and comic as well).

In short, Kenny had his moment. He had his arc. I watched him suffer, I watched him grieve, I watched him struggle in his unique tragic/heroic way, so there’s nothing left for him to do. No future scene with him can match the pathos of “the attic zombie” from Season 1. Any further character development for Kenny will just be retreading old ground. The game has already started repeating itself. Kenny has started a relationship with a woman named Sarita, a clear stand-in for his dead wife, and he accidentally called Clementine “Duck,” his son’s nickname. Kenny is set up to repeat his tragic cycle with no new twist. (Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind if the future episodes do something spectacular and interesting with his character, in which case I’ll definitely write a Moving Pixels mea culpa, but I’m not holding my breath)

Moving on from thematics to the practicality of the plot, his survival cheapens the stakes of the world. His death was presented in a way that made it abundantly clear he was dead, even if we didn’t see him die. He fell from a multi-story building into a sealed off alleyway filled to the brim with zombies, and he didn’t have a weapon. You could choose to believe he was alive, but the situation was presented and executed in such a way as to suggest that this was just wishful thinking. That was a particularly great moment because by all rational logic Kenny was dead, but humans are not always rational, and the game allowed us a moment of emotional irrationality in order to make a horrible loss more bearable.

Now, in retrospect, it just feels like a trick, a poorly executed twist. There’s a danger in twists because they can turn the relationship between audience and author into an antagonistic one. We become skeptical of the story we’re consuming, questioning the veracity of everything we see. That’s an appropriate response to some stories (i.e. The Wolf Among Us), but The Walking Dead is not a mystery to be figured out. It’s a twisted morality play that purposefully avoids easy answers. As a result, the twist just harms our overall suspension of disbelief in this world, which is enough of a problem in gaming already.

The conflict of loyalty that Kenny brings is also unearned. The previous episode of Season 2 did a fantastic job of making me feel like Clementine, as if we shared the same thought processes with the character as we played her. But in this episode, because of Kenny, the same can’t be said. At one point we have to choose who to sit with at dinner, Luke or Kenny. It’s a choice meant to test my loyalty to either group, but this moment of inner conflict assumes you had a close relationship with Kenny in in the dist season, and you did. Except “you” weren’t Clementine, you were Lee. Kenny and Clem didn’t have a particularly close relationship in the last season. They were a pair as much as anyone else. It was Lee and Kenny who had the tight, bonded friendship forged in blood and death. To ask the player to make this choice forces us to merge the memories and relationship of two distinct characters, Lee and Clementine. It uses our nostalgia to make a choice personally difficult, but it’s not a nostalgia that Clem should feel.

Given how fast the first episode ditched Christa and Omid created a sense that the writers were confident in beginning anew in this new season, a statement that this season wasn’t beholden to the past. Kenny’s appearance feels like a reversal of that belief. It’s a season too afraid of change to let go of a major character.

I may be overstating the significance of Kenny’s non-death, but the “dead-not-dead” twist is a personal pet peeve. "A House Divided" is a solid episode overall, filled with other better earned moment of drama, but it’s nowhere near the best that Telltale has done. It’s actually a significant step backwards.

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