Wot I Think: The Walking Dead Season Two Ep 1

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 RemainsWarning: big spoilers for season one ahead.

Bang.

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.

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41 Comments »

  1. Didden says:

    So, it’s fair to say the character development is dragging its feet a bit?

  2. Will Tomas says:

    Interesting review, thanks.

    I do wonder what effect Sean Vanaman (lead writer on Season 1, directly wrote episodes 1,3,5) and Jake Rodkin (co-lead developer) leaving after Season 1 has had on the narrative. For those who don’t know (or listen to the Idle Thumbs podcast), they both left Telltale to set up their own indie studio after Season 1 wrapped, and while the writing in Season 1 was rarely spectacular, it was solid throughout, and the Lee/Clementine dynamic was the key to it. I’m sure Telltale has other good writers, but the main creative people behind Season 1 aren’t there this time around…

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      I did not know this. Sean really seemed to become Telltale’s leading press guy, and all round hero. So it is a shame to hear he’s left, because despite the flawed mechanics and glitches, the story in S1 was sublime.

      Wolf Among Us gives me hope – what they’ve done with that concept is awesome, and I enjoyed it immensely.

      Here’s to hoping Telltale can keep that level of quality in its bazillion projects.

    • Mokinokaro says:

      To be fair, the first episode of TWD season 1 was also the weakest since it was mostly about introducing characters.

      There is far more agency in the start of season two than the start of the first season. My only complaint has to do with the fairly sudden, cliffhanger ending.

    • Kadayi says:

      They didn’t leave straight after season 1. They left in September. If you check the episodes credits under options you’ll see that they’re both listed as being involved.

  3. mukuste says:

    Hm. Maybe I should try one of those Walking Dead games I’ve been hearing about.

  4. Vandelay says:

    Does Season 2 use your choices from season 1 in any way? I played the first one (plus the bonus episode,) on my iPad and the iOS version of Season 2 is yet to have a release date (or it didn’t when I last looked.)

    I’ll probably wait for the lot to come out before getting it, but if all episodes are delayed on iOS, I could be waiting some time.

    • AngelTear says:

      The Steam Store page clearly says S1 choices affect S2 (“Decisions you made in Season One and in 400 Days will affect your story in Season Two “); however I’m skeptical of how much impact they’ll effectively have, it’ll probably just be a couple different expression or lines of dialogue and not much more.

      (if they did have a strong influence on the story, S2 would need an initial menu system to quickly let you go through some fundamental choices of S1, much like Mass Effect 2 or Hate Plus, and Nathan didn’t mention any of it)

  5. Jockie says:

    I got spoiled quite badly for S1 Episode 5, just after I finished episode 4 and didn’t get around to playing it. As I understand it, it’s rather horrible and a bit wrenching. So basically I need to wade through the grim and painful conclusion if I want to try Season 2, which will probably also be pretty grim.

    But I really want to see what kind of person Clementine turns into, because she’s probably gaming’s best written child character by some distance.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      I got an inkling about episode 5 before I played it, but the emotional payload was still effective at breaking that dam behind by eyeballs.

      And if you’ve made that investment to play to episode 4, I cannot recommend the final one highly enough.

  6. horsemedic says:

    Am I the only one who find these games terribly overrated? Other people clearly enjoy them, and more power to them, but I bought the entire first season based on glowing rps reviews and have in three months finally forced myself to slog through the second episode.

    The characterization is miles getter than most games but far worse than any movie or show I’d watch. It’s a cast of southern stereotypes, about half of whom irritate me as much as they interest me. They also suffer from the same syndrome that affects all Walking Dead characters: they are far too stupid to survive any length of time in a zombie apocalypse. To SPOIL SPOIL SPOIL season two: I watched the main character escape zombies and infinite crossbow shooting bandits by running through the gate to an electric fence, which he left wide open behind him. Becoming suspicious of the friendly farm family who lived inside the electrified fence, Lee distracted the family by SABOTAGING THE FENCE KEEPING THE ZOMBIES AND BANDITS OUT so he could snoop around their barn, endangering his entire group. After discovering a secret blood covered torture chamber in the barn, Lee failed to warn anyone in his group about it and left them to to eat dinner with the family while he wandered around the house looking for clues more alarming than a blood covered torture chamber.

    As you cans see, character stupidity aside the plotting is pretty silly, which is fine for the zombie genre but, again, doesn’t stand out from the rest of the pack. Monsters, cannibals and serial killers. Meh.

    But the game’s worst problems are inherent in the design, Any sense of player agency is an illusion. The few major decisions you are allowed to make are literally telegraphed with giant arrows and make no difference to the overall plot. You can do your best to shape Lee’s personality (I tried to make him an inept leader who merely tolerated Clem) but the game will always reset him back to a bland nice guy at the next noninteractive cutscene.

    So that leaves the supposed immersion of interactive fiction–being in Lee’s shoes and walking those shoes around as the story happens to him. But interactive fiction turns out to be a terrible way to tell a story. The game is a tedious pattern: watch a well-produced cutscene, get interrupted by a quicktime event, and then lose any sense of dramatic momentum as you’re forced to walk around a static screen clicking on objects until you click the magic object that lets you advance to the next well-produced cutscene.

    I can’t overstate how terrible the puzzle clicking sequences are. Season two forced me through two separate sequences where I literally turned screws by clicking on them. Six screws and three minutes of my life gone.

    In short: it’s a ho hum story, at least through the first third of the game. But even if it were a great story, I’d rather it be told with the dramatic tools of a conventional format like a movie or comic book rather than grafted onto a tedious and mindless point and click adventure,

    • almostDead says:

      I have a reply fail.

    • Predatoro01 says:

      I can’t really agree with you in that and i don’t think they are overrated. Many people like their games so they buy it and it happens that critics like it and they recommend it. If you don’t like it and just want it to be told in a form of a “regular medium” that’s absolutely fine there are loads of stuff out there you can watch in TV, movies, books, etc. .

      For me though i think it’s great that they get such a good rating and i can see why, because they are willing to take risks and are making games that no other company really does. And In my honest opinion that’s a great thing, that’s why i buy the walking dead seasons and the fable game, i like how it is presented and i also like how you aren’t just a silent observer but mostly feel invested in the character’s, the story and (even if just a tiny little bit) you can influence the development of them.

      And to be fair, a lot of TV shows and anything like that can’t life without character prejudices either.

      So to give a small conclusion i am happy they are doing that well because let’s face it there aren’t really that many story driven games out there and i think that these kind of games really helps people to get over the whole “video games are for kids” theme. Besides that no skimpy female characters yet! so yay i guess.

  7. almostDead says:

    I agree with you. I feel like the Emperor has no clothes on for lots of things.

    But I think this particular internet forum is bored with both sides of this well-trodden argument. People wheel out their counter-arguments and they are reasonable.

    Or they are fed up with the debate and get mean. ‘Inb4 not a gaem’.

  8. daphne says:

    I do agree that the characterization is forgettable in this episode. I also think that that’s a problem that could have been avoided had Telltale chosen to allocate more time to the episode.

    Telltale’s been ratcheting up the momentum ever since they realized they had struck gold, by the end of Season 1, Episode 2. Apparently they haven’t actually realized that they have started a new season and thus should wind down a little.

    • brassdragon says:

      Initially, the way the characters are sketched out seemed fine to me in the context of the story; broad strokes, yes, but Clem has a lot of reason to be wary of strangers and the way this group takes her in is not exactly… conductive to inquisitive conversation.

      The misstep is that Telltale is too eager to draw you into BIG CHOICES based on what you think of individual characters with not enough setup or investment.

      It’s funny, because they made the same mistake with Doug/Carly in Season 1 / Episode 1.

    • Kadayi says:

      How long does it take to get to know a person? Through whose eyes are we seeing these people? Despite everything Clem is still a child (and a 10 year old at that). She’s not necessarily going to learn or inquire as to every single last detail of a person in the same way that an adult like Lee might. Nor are they necessarily going to be forthcoming to someone of her age.

  9. brassdragon says:

    Nice video supplement to highlight a beautiful little moment in interactive fiction.

    I’m reminded of a similar well-executed quiet moment in Mass Effect 3, that’s generally overlooked because the rest of the game drowns it out with noise and nonsense: shooting bottles at the top of the Citadel with Garrus.

    As a player, you can choose to deliberately miss a shot and let Garrus win the sniping competition. I like that there is no real in-game consequence to this decision – you can let your friend have the satisfaction of a win with only you knowing what really happened and what it means in the context of the relationship.

    More of these things, please, game writers.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      That scene in ME3 was something I enjoyed more than most of the rest of the game – which I also really loved.

      What a fantastic example of a really perfect little ‘down-time’ scene. That one little choice, and subsequent reaction has a greater impact than tons of dialogue and deepened my affection of a character I was already in a massive bromance with.

      Interactive fiction at its most effective. For me it’s not necessarily about having infinite choices – but more about an effective emotional connection that’s built and affected by my choice.

    • Kadayi says:

      I found that scene quite saccharine myself.

  10. DestroyYourEgo says:

    “Sadly contrived” and “but a bit too overtly in some”

    Odd… this is exactly how I’d describe the first season of this franchise. Maybe I’m numb from all of the Zombie Soap Operas (hope “General Hospital” dabbles in the undead… more than they already do…) that are available now, but it just doesn’t touch me this way (and if it did, I’d probably have to sue someone for inappropriate touching). Everyone who has anything to say about this game says, “I cried”. And I try to picture these grown men crying to this snack-size video game. And I just can’t understand it. And believe you me, I cry everytime I watch “King Kong”.

    There’s something either wrong with me or wrong with everyone else that claims to “cry” during this game.

    • colossalstrikepackage says:

      Wow. To paraphrase, either you are wrong or the rest of the world is?

      But on a more serious point, I’d ask you this: have any other games made you cry?

      I’m much quicker to cry than even my wife, so I cry when anything moves me – movies, books, even art. So games, with that added level of interaction, and thus involvement, seem like a more effective way to get my juices flowing – so to speak. It’s just a shame that so few do, and one of the reasons I gave a glitchy TWD more leeway than others.

  11. colossalstrikepackage says:

    Maybe it’s me but I’m too invested in Clem to blindly jump into Season 2 without knowing it will deliver the goods (floods of tears). I’m waiting until RPS is jumping up and down with delight in mid season, or until it’s all done and roundly praised. Else, Telltale can keep their darn episodic nonsense to themselves.

    As much as I love the episodic approach, I can’t stand the waiting. I played S1 episodes on consecutive days and loved it. Wolf Among Us is torture to wait for.

  12. ResonanceCascade says:

    This episode was fine, but it’s already starting to feel stale, and that’s not a good sign for a first episode of anything. They REALLY need to mix it up starting with the next chapter. We’ve already sawed off limbs/bashed zombies to death/stumbled upon a house full of questionable strangers plenty of times.

    • Kadayi says:

      Err..what exactly are you expecting from a game set following a zombie apocalypse? Also given where season 1 left off was it not actually kind of inevitable that new characters needed to be introduced?

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        You might be fine with redoing the exact same moments from the first game, but I expect a little more from a game that is known only for its narrative. Just touching on the same moments and themes over and over again is not going to fly. Yeah, it’s a zombie apocalypse, so we know there will be zombies no matter what. Now use your imagination.

  13. Hypocee says:

    but therein lied one of the game’s strengths

    For future reference that’s ‘lay’.

    What kind of person will Clementine grow into now that Lee’s lost and gone forever?

    Ahahaha dangit. I wonder to what extent that flags you as my fellow American.

  14. Surlywombat says:

    I thought the first episode was very good. I generally play these choice based games personally, I trend to make the choice I want to make rather than try and second guess the character. Is in wd1 my choices where “what would I do”, not “what do I think Lee would do.”

    I did notice that the story of season 1 has affected my choices in season 2. Knowing that in season 1 everything turned out crappy (just in different ways) no matter my choices meant I played through episode one s2 a bit more toughened than I perhaps normally would have.

    My time in the walking dead world has hardened me.

  15. Xantonze says:

    Just finished playing and reading.

    I agree with this:
    “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. ”

    …Far too much horror and shocking moments, along with the same utilitarist and binary approach to caracterization (“can I use you”? “can I trust you? YES NO?”). I liked the low key moments of 1st season, but then it started escalating into a very mechanical emotional rollercoaster, more tiring and depressing than inspiring.
    On this point, this second season sadly starts where the first ended, and I somehow regret buying the whole thing in advance.

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