Wot I Think: The Walking Dead Episode 3

By Adam Smith on September 21st, 2012 at 4:00 pm.

The face of a man confident about the future

Three episodes into its run and more than half way to the presumably bitter end, the first series of The Walking Dead from Telltale has touched a lot of people with its rotten old hands. Tears have been shed, shocks have been administered and the weighty grimness is becoming unbearably tragic. I’ve tried to be light on specific spoilers but I do talk about how ‘orrible it all is, and also why I have my doubts about the walk and the talk.

The Walking Dead is telling a story we’ve all heard a thousand times before: man meets girl, girl saves man’s life, man temporarily adopts girl, monsters eat people, people become monsters (in more ways than one), man protects girl, man fears for girl, man fears. Telltale’s particular telling of this story has met with approval from many and I am tentatively among them, although as is often the case when I find myself in a crowd, I can feel the spine-tingling rush of Devil’s Advocacy on the tip of my tongue.

What’s so great about all this death and despair?

That's a rather phallic shadow you have there

One of the reasons the zombie apocalypse is such a useful backdrop, and not just here, is because it allows for great dollops of melodrama and scattershot commentary on the human condition, while the extreme nature of events makes an audience more likely to forgive the broad strokes in which encounters and characters are painted. Telltale mostly avoid this as far as characterisation goes, though they don’t avoid the extremity of circumstance, and I think it’s the characters that people have responded so positively to.

I found the Grand Guignol of episode two a distraction from the relationship between Lee and Clementine, the accidental adoptive father of a young girl who is learning to live in a broken world. Episode three brings the focus back on the warmth and friction between the survivors, with some subtlety punctuating the series of extremely unfortunate and horrific events that are the through line of the narrative.

There is believable misery and terror in this third installment, and the zombies are both catalyst and accelerant to the fall of civilised society and the consequences of that collapse. The three or four hours of playtime include some of the most harrowing events I’ve ever seen in a game, but rather than the grotesque almost-absurdities of episode two, the horrors here hit closer to home: the dreadful struggle of caring for a terminally ill loved one; the hollowed out feeling that there’s nothing left to live for. It’s so often the horror of hope’s absence.

serious emotions

The characters continue to be strongly realised on the whole, and the pacing, plotting and personalities could well be Telltale’s best work to date, but the further into the series we move, the more I feel they’ve made an excellent interactive comic, a cartoon with occasional inputs. It all comes back to the opening words of each episode: “The story is tailored by how you play.” I don’t believe that’s true.

The warning sign was there during the game’s first crisis moment, when a gut-wrenchingly awful choice is actually false, with only one outcome possible no matter how Lee responds. At the time, I was willing to concede that it was unlikely that a choice would lead to an entirely different route and, sure enough, there are no locations or characters unique to one path or another, although some characters may endure longer lives as a result of Lee’s actions.

What I did hope for was an adjustment within the group, interpersonal modifications based upon words spoken or mistakes made. It happens, to an extent, and I don’t doubt that the final two episodes will play on memories of seemingly insignificant decisions in the early days, but episode three has a few moments where the loose threads, the straggling suggestions of freewill, are tied off and severed like a leg in a bear trap.

motelltale

On the approach to the climax, everything has been set on the same track and although the story engaged me, I couldn’t help but notice the points where my choices seemed to be choked off. Interactions past were making me watch events differently and rather than engaging me, my apparent agency up until that point served as a barrier. This must be done, I found myself thinking shortly after one shock, in order to tidy up the future. The things I have done are being erased and I can’t help but take notice of that, even if the erasure itself is quite compelling.

It’s not just who is alive or dead, friend or foe, that episode three neatly organises, the diminishing of impact and responsibility runs even to the smaller emotional beats, which have been my favourite parts of the experience. Maybe it’s an inevitable outcome of being caught up in a major bout of infectious corpsey cannibalism, but given the absolute torrents of pungent sewage that are pouring on these characters, they really aren’t going to care if you taught a little girl to say shit instead of manure, or even if you gave them crackers without cheese that one time everyone was hungry. Lee’s personality, words and choices, and by extension the player’s, are lost in the sound and fury of everything that was good being consumed.

heli=copped it

I’m enjoying the experience but I feel more like a spectator with every episode. There hasn’t been an interactive sequence to match the skull-puncturing journey across the motel carpark since episode one and I feel more and more railroaded. Maybe the whole game is an extremely clever metatext.

What does continue to impress is the game’s heart and humanity, so impressive amidst the hyperbleakness. The living dead fuel our anxieties about what the living are capable of and this kind of fiction often meanders into a misanthropic rage. That hasn’t happened in The Walking Dead yet, at least not in this iteration, and I’m very much looking forward to watching episode four. I don’t reckon it’ll be particularly tailored by how I’ve played, but I think it’ll be fairly well tailored anyhow.

As long as Lee and Clementine keep tugging at my heartstrings I’ll keep coming back. The difficulties and dilemmas of raising a child in a world with no innocence lead to some rather beautiful and fine moments.

cause of a perfectly respectable emptying of the old tear ducts

That picture says more about The Walking Dead than any number of zombies or mutilations, and whatever reservations I might have, that’s a fine thing indeed.

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43 Comments »

  1. Manac0r says:

    Wish this used cloud saves on Steam. Want to play episode 3 but save game is on another PC I don’t have access to at the moment.

    (insert witty pun/comment)

  2. Richard Cobbett says:

    As I posted on Twitter a while ago, I hope to see a Director’s Cut that goes like this:

    CLEM: “You know what, let’s just calm down and do what Lee says.”

    FIVE MINUTES LATER

    (Credits roll. Achievement Unlocked: DISCOVERED CURE, EVERYTHING IS FINE)

    My favourite part of this episode was Lee’s odd reluctance to tell people about his murder rap, despite him having killed multiple people in front of their faces, saved them from [BLEEP] and bandits on multiple occasions, and indeed helped send one [BLEEP] on an all-expenses paid trip to Salt Lick City. I was really glad when the response was essentially “Oh. Well, that’s interesting. Thanks for sharing, bud. Now, about stuff that actually matters…”

    Like Adam though, I’ve pretty much given up on the fiction that anything I do actually matters. Even if it turns out to at the end, it’s taken waaaaay too long to play a meaningful card.

  3. AmateurScience says:

    I’m struggling to develop the mental fortitude to play this episode after the first two. I look at it in my steam list, think ‘I should play ep3′ then my hand moves unbidden and I load up Rayman or something else suitably rainbows and sunshine instead.

    Grim.

  4. Stellar Duck says:

    “Lee’s personality, words and choices, and by extension the player’s, are lost in the sound and fury of everything that was good being consumed.”

    That’s certainly the case, but I think it would be even worse if Lee became the Mighty Saviour of the group.

    After all the world has gone to shit and people are not really being their most rational. I think it’s natural that no one man can fight against a calamity of that size and make a difference in all but the slightest ways.

    The same, in a sense, goes for the times when you don’t get a say in what happens. In a Greek tragedy the protagonist often/always end up with unwanted things happening despite the best intentions and it seems the game has the same mentality. But as you argue, it’s a game so it might not work well from a game play perspective. But it does work from a drama perspective. And here’s hoping Lee doesn’t end up poking his own eyes out.

  5. eroticfishcake says:

    Sounds more or less about how I feel on the games. As much as I’m really enjoying it I really feel like my choices don’t have any real significance to them. I’m really just moulding the story here and there when it comes to dialogue but ultimately there’s a very set path of who dies and lives, forcing the number of characters to stay under a limit. Granted, it’ll be incredibly hard to write a path for every possible permutations in the story but ultimately the more I think about it the more binary the choices feel for me. In any case I’m still looking forward to the future episodes.

  6. shadowy_light says:

    I seem to be the only person on the entire net of the Inter variety with this opinion, but episode 2 was my favourite so far. It was intense and pulpy and was a self contained story but also progressed the main narrative. I felt wrecked after it, and really buzzed on the game and on the prospect that games are being made that can give you this kind of emotional workout at all.

    I also loved this one, but I’d actually say it was my least favourite, in a nice a way as possible.

    • whydidyoumakemeregister says:

      Episode 2 was the best story-based gaming experience I’ve had in a long time.

  7. Xeirus says:

    I fucking love this game. No matter the faults.

  8. caddyB says:

    Oh so, the Mass Effect problem. Probably happened before ME as well, but that’s the first time I realized my choices mattered so little, usually just a few different lines and the same thing happens regardless.

    • Stellar Duck says:

      The difference: in Mass Effect you’re Space Jesus and the series tout that you can save the galaxy so it grates when you get rail roaded.

      In The Walking Dead you’re some guy and when things to get taken out of your hands there is always a line of reasoning behind it and you can understand why someone did what they did. Lee isn’t Space Jesus and sometimes shit happens.

      Sometimes Moira measures out a small lot and you can’t do anything about it. And yes, I’ll keep bringing Greek tragedy into this. :D Next up: catharsis, dramatic irony and mimesis.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Well, the ME3 ending was an atro-POS…

        • Ninja Foodstuff says:

          Controversial!

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            Mostly just a classical pun opportunity, as someone I’m about to make up mentioned a while ago. There’s a real Lach-he-says, though I think it’s a bit of a Graeae area.

        • Stellar Duck says:

          As it turned out, yes.

          But given the context of the series I don’t think that’s consistent. If we take the context of Greek drama it’s implict and understood by the audience what conventions are used by the writer. So when Sophocles writes Oedipous and it ends the way it does it’s consistent with the audience and their understanding of both the play but also their metaphysical worldview. Herodotus freely uses concepts like nemesis to explain stuff in The Histories because, from a Greek perspective that made sense. In short, inevitable endings are fine but not in every context.

          The point of a Greek tragedy is often precisely that you can’t fight the preordained fate.

          The point of Mass Effect, up to the third game seemed to be that one man indeed can make a difference. And if you’re going to subvert that, you got to do it a lot better and use the proper context. I don’t feel the Bioware writers did that. It’s the same with a deus ex machina. If you’re going to use it be sure to use it properly and make sure your audience understands that it can happen. Don’t just pull it out of thin air.

          Edit: also, apologies for the overly serious reply, but I think it’s actually an interesting discussion.

          • Richard Cobbett says:

            I should probably have done a gag about Clotho instead :-P

          • Stellar Duck says:

            I think the one you did was great!

            It just caught me in the mood for writing and I got some time on my hands so I figured I’d use it for a starting point. Nobody said a pun can’t spark some thought. :D

            Edit: just going to add the one I should have done:

            Apollogies

        • Stromko says:

          Although there is a timeless quality to many quality narratives, I hope there aren’t too many writers that feel narratives can’t evolve past the tropes set forth by the Greeks. One would hope in 2,000 years we could learn at least a little more about human nature.

          I just don’t think 50% of people are impulsive sociopaths enslaved to desire, but watch most dramatic series on TV nowadays, including the Walking Dead TV show, and you’d really start to wonder. I would say the zombie apocalypse is not a good enough excuse for everyone to become morons. There are people who fall apart in a survival situation, but there are a lot more people who become more focused and capable when survival is on the line. I doubt we’d be here as a species today any other way.

          For the most part I think Telltale are doing better than most mainstream writers today. Most of the time the characters are making the best of a dreadful situation, rather than wildly seeking death and mayhem.

          • Stellar Duck says:

            “Although there is a timeless quality to many quality narratives, I hope there aren’t too many writers that feel narratives can’t evolve past the tropes set forth by the Greeks. One would hope in 2,000 years we could learn at least a little more about human nature. ”

            I certainly agree.

            My point was just to compare two traditions and how the writers in one of them actually understood the context, tradition and discourse they were writing in and the others seem not to care all that much.

  9. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    The warning sign was there during the game’s first crisis moment, when a gut-wrenchingly awful choice is actually false, with only one outcome possible no matter how Lee responds.

    But presumably you only know this from playing through more than once. I honestly had no idea this was the case and just assumed the outcome was based on my choice.

    There have been some oddities, such as being caught lying but then the storyline proceeding as if I hadn’t, but surely the strength in the game is how it fools you into thinking that choice matters?

    • Nick says:

      Which would be fine if it didn’t flat out lie at the beginning of every episode.

  10. povu says:

    Maybe it promised a bit more than it can deliver choice wise, but it’s still a great story regardless and it’s offering more choice than the usual adventure game. Even if it’s for a large part an illusion of choice and consequences, it feels real enough.

  11. SurprisedMan says:

    I think the problems about lack of ‘real’ choice would be bigger problems if you didn’t care about the characters. Once you figure out the tricks the game employs, it’s easy to see how things don’t majorly affect the over all plot, but you care about the choices because of how differently people will react to you, often in quite subtle ways. I’ve watched enough playthroughs of this game to see that this bears out to a good extent, and so I’m okay with the game railroading the broad story strokes.

  12. Demiath says:

    A lot about Walking Dead’s supposedly tense and agonizing situations just feel forced. The “make a major decision about what to do with a party member before that other guy fixes the car” moment in Episode 3 was particularly idiotic. If we really wanted to do X to character Y, then why on Earth do we necessarily have to do it under pressure at this specific time and not later when we’ve had time to think things through?

    • Unrein says:

      Um… Because Lilly forced it. And she had a gun. And she was about to snap. Which she did.

  13. GameCat says:

    Damn, I love this game. It’s as good as TWD comic series and sometimes even better.
    Can’t wait for next episode.

    PS. I hope they didn’t kill Clem at the end of whole game for sake of controversy/making grown-up men cry. If they do – I want “commit suicide after taking bloody revange on zombies/bandits” option ;_;

    PS2. Robert Kirkman, do not ever think about putting Lee and Clem in comic, you goddamn your-fauvorite-characters-are-gonna-die-soon-in-horrible-way type of writer. ;_;

    • Nick says:

      If they do that I’m taking the “burning down Telltale’s office” path.

  14. maninahat says:

    Nevermind the zombie apocalypse, that girl’s huge head in the first image scares the life out of me.

  15. PopeJamal says:

    “the straggling suggestions of freewill, are tied off and severed like a leg in a bear trap.”

    Well played sir. Well played…

  16. Aldaron says:

    Another mistake by Telltale (besides the railroading and the lying about how are decitions would be profound and lasting) is the use of some of the comic book characters like Glenn and Lily. You know they CAN’T die and that they’ll leave soon. It takes away part of the uncearntity.

    • Vander says:

      Exactly. And can frustrate the player when he want to put a bullet in the head of one of them.

      Me, i am done with this serie of game. Seriuosly, what the point. The gameplay sections are very rare ans not very good, the “point and click” segments too easy, the choice are meaningless (the worse point).

      The story is the only good thing, but not enough to justify the price asked in my opinion. If it was a branched story with mmultiple path ans choice who matters perhaps, but as it is now….i will watch the rest on youtube.

  17. Jerakal says:

    It’s amazing to me how Choose your own adventure books can still trump videogames in the aspect of fooling me into believing that any choice I make in a game matters in any meaningful way.

  18. The13thRonin says:

    The Walking Dead! Where YOUR choices matter…

    CHOICE:

    A] Execute game file and watch interactive movie.

    B] Choose not to swallow the enormous load of bullshit that is the “YOUR choices matter” line and start up Faster then Light instead!

    With that said I do really enjoy the emotion they put into every episode and it’s not a BAD interactive movie… Just… So much wasted potential…

  19. Sardonic says:

    All I have to say about Episode 3 is: Fuck you, Lilly, fuck you so much. You deserve what you got.

    I suppose the choice after that event was a major one, but I can’t imagine many people didn’t choose the “fuck you, lilly” option.

  20. sophof says:

    To be frank, the game has horrible gameplay if you analyse it, but I don’t think any game (EVER) has got me so emotionally invested as this one. I’m not sure I care about gameplay at this point as long as they keep it easy to suspend my disbelief and keep me this invested in the story.
    This game is a glimpse into a possible future for adventure games. Not sure how we’d ever get there, since it must be amazingly hard to write such branching out stories, all interconnecting. Which is likely the reason everything kind of got tied up in this episode. I applaud the sincere approach they take at least.

  21. Wulf says:

    SPOILERS.

    To be honest, this series was killed for me by Duck and Katjaa dying. It’s just too grim. It reminds me of what I (and a good few friends) hated about RTD. It’s “Let’s kill everyone. Everyone! Everyone ever! And let’s give them all pointless deaths! Yes! That’s great writing! Let’s depress everyone. Cor, look at how hardcore I am. Everyone dies!” syndrome, which isn’t a good syndrome for a writer to have. I mean, that was one of the most disliked things I read about the new Torchwood series.

    I don’t know, but I read tales to get away from reality and meaningless death, a little heroism doesn’t hurt. And honestly, it just seems like bad writing, because anyone can do emotion-jerking trash. Even TV soaps can do that, but it takes a talented writer to evoke anything deeper. I’m just sad that they went for this everyone dies approach. It feels schlocky. It really does. It feels like schlock. It’s like they’re trying to play up to the supposed ‘bad feels’ but doing it poorly. (In a Slenderman poorly kind of way.)

    Which is a damn shame, because up until episode 3, they hadn’t really done that. Even the random guy in episode two went out with a bang. But what happened to Duck and Katjaa was just so utterly unnecessary. It really was. It just feels like they were trying to be edgy. Kill off the kids, yeah! Who next? Clementine in episode four, just for shock value?

    And that’s why I just can’t play any more of it. I was hoping for good writing, not just emotion jerking schlock.

  22. Ernesto25 says:

    Got to agree i enjoy the story but as with ME i played for the choices rather than the (and in this case very simple) gameplay. Especially with guys who picked Doug (both of us) it kind of contradicted Lee’s reactive character to not notice what was about to happen. Then the next major scene happens and im wondering why all this has happened in the mid point of the episode. It colors my perceptions of anyone newly introduced to me Lee may as well measure out their coffins now.

    Good story but a blatant lie before each episode as you are literal;ly on an plot railroad.

    Also i love how some people on telltale’s forums justify episode 3 and say the choices do matter or ” It’s the walking dead”. I guess it didn’t help i hadn’t read the comics and i would have known that Lily would live no matter how i acted to her.