Friday, 13 March 2015

Review: The Walking Dead Game: Season Two

Written between 2nd and 13th March 2015. Contains spoilers for both seasons. Like seriously, play the game before reading anything past the second paragraph.

http://www.themarysue.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/clementine1.jpg#geekosystem
Clementine takes centre-stage this season.
Image from themarysue.com
If there's one writing cliché I'm guilty of using on this blog, it's the idea of the "difficult second album." It's hard for a second outing of anything if it has to focus on living up to the expectations left by its predecessor. Season Two of The Walking Dead Game was following up a literally Bafta-winning story, and they had to carry on despite having killed off their relatable, popular main character and almost all of his friends. The game's second season does many things admirably, and mostly continues the legacy of its predecessor, but there are several areas where the game loses its way and suffers as a result. As last time, my focus will be mainly on the game's plot, but I will discuss my experience of the game's interactive dynamics. And how they made me scream at my desktop.
     What shines through as the problem with Season Two is poor writing decisions on a story level. In a game this dependant on its plot to get by, mistakes like that can disrupt the entire experience - and this time there's the weight of expectation on the game's shoulders. I'm going to get into more specifics later on, but for now I'll comment on something I noticed - some of my main criticisms of the game's poor writing can also apply to the first season. The difference is that Season Two rarely takes the time to develop the relationships between characters in the same way that the first season does, with characters either dead, doomed or emotionally cold. While some fans argue this is just the way of the zombie apocalypse, this robs the player of their connection to the characters.
     Two years after the events of Season One, and Clementine is still travelling with Omid and Christa. After an altercation, Omid gets shot. Sixteen months pass, and Clem is seperated from Christa in a confrontation with bandits. On her own, she gets bitten by a dog and is then encountered by a group of survivors living in a cabin. After learning to trust her, she stays with them and eventually runs with them as they flee from William Carver, the man whose group they had previously separated from. After they meet up with Kenny from Season One in a ski lodge, they are eventually all captured by Carver. With the help of survivalist Jane, they escape, but on the run their group slowly loses members. One way or another, we end up with Clementine travelling with Kenny and Jane. In a surprising amount of choice, the player can either end the season travelling with Kenny, with Jane, or making it on her own.
http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20131202031009/walkingdead/images/d/df/WDG_S2_Omid.png
Hey Clementine, I know we're two years into a zombie
apocalypse, but I'm going to leave you alone in a dark restroom
to do something with my pregnant girlfriend that I don't want
you to be in the same room for.
Image from Wikia
     Choosing to have Clementine as the player character has its ups and downs. As one of the most popular characters from the first season, it's fun to see how Clementine has changed since she was younger, and especially interesting to develop her more directly as a character using either the same philosophy that the player used in Season One, or down a completely different path. My Lee was a diplomat who knew when to be pragmatic and when to keep people on his side. My Clementine, for reasons which will become apparent, is a girl who calls everyone around her out on their bullshit. That becomes necessary because of the main downside to having Clementine as the PC - in order for the player to get to do anything, every single adult character around her is either embarassingly incompetent or just hilariously obnoxious. You do find yourself wondering why the twelve-year-old girl ends up being this group's rational head.
     Because, no matter what you choose, Clementine will be the smart one here. The Cabin survivors that the season kinda focuses around don't make a very good impression - upon finding that Clementine has a dog-bite, the group's resident doctor suggests leaving her out in a cold, exposed shed overnight without cleaning the wound, because a trained medical professional apparently can't tell the difference between a long, saliva-filled dog bite and the rounder, decaying-remains-filled Walker bite. The way the group and the personalities of its various members has been written, it's very difficult to believe that these people have survived this far - especially as this three year time skip places the game further into the apocalypse than any other media in the franchise. And I don't just mean the strange things they do to force Clementine into doing stuff, I mean the headcount on these guys - Walkers are slow and easy to kill individually, only threateningly dangerous in hordes, but the game (in both seasons) makes false tension out of a few shuffling dudes who you could literally walk away from.
     One thing that could explain how the group survived is Pete, the guy who you can choose to try and save as the end-of-episode cliffhanger to the season's premier. The fact that Pete dies either way is a small sample of this thing recurring across the season - there are about five or six characters where you can choose to save them or not, and whatever happens they die anyway. Again, same thing happened in Season One, but this time the inevitability of those characters' deaths isn't worked into the story, and they just sorta leave. This is bad enough with Pete, Sarita, Alvin and Luke, but it's especially painful with Nick and Sarah. (More on them later.) This also reflects one of the greater overall problems - your decisions may affect which scenes you see, but everything more or less happens the same until those last few scenes deciding between Kenny and Jane. And, given the game's track record, I can't help but see Clementine ending up on her own next season anyway, seeing as there's really no way that Telltale would make two or three seperate games all at once just to follow these plot threads.
http://i.ytimg.com/vi/rrJZZnHKLsY/maxresdefault.jpg
Seriously, anyone who doesn't choose [HUG KENNY] here
has a heart of stone...
      Talking of predicting next season... of course Kenny is back. In a fantastic application of "we never saw the body", Kenny appears in Episode Two, freshly bearded and filled with enough PTSD to shake a stick at. By this point the player has been used and abused by the Cabin Survivors enough to want to welcome Kenny with open arms as the last vestige of familiarity, and I found it quite laughable that the rest of the episode kept trying to set up a rivalry between Kenny and Clem's closest ally in the Cabin Survivors, Luke. Of course it really depends on whether you liked Kenny in the first season (which I know a lot of people didn't given his tendency to hold a grudge on the player if they ever sided against him), but I felt like the episode was trying to use his internal grief at the loss of his original family as some sort of argument against the player siding with him. I don't blame Kenny for being messed up - the man lost his wife and son in the space of a few hours, after they'd survived together for so long. He may be angry and irrational sometimes, but he has his priorities right, and for me that's what matters.
     Compare this to Jane. Jane is more or less a carbon copy of Molly from the first season - a hardened, pragmatist survivalist who insists on isolationism ahead of compassion at all costs. Jane believes in manipulating people to break them apart and pray on their weaknessses - she leaves a baby exposed in the cold just to try and make Kenny out to be dangerous and irrational. Going with Kenny gives you the chance to live in a safe and thriving community up in Wellington, while going with Jane leaves you living with her in an abandoned hardware store filled with supplies, constantly looking after a child. For me, at least, the game's final decision was the easiest I'd ever had to make, and even taking into account my prior knowledge of events, the lengths the game has to go to to demonise Kenny in the narrative just seems really bitter and cynical. The Walking Dead is a depressing universe, but this second season never has any moments of real levity, and the result is a really harsh and unpleasant look at humanity.
     Pushing that even further is Nick and Sarah, who share an issue with Kenny and Jane. In this universe a lot of characters have mental health issues - Jane and Kenny are both changed people because of events in their past, for example. Nick and Sarah are different though - they are both designed to be hated characters, and both characters die horribly, even after you've saved them. Although neither character explicitly says as much, it's fairly clear (at least from my perception and the perception of a lot of fans on the internet) that Nick suffers from depression and that Sarah is autistic.1 The fact that these characters were designed to be hated, the fact that their deaths end up being so gruesome and are intended to be cathartic for the player - that leaves a very sour taste in my mouth. Especially given the producers' seeming delight while discussing the inevitable death of a scared 15 year-old girl in an interview at the time. (More on that here.)
http://img2.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20140312184745/walkingdead/images/8/81/AHD_Bonnie_Caught.png
I hope Bonnie was your favourite 400 Days character. Cos
you're pretty stuffed otherwise.
Image from Wikia
     Now, a quick aside. Between the two seasons there was released a sixth episode, a DLC called "400 Days", which gave us short glimpses of five brand new characters across the first 400 days of the apocalypse. At the end of that episode, we discovered a representative from a survivor group, and depending on your choices, particular characters would go with her or stay by themselves. (I got all five, btw. Just saying.) We were told this would pay off in Season Two - and it does! One of the characters, Bonnie, can star in four of the five episodes... except, she goes to the group no matter what you did in her chapter. The other four characters we were introduced to? If you got them to go along, they make five-second cameos in Episode Three and then die. Oh, and Bonnie can die in Episode Five, so she's for it come Season Three either way. In other words, another fantastic demonstration of the impotence of the player in their decisionmaking.
     I didn't get to cover everything in this article and I could go on ranting a lot more - about how Omid and Christa die because they decided to leave Clementine alone and randomly have sex in a disused public bathroom, how Carver decided to kidnap a bunch of random people for no reason, and how the game makes characters do irrational things near the end just to give us our end conflict. But the biggest problem is that which I've mentioned - the game insists on telling its own version of events instead of allowing the player to give events their own context. And the paint with which the game brushes its canvas is in particularly muddy colours, a sad and bitter worldview which makes you hate all of the other characters for their sheer inhumanity. It's really disappointing that a game like The Walking Dead ended up like this, and although I'm still sorta looking forward to Season Three (to just find out what the hell they do), I'm not as gripped by it as I once was.

Thanks.

1 I am not autistic, nor a medical professional, and thus have no real basis on which to actually say that Sarah is autistic. I am basing this entirely on the way I have seen people identify with the character as such, and the hurt they felt when she was treated the way she was. I apologise in advance if this offends any readers who do have autism and who do not feel that the character adequately represents someone with the condition.