The first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead earned widespread critical praise, mainstream public appreciation, and a bevy of game of the year awards in 2012. Two years later, The Walking Dead Season Two has received a somewhat more muted reception.
The first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead earned widespread critical praise, mainstream public appreciation, and a bevy of game of the year awards in 2012. Come two years later, the direct follow up, The Walking Dead Season Two, has received, shall we say, a somewhat more muted reception. Between the first and second seasons, there was a change in The Walking Dead. While there are many obvious changes one could point to -- a new playable character, a greater focus on action, etc -- the particular change I thought had the most impact was the loss of that certain je ne sais quoi that sunk the first season's talons deep into our collective psyches. Every other obvious change to the series seemed to have some interesting possibilities to it, whereas the "feel" of the game was off in its second season.
There are quite a few possible explanations for this. The writing team behind the episodes changed significantly between the two seasons. There were three writers that worked on Season One, one of which wrote three of the episodes by himself. Season Two had a total of eight writers, who ended up working in pairs for over half the season. It could be that the narrative opportunities for the game shrank with by changing the protagonist into a young character that couldn't have the social influence of her older predecessor. Maybe it was the shift in structure from the more episodic, single issue storytelling of the first season to episodes more clearly geared towards advancing a single narrative arc over the course of the season. However, I like to pin the fault on something much more basic. The episodes in Season Two were an hour shorter than their counterparts in Season One.
I named The Walking Dead my Game of the Year back in 2012. I've played it since, and it holds up phenomenally well. Frankly, it was even better than I remembered as I was noticing all of the small details that contributed almost unconsciously to a better experience. I liked Season Two as well -- overall. It had its hiccups and missteps, but the game managed to deliver an engaging experience and deliver one hell of an ending, a narrative peak that managed to make much of the meandering in the middle worthwhile.
I liked both seasons, but despite looking similar and functioning similarly, I found that they felt like very different entities. When I recall the emotional feel of Season One, I recall some memorable, defining scenes with enough space between them to provide the narrative some breathing room. However, Season Two moves along at a breakneck speed confined as each episode is by less time to develop the plot. Thus, I attribute the feel of these two games directly to the amount of play time they afford the player.
While breathing room in the story might give the impression of the opportunity for contemplation and quieter, reflective moments to emerge, it also implies a thinner thematic presence. The important beats of the story are further spread out and a lot of time in between them makes it seem like the season could have left less of an impression. However, Season Two's more compact "feel" and the sense of it always moving forward means that it should be tighter and more thematically compact, often juggling several different subtexts at once. All of the relevant images of the important scenes seem to be "placed" right next to one another. The Second Season makes efficient use of time, but it leaves something to be desired regarding character building or anything not directly plot related.
Season One was allowed to let emotional moments settle in the player's psyche. The player was given the opportunity to digest what had happened and what choices had been made. The "walk around, solve a puzzle, participate in an action sequence, make a choice, then rinse and repeat" pattern was criticized during the first season's release for being predictable. While true, that criticism ignores what this structure was doing on a dramatic level. We see from the relentless pace of Season Two that the constant changes in presentation and what we as Clementine are doing does make the episodes more varied and less predictable. However, it also ends up feeling like the whole story is only one endlessly tense moment. There are no peaks and valleys, only the same tension left on slow burn throughout. Episode five of Season Two worked so much better than the previous episodes because it was longer and included slow paced moments interspersed with tense moments of action and the need to make difficult choices. We are given a moment to relax at the transformer station, the evening at the half-built lodge, and in the flashback/dream sequence to collect ourselves and reflect. A lot of the best character building happened during these moments of downtime. Those moments were shorter and far sparser in the preceding episodes.
When we recorded episodes of The Moving Pixels Podcast concerning Season Two, character development in the season was always a big complaint of ours. The new group just felt a whole lot thinner than the more fleshed out group of Season One. Larry, Lily, Katja, Kenny, and Duck were people that we spent time with and understood not just as archetypes. It was the details that were developed about them that made them more than mere sketches. Also, I was able remember all of those names from the first season off the top of my head. While Carlos, Luke, Rebecca, and Sarah (I cannot remember the names of the rest of the original group) were striking personalities that initially made their mark in the second season, they never quite became anything more. They stuck to their archetypes. It's somewhat ironic that Jane -- a character that didn't appear until episode three and who for awhile didn't seem much more than a name and a handful of badass lines -- ended up a far more fleshed out character than the others that were there since the first episode of the season.
Jane received the lion's share of character development in Season Two. When the developers seemed to have run out of plot following Carver's death, the fourth episode seemed to have meandered about, giving us a lot of quiet, introspective time with Jane. Whereas the episodes in Season One were able to do both (build plot and character) in somewhat equal measure, Season Two almost makes it an either/or proposition. You get to have your plot and drama or you can have your characters and moments of contemplation.
I do like what The Walking Dead Season Two was doing by interweaving multiple themes together in the story. It is a season that considers the future of humanity, how to govern, toxic masculinity, mentorship, redemption, etc. I also like what Telltale was able to do with developing Clementine. However, in the end, I can't help but wonder what Telltale might have been able to pull off had they been given that extra hour per episode. Ultimately, Season Two, as good as it was, is the inferior work.