Do not play this game. At least, not until all the episodes are out, and it is complete. If reviews are supposed to be consumer advice, that is mine.
It’s not that The Walking Dead: Michonne is bad. In fact, I find myself still enjoying it even as it feels like Telltale is running out of tricks to pull in The Walking Dead setting. I just don’t know where Telltale is taking the narrative. I don’t know what details are important to keep track of, what the ultimate goal of the plot is, nor what the main conflict is suppose to represent.
The Walking Dead: Michonne is only a three episode miniseries and episode two is a truncated second act. As such, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot that I can comfortably grab onto. There’s plenty of material here, but I don’t know which parts the game wants me to focus on and what may just be a construction of my imagination.
For instance, there was a line or two in the first episode that suggested that the town of Munroe got its supplies in a less than scrupulous way. The villainous Norma sent her violent, uncaring brother, Randall, out into the wilds to collect those supplies from people who may not have been dead at the time. This moment seems important regarding the ethos of the antagonists of the story, but it seems to, have been nothing more than an off hand comment now. The comment was intended to establish the two characters as violent and untrustworthy and implied little else.
Furthermore, the image from the opening credits of Michonne leashing two walkers turns out to not to be an iconic centerpiece of the miniseries, but only related to a short section during an escape sequence at the beginning of the episode. Michonne breaks off the bottom jaws of two walkers, leashes them up with rope, and walks them like dogs through the horde. By the scene’s ends, they are shot by forces from Munroe, and Michonne’s group flees, leaving the walkers behind. Again, it’s an image that stuck out to me, but when it came to pass in the story itself, any hint at using that image to provide further depth is left by the wayside.
However, it is clear that the subject of family is important to The Walking Dead: Michonne. After Sam’s brother’s death at the end of the previous episode, she takes Michonne to where her father and the rest of her family live. Norma tells Michonne that she will do anything for her psychotic brother Randall. Michonne herself, though, continues to flashback to memories of the trauma surrounding her missing daughters. Whatever the connective tissue ends up being, there is at least a thematic thread that connects the various groups. But, that’s just it, I don’t know how they are going to connect. Possibly, when I will look back at “Give No Shelter”, I’ll see what it was doing, but now I find myself stymied by an unfinished game.
While all of that is true of the external conflict, Michonne’s internal conflict is nowhere near as ambiguous and fully uses the Telltale formula to its advantage. In the opening of episode one, we played through a zombie attack that flashed between the present and Michonne’s past. In the middle of episode two, after another nail biting surgery scene, Michonne triggers another flashback after the adrenaline high of that fight to the panic moments of her search. The apartment is now a place that you can walk around in like any other puzzle section of Telltale’s games. In it, you’re looking for any clue to your daughters’ whereabouts. This begins calmly enough, but the more that you search, the more that panic creeps into Michonne’s and behavior. Finally, one of the tensest choices in the miniseries so far, is powerful due to its mundane quality. Do you check the hallway where a stranger just passed or grab the phone that just started ringing?
Eventually, that scene ends, and we’re back to the zombie apocalypse with Sam’s family. In my case, Michonne is standing in a different room, and in my case, holding a phone made of air next to her ear. The game is suggesting that Michonne broke with reality, behaving as if she was in the past. It’s a great development as a narrative technique, even if its portrayal stretches credulity and swings dangerously close to hokey melodrama. The scene doesn’t provide answers to the mystery, but furthers Michonne’s personal history, informing us a bit more about her character.
All told, the real success of “Give No Shelter” is the episode’s length. The total play time is about an hour long. This is one of, if not the shortest, Telltale episode that I’ve ever played, and it was far better for it. The episode lengths of the original season were about two and half hours each. That was enough time to settle into a situation, establish how the characters were feeling, and develop the ideas behind their circumstances before moving on. Season Two’s hour and half long episodes, by contrast, always felt cut short and underdeveloped. Situations never seemed to get enough time to establish themselves or for us to fully come to terms with a new status quo. The plot was kept moving forward, but much of the material felt undercooked.
With only an hour, however, a lot of the extra stuff here is cut out completely. What would still feel underdeveloped at an hour and half is further streamlined. There is a power behind each new plot development, thanks to the intensity of the episode’s momentum. I may not get the in-depth conversations or development behind the newly introduced characters, but I do get continually building tension. It seems the sweet spot for a Telltale episode is either a nice roomy two and half hours or the bullet-like slipstream of a single hour.