With so few even semi-accurate portrayals of mental illness in games, I'm forced to give The Walking Dead: Michonne props for getting what little I know and understand about the facts right.
The Walking Dead Michonne, Episode 3Publisher: Telltale Games
Developer: Telltale Games
Release date: 2009-04-26
I know many people who won't play a Telltale game until all the episodes are out because the breaks between episodes have detrimentally affected their enjoyment of them. For them, it breaks the narrative flow and the time between episodic releases is long enough to forget the details of what is going on. I, on the other hand, like the episodic structure because I can play one episode and stew over what happened and what could happen.
Despite my personal preferences, I was correct in my assertion in my previous review: wait until The Walking Dead: Michonne is finished because it only really works as a complete entity. Yet, in thinking back on their output since that first season of The Walking Dead, Telltale Games's episodes have worked less and less as standalone pieces that connect to a larger narrative arc and more as a continuous whole that has been bisected into episodes.
The Walking Dead: Michonne excises the ability for its episodes to stand alone in order to commit to telling a more streamlined three act story. Likewise, the plot is deemphasized to the point of being a secondary concern, while the primary concern of the game is treating Michonne as a character study. I wish I knew how unimportant the plot about Monroe and Norma was going to ultimately be back in episode one.
I knew that the main focus was always going to be on Michonne and her trauma. The original opening was clear on that point. However, I was never sure about where everything else stood. For a time, I thought that Norma's story would be a parallel narrative, acting as a mirror to Michonne's own backstory. Or maybe the game would consider how Randal and Michonne are not so different. Possibly, various plots would form a thematic connection between themselves showing how loss is dealt with by different people. Both ideas can be read into the circumstances if one wishes to squint, but the purpose of the main plot is mostly functional.
"What We Deserve" opens with a scene taking place a few weeks prior to events of the game. The crew are on their boat, floating lazily under the night sky. Michonne is at the front of the boat on her own, while the others joke and laugh at the back. Oak comes over, and the two characters share some words about how Michonne doesn't have be alone or close herself off. Without the antagonism provided later by Randal and Norma, that's probably what the entirety of the game would have been, a bunch of quiet moments of Michonne staring off into the middle distance.
Norma and Randal and Sam and her family are catalysts to get Michonne moving and into situations to trigger her PTSD. It's time we talk about that. In most other video games, mental illness or other such trauma become an excuse for that game to have an easy source of horror tropes. In The Walking Dead: Michonne, I'd say the reverse is true. Instead of mining a cheap excuse for having the mentally disturbed be propagators of horror, the one suffering from the disturbance is the horror victim. The triggers are jarring and violent. They sting the audio track with a sharp second of static. The camera jolts and tilts. The colors dim and desaturate as Michonne's two daughters cross the hallway and disappear into another room. The game uses techniques from horror video games as a method of describing the experience of suffering from internal trauma.
The game does not portray the mentally ill as the source of horror, but the trauma itself as a source of horror solely experienced by the sufferer. And as Michonne confronts her inner pain dressed up as her daughters in the climax, she makes a choice. In either case, she makes some peace with her trauma, but the concluding scene shows that suffering doesn't magically go away. The pain is still there. All that can be done is to manage it. With so few even semi-accurate portrayals of mental illness in games, I'm forced to give The Walking Dead: Michonne props for getting what little I know and understand about the facts right.
The strength of video games is physical action. The story being told here is internal. Thus, all the action elements of the plot are constantly sidelined as unimportant or of lesser importance. It feels like an inherent contradiction between the story and the medium chosen to tell it. As a method for delving into Michonne's psyche, the miniseries's approach is about the best that a video game can do. A book can just write the internal struggle on the page, movies have to do with metaphorical workarounds featuring juxtaposed cuts and the use of mis-en-scene. A video game, meanwhile, has to make the metaphorical and metaphysical into the literal, so that the player can act upon it.
The Walking Dead: Michonne finally breaks new ground with these moments. I felt it had been promising for its entire run, but it waits until the end of the story to accomplish this, however. During what would have been a standard Walking Dead climax of everything going wrong, we get a vision of how a video game could accomplish presenting a solely internal conflict. In doing so, we also get a nice capstone to the exploration of Michonne as a character. There is no surprise reveal, and there is no change to her character. We are brought in close to understand the depth and specific circumstances of her pain.
I can't express how important those last fifteen minutes are to the whole miniseries. The execution of that final confrontation between Michonne and her daughters is paramount to The Walking Dead: Michonne working at all. The scene could have gone very wrong and the whole three episodes would have ended up being just a meandering mess. Instead, the conclusion offers a solid emotional foundation and presents something new in Telltale's Walking Dead oeuvre.