This is Telltale’s third pass at Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series The Walking Dead. By the end of their second season, it did seem like the developers had wrung everything they had to say from the material they had to work with. Given that, the question I had going into The Walking Dead: Michonne was whether or not Telltale had any new avenues to explore.
I got my answer in the game’s opening. In contrast to the sedate conversational opening in the back of a car in the original game and the short theatrical stage play of an opening in the sequel, this one opens with an action sequence. The title character, Michonne, comes across an abandoned outdoor camp where she is set upon by a group of walkers. She then proceeds to machete her way through the horde.
All the while, the scenery transforms into a well-to-do apartment before the zombie apocalypse and back again. Two young girls are playing on the floor, and then run into the next room. Michonne’s clothes and weapon change as well between the transitions. In the present, she is wearing survivor gear and wields a machete. In the past, she’s dressed in a pressed pantsuit and carries a katana. Yet, while the scenery changes, the action remains consistent.
There aren’t any more quick time event action sequences in “In Too Deep” than in any of the other previous Walking Dead episodes. This opening scene is not indicative of a change in direction in Telltale’s formula. The opening scene is meant to inform us of where and how to look for its underlying thematic direction. This opening is all about Michonne. It tells us exactly who Michonne is. She’s not just surviving against the zombies, but seems innately skilled in thriving in this new world. She’s not the mild mannered everyman that was season one’s Lee, nor is she the exuberant innocent, represented by season two’s protagonist Clementine. Michonne is a warrior, albeit a reluctant one.
The Walking Dead has always provided a constant source of trauma for its characters. The basic premise of Telltale’s adaptations have always been about forcing the player to make tough, life and death decisions in painful circumstances. While grief and pain have been touched upon in the previous seasons, The Walking Dead: Michonne seems to be promising an intimate character study of someone suffering from survivor’s guilt, if not full on PTSD.
Those flashbacks show us Michonne’s children, bringing them once again to the forefront of her mind. She continues to fight zombies, the horde reminding her of that fateful night when something happened. Later on, further reminders will trigger Michonne’s memories again, reminding us of the pain inscribed into her very being. She wins the fight, but the pain is still too much. and the first choice of the game is offered: to be, or not to be. She puts a gun against her head — pull the trigger or not…
Telltale may be a bit overdramatic in realistically portraying the psychological issues of a woman suffering from such trauma, but that criticism doesn’t seem to hold as much weight in a genre piece set in a zombie apocalypse. The emotions are big, and the gestures of characters are big. Everything is exaggerated. It feels operatic.
In this pre-credits opening, I see the promise of something new from Telltale’s premiere franchise. Lee dealt with grief over the loss of his family in the first episode, and throughout season two, we see the effect that trauma has over Kenny. But Lee’s pain was always pushed aside in favor of Clementine and the future, and the less said about Kenny’s portrayal in season two the better. Grief and trauma always seems a side venture to The Walking Dead‘s plots, never the central focus.
Throughout the episode, I see a blank faced Michonne respond, controlling herself, repressing herself. Yet, the opening charged me to view Michonne from a particular perspective. She is closed off and is keeping much of who she is from showing. The bland reading of some lines represents that repression. And when there is a strange increase in volume for a line or the face breaks into visible emotion, the facade slips. I see the pain in the character fermenting as a background radiation of her existence.
Beyond the title character, Telltale has changed the scenery. No longer are we traveling through the back country of Georgia. Instead, this game is set on a river. We begin the story proper on a boat on that river, later we come across a beached river ferry and finally arrive at Munroe, a floating shanty town comprised of boats that have been strapped together. The drab coloring and tone of the art style remains consistent with the previous seasons, but by simply injecting the feel of a Louisiana bayou, it feels new again.
I also feel it’s worth noting that while the Telltale Walking Dead games have always been pretty good at creating interesting, multi-layered female characters, here all three of the principle characters propelling the drama forward are all women. Sam is the instigator of the story’s conflict, a duplicitous liar and thief whose getaway you interrupt. Norma in the game’s main antagonist, the hot and cold leader of Monroe who was robbed. And of course there is Michonne, who walked into the wrong room and ended up on the wrong end of a gun.
The previous seasons’ conflicts have all been driven by an underlying machismo that the female characters had to deal with. While The Walking Dead: Michonne still places the stylized harsh realities of the franchise on display, the feel of that harsh reality is presented differently. The machismo is relegated to Randall, Norma’s hyper violent brother and enforcer. But Norma holds the real power and will shut him down. Like Michonne herself, the egos on display here are one’s driven more by the character’s internal selves rather than by an external threat.
I suppose I have writers Meghan Thorton and Nicole Martinez to thank for this change in perspective. While the conflict of the plot that they’ve written is intriguing enough as any boilerplate might be, ultimately it’s Michonne herself and the survival of her internal self that really has captured my attention. The Walking Dead has always placed ethical quandaries at the heart of their stories, experienced through these games’ many choices, but they were repeating themselves. Now, I feel a new life in the series, which has added questions about the internal self to its formula.