By Nathan Grayson on December 17th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.
It’s finally time. The Walking Dead season one had its share of ups and downs, but its tale of broken hearts and busted skulls turned eyeballs into waterfalls and put Telltale on the map. Can season two live up to the incredibly high expectations surrounding it? Could lessons learned on the first season and new “shows” like The Wolf Among Us allow it to surpass all that’s come before? Or is this promising undead upstart already out of juice? Here’s wot I think of The Walking Dead Season Two Episode One: All That Remains. Warning: big spoilers for season one ahead.
That’s how The Walking Dead season one ended for me. Maybe it was the same for you, or maybe it wasn’t. Regardless, that moment was a resounding finish to one hell of a ride. A sudden cardiac arrest after a slow-mo car wreck. Connective tissues fraying, bodies piling, and everything spiraling, spiraling, spiraling into abject madness.
The Walking Dead season one’s story was by no means perfect (some characters were severely under-developed, a few scenes sadly contrived, some tedious, borderline unnecessary puzzling), but it was a landmark in narrative-focused gaming that finally proved Telltale’s episodic formula worthwhile. Perhaps choices didn’t always shift the direction of the story as much as some players wanted, but therein lied one of the game’s strengths: seemingly inconsequential moments. Offhand remarks. Little white lies. Panicked, heat-of-the-moment comebacks. And then, inevitably:
Clementine will remember that.
Another SPOILER WARNING for this video. Again, I tried to be vague, but I do get specific in a couple necessary places.
Rarely did those reminders manifest into direct action, but they got the point across: Clementine was watching you, Lee Everett, and learning. How to think. How to be an adult. How to survive. I know that changed my in-game behavior on multiple occasions. I was in a state of constant, jaw-clenching terror that she was learning the wrong lessons or getting beaten down by all the senseless death surrounding her. I didn’t want her to become an inhuman killing machine at the ripe old age of ten, but I also didn’t want her to be another Duck – i.e. horrible. Sure, most of it was in my imagination, but that’s the definition of good fiction: it’s not real in the slightest, but for some ineffable reason you still care.
The Walking Dead season two’s driving question, then, is a natural progression. What kind of person will Clementine grow into now that Lee’s lost and gone forever? Difference is, now you’re playing as her instead of guiding her in that “Why yes I am a grown-up, no I have no earthly idea what I’m actually doing, oh god oh god oh god stay away from that zombie/Italian pizza chef who’s clearly just a zombie in a costume mustache/me” way that’s pretty much parenthood in a nutshell. The barrier has been demolished. In a sense, you’ve kind of… raised yourself. I can’t wait for Walking Dead Season Eight: Back (from the Dead) to the Future.
[SLIGHT SEASON TWO SPOILERS BEGIN HERE. WHILE THEY ARE AS NON-SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE AND DO NOT DETAIL ANY MAJOR MOMENTS, YOU MIGHT WANT TO SKIP THIS SECTION IF YOU WANT TO GO IN ENTIRELY UNSULLIED]
For me, it was kind of weird taking my first shaky steps in Clementine’s sneakers. The game begins with Clementine still visibly shaken by Lee’s passing, and I just kind of went with it. A bandit caught me by surprise while I was investigating the even-more-unsanitary-than-ever remains of a public bathroom. Instead of trying to trick her or take control of the situation, I pleaded that she not take my things. Nearly wept. Later, another group of survivors cornered (returning season one character) Christa, and I took off in terror. I was just a little girl. What was I supposed to do?
But then I realized my mistake. I wasn’t really playing as Clementine. Yeah, I was dictating her actions and putting frantic, misshapen sentences in her mouth – which she’d then spit out like moldy alphabet soup – but I wasn’t embodying her wants or needs. Somewhere in the back of my head, I was still Lee. I was trying to protect and defend Clementine – keep her safe at all costs – but I wasn’t doing what was best for her. I was treating her like a helpless child.
A pivotal moment in the plot, however, caused a switch to flip in my brain. I realized that this wasn’t who I wanted Clementine to become. She might have been a child during season one, but she was never a coward. That’s what made her such an endearing character in the first place. It was time to take off the kid gloves. (Not the purple flower backpack, though. Never the purple flower backpack.)
After that point, my approach changed entirely. I became much more assertive. I stopped running and hiding. I fought for what I needed, despite my diminutive stature. I explained to certain people how they underestimated me and let me down, and I made them feel awful about it. You could see the regret all over their guilt-sick faces. The game presented me with options that allowed me to manipulate – to call attention to the fact that I was a little girl or use sensitive information to turn people against each other – but I opted to avoid those. Maybe they would’ve been smarter choices, but that’s not who I raised, er, me to be.
In retrospect, I realize that this episode was intentionally structured – rather cleverly in most places, but a bit too overtly in some – to create that arc. The early goings whittle your confidence into a pale dust, but later scenes make you feel as though you’ve gone ten rounds with an undead Muhammad Ali and come out on top (which, incidentally, will be the plot of Walking Dead Season Nine). It’s a brilliant structure for putting players in the headspace of a new, very different main character and easily the game’s greatest triumph.
Unfortunately, while my gradual growth into Clementine’s shoes and a couple specific moments along the way were extremely powerful/cringe-worthy (in a good way), others fell flat. This isn’t necessarily because they were rotten or hackneyed, but rather because Walking Dead S2 episode one moves at a very un-zombie-like clip. The game essentially has four acts, and they cover miles of literal and figurative ground. A couple familiar faces show up, but the majority of the rather sizable cast is entirely new, and introductions range from intriguing to inconsequential.
While many of these characters are meant to be more fully fleshed out in future episodes – you know, before we inevitably get an eyeful of their fleshy insides while weeping into a tub of popcorn – one in particular gets only a couple utterances of, “Hey, you should cut this guy some slack because reasons,” before a major choice hinges on your opinion of him. I understood what Telltale was going for in this moment, but it still felt really haphazard. Other characters had dominated the final act’s already brief spotlight, but then this whiplash-inducing left turn led into a somewhat unsatisfying cliffhanger conclusion. Bleh.
Walking Dead S2 episode one is, in that sense, a bit uneven. There are some incredibly high highs (oh god, the mid-game bit where [SPOILER] and the part where Clementine performs [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER]), but the story’s a marathon and the episode treats it like a headlong sprint the whole way through. This leaves precious little time for character development and smaller, less bombastic moments – one of Walking Dead’s under-appreciated strong suits.
But then, this is a season starter, and I get that. You don’t get to know someone deeply and personally when you’re shaking their hand for the first time. However, this episode also feels like it’s trying to match later episodes of season one for raised stakes and breathless intensity. Instead of taking the subtle route into various character dynamics, this episode prefers to hit fast and hard. What little character development there is often occurs through telling, not showing, largely because the game’s too busy with a torrid pace for anything else.
The long and short of it? I didn’t really come away caring for anyone aside from Clementine. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want a re-skinned rehash of the Lee/Clem dynamic from season one, but some sort of promising character interaction would’ve been nice. So far, the heart of season two is Clementine, and Clementine alone. I did encounter a couple characters that showed big potential, but that was based more on their on-paper characteristics (“So-and-so is an X who must also deal with Y”) than it was the evocative nature of scenes involving them.
As a result, I can’t help but worry about what’s going to follow the finish line that episode one huffed and puffed and nearly collapsed across. A few characters and, really, a big chunk of the main plot seem like they’re following well-worn tracks by genre standards. But then again, maybe Telltale’s only setting up some apparent cliches so it can subvert them, knock them out of the park like a baseball bat cleaving an undead head right from its shoulders. At this point, it’s impossible to say.
Even then, however, this episode really pulls out all the stops when it comes to intensity. Clementine endures a gauntlet of maybe the nastiest, gnarliest stuff that’s happened to her yet. Where do we go from here? How can upcoming episodes top that without becoming preposterous or downright disgusting? Again, there’s no clear answer.
[OK, THAT'S THE STORY SECTION. IT'S ALL CLEAR FROM HERE ON OUT.]
So that’s my as-spoiler-free-as-possible assessment of the plot. The parts where you, er, do other stuff come few and far between, though one item hunt is pretty involved. It takes the form of a stealth section, but there’s little danger of actually getting caught. Don’t be too worried about frustration, in other words. As per usual, there’s very little challenge in this episode, with QTEs offering multiple outcomes and puzzles serving more as story vehicles than malicious mind-benders. There’s actually some brilliant subtlety running through a couple “puzzles” – options rich with symbolic meaning that nearly got me all misty eyed on their own.
Really, the only moments that left me spitting bile that’d make even the most apocalypse-hardened of 12-year-olds go “Oooooo” involved minor glitches. Camera angles failing to switch, objects temporarily rendering themselves unusable in a way that prevented me from progressing. That kind of thing.
On the technical end, season two is a pretty noticeable step up from season one, though it’s still got its own set of rough edges. Animations and facial expressions are no longer lifeless in a way that gives a very different meaning to the title The Walking Dead, but they’re still wooden in places. Wolf Among Us is easier the better looking game. Also, I encountered some occasional flickering and jerkiness, and – as I noted above – a couple puzzles temporarily glitched. By and large, however, it was a smooth ride.
I’m not entirely sure where The Walking Dead season two is headed, but episode one packs a serious punch in places - especially where Clementine’s growth as an individual is concerned. There, it’s positively incredible, with those nail-biting trials and tribulations in isolation easily elevating the rest to greatness. But this episode also fails to establish its new characters particularly well and opts for rapid-fire intensity over slower, potentially more meaningful moments – leading to a sadly unfocused last act.
Maybe those elements will be back in full force next episode, but they’re noticeably absent in this one. I think the most probable explanation is that Telltale felt the weight of impossible expectation bearing down on it throughout development, and it tried to cram a few too many “quintessential” Walking Dead trademarks into the mix. Clementine! New characters! Gruesome scenes that make the simple act of pushing a key feel like torture! Like an elderly zombie who contracted serious gingivitis and also lost its lower jaw, Telltale bit off a few morsels more than it could chew.
But really, if this first episode proves anything, it’s that season two is Clementine’s story. I want Clementine to pull through and shine on her own. I really do. Clementine isn’t Lee. Now more than ever, she’s her own person with her own skills and her own priorities. She’s grown up, fast. Naturally, that demands a very different sort of story, and so far Telltale’s definitely delivered on difference. Here’s hoping, however, that it hasn’t lost sight of the smaller threads that made its previous epic yarn great. The moments that forced players to care about characters who weren’t technically extensions of themselves.
Clementine will remember this? OK, well, now I’m Clementine. Give me something worth remembering.