With episode 4 of its second season, I feel as if the well is running dry on Telltale's ability to wring new meaning out of The Walking Dead franchise.
The Walking Dead Season Two, Episode 4Publisher: Telltale Games
Platforms: PC, Xbox 3360, Playstation 3
Developer: Telltale Games
Release Date: 2014-07-22
As far as quality goes, The Walking Dead by Telltale Games hasn't really changed much at all since their first episode was released back in 2012. The studio manages to maintain a high level of craftsmanship with regard to introspective drama and presenting agonizing quandaries that arise during a zombie post-apocalypse. And yet, with episode 4 of its second season, I feel as if the well is running dry on Telltale's ability to wring new meaning out of this franchise.
At the beginning of this season, I was excited, like many of The Walking Dead's fans were, to see where Telltale would take the story. Then the developers confirmed that Clementine was going to be the main character, making the promise of what they could do with this new perspective and the new territory they could cover an exciting prospect. And for a while it seemed like the game was headed into new territory in terms of plot. While a little slow at first, we were given hints of a new antagonist, Carver, and rather than just the terrible situation and the dwindling of resources and hope, Season 2 seemed to offer up an actual villain for the series, someone that could embody a vision of the new world order that would rise from the ashes of a broken world. But that's now over with and following the escape after the events of episode 3, it seems that The Walking Dead has run out of new tricks and is repeating old ones.
We have an enclosed environment being besieged by zombies and have to make a quick escape. We have sneaking around to take out the undead from behind to prove our competence right before breaking into said besieged environment. We have a couple of slower scenes that split up the group to gather specific resources to solve a problem as well as an incapacitated comrade and a climax where everything goes to hell in a hand basket, culminating in someone hanging off a ledge ready to fall to their death. And, of course, we have the practical character saying goodbye instead of sticking around for further escapades. It's surprising how much of this episode is a repeat from events of episode 4 of the previous season.
From its beginning, The Walking Dead Season 2 had to prove that the series was more than a one trick pony. The Wolf Among Us proved that the studio could tackle other subject matter and pull that material off with some deftness. Yet, it seems that when it comes to the franchise that made them, Telltale is floundering. There's only so many surprising, unexpected deaths and tragedy that can happen before it stops leaving a lasting impact. I still remember choosing Carly over Doug, Ben's final pleas of regret, and I don't think Lee's final moments will be forgotten by anyone anytime soon. Now it feels like such things simply fulfill a check list that is seen as necessary in order to show how truly hopeless everything is. It feels like a directive, like the developers can't top the impact of the individual deaths they've already presented, so they're trying to top themselves through pure body count. I get that I'm supposed to be shocked, but it all feels a little routine.
And as big an issue as this is, it still isn't my main takeaway from “Amid The Ruins.” Carver is dead and is no longer the villain of the piece, and the game finds itself lacking a major driving force behind the character's actions. As a result, the game has had to recenter its focus from a plot-based story to a thematically based one. The conversations throughout the episode, especially those with Jane, make it very clear what the main point of the entire season was all along. It's about mentorship. Last season was about bringing up a child and doing right by her. We were Clementine's teacher. Now we are playing the other side of that equation, and the game is about taking on the role of the student. Unfortunately, “Amid The Ruin” directly highlights this theme as the main conceit of the season, rather than one of a myriad of themes orbiting a plot-based conflict, serving to show how poorly the previous three episodes accomplished this goal.
Without a central focus on the relationships between Clementine and her various mentors (she's had one per episode so far, at least), we don't get see their full impact. The needs of the plot overshadowed those relationships. For instance, can you even name which characters were supposed to be Clementine's mentors in the first two episodes? The first two episodes spend so much time getting Clementine to the right location that any mentorship is sidelined as just something else that happens. The game does do better with Carver as he tries to instill his philosophy in her, but the threat of him as a physical entity is still greater than him as a corrupting influence. The effects of the three people are there, but they don't stick with us.
In this episode, we have Jane. She is by far the person most explicitly Clementine's mentor this season. She teaches Clementine practical skills interspersed with her own philosophy regarding people and how to deal with them in the post-apocalypse. The scenes without her presence have their charm, but feel lacking in creating a greater connection to the episode's central ideas and how they relate to the larger drama.
Without an overarching plot, we are expected to pay attention to what Clementine (and by extension, the player) is being taught. And not just pay attention to those teachings regarding how our interactions will effect the immediate situation, but focus on that education as an education. The episode asks us to focus on something that we will take with us and incorporate into our own worldview. And these moments are executed well, but they show up the rest of the season and how inadequate it was in getting this theme across.
Or to put it another way, in going back over my reviews of the previous episodes, I find that my readings of them turn out to be immaterial in regard to the larger whole of the season as it is revealed in this episode. Where I thought The Walking Dead Season 2 was going or what it was trying to say structurally, dramatically, and thematically turned out to be secondary to the real drive of the game. Episode 4 feels like it is going through the motions and managed to make made me think poorer of the preceding episodes.