Telltale's The Walking Dead [official site] comes back into our lives after just over two years away, but is it a welcome return with fresh water and bandages, or a shambling wreck of fetid corpse. It's the second one. It's fucking awful. Here's wot I think:
For a moment it really seemed like Telltale were over their fetish. Season 1 of their interpretation of The Walking Dead won a lot of acclaim, despite being ultimately an empty and agonisingly slow experience, and was rife with it. Season 2 was so dreadful that I had to play through it this week because we genuinely couldn’t find anyone else who had bothered, in order to review the new episodes, and almost exclusively featured it. My assumption was, after a couple of years away from the series, Telltale would have regrouped and come to their title afresh with hopes of finding new ground in old territory. But no, after an hour of sitting on their hands, frantically wriggling as they tried to tell half a story about some ragtag adults and teenagers, they couldn’t resist it, they couldn’t help themselves, and with a near-audible gasp resorted to using flashbacks to be to deliver their fucked up kicks of watching a child suffer.
Your feelings about the previous two seasons of The Walking Dead video game may be different than mine, and I suspect you can discern the usefulness of my review of the first two episodes of the third season by how far apart we are. I think I can summarise the previous runs with the phrase, “Little girl torture simulator”. Which is, if anything, a generous summation of one of the dreariest, least involved, interminably slow and hackneyed games I’ve ever struggled through.
Zombie stories are obviously woefully played out, and The Walking Dead offers the least imaginative portrayal of the form. Even the most patient of diehards are giving up on the ridiculous TV interpretation of the source comic, and it seems the last drips of potential have been wrung dry from the entire genre, with only outliers like Zombieland managing to find something of a fun last gasp. No one has the courage/imagination to do anything interesting with the theme (I think 2006’s okay-ish Fido was the last time anyone even tried), instead inevitably resorting to the same hoary old tropes of “band of people where one’s a wrong-un, one is secretly bit!”. Oh good GRIEF is The Walking Dead video game trapped in that dreary mire.
For two seasons they’ve had no story to tell other than, “Clementine goes through unimaginable shit on a daily basis, and everyone around gruesomely dies in front of her.” The tragedy being there seems to be the belief that this in itself is interesting or novel. “Look, she’s suffering so much! You think it’s going to get better, but no, it’s going to get worse!” No, we know it’s going to get worse. It’s literally the only thing that ever happens in any of the games, from the micro level of every tiny action inevitably ending in her falling over, to the macro level of absolutely everyone she knows fighting and dying. And Clementine’s character advances not a jot. She’s nothing, she’s an empty shell for the player to watch get tortured, and then have her say, “But I’m a little girl” for the 900th time. I empathise with her character's plight not at the hands of the zombies, but at the hands of the writers. At this point it would be a shocking surprise twist if they didn’t murder a main character while she stared.
Where the series leaves me behind is in this genuinely fetishistic obsession with having you watch Clementine watch utter horror. Again, it’s the impression that this of itself is believed to be a bold or interesting narrative statement that grates so hard, where we’re supposed to be emotionally bowled over by their courageous portrayal of a child’s suffering. Yeah, maybe the first time. But after ten episodes of farcical cruelty it just became revolting. Only because the games were so boring, uninvolved and repetitive did I struggle to find the energy to care, but on some barely-interested level I worried about the minds that felt the need to just keep repeating the same theme.
So when Season 3 started off with a different cast, Clementine only mentioned in reference to how your S2 save finished (for me on her own with AJ), I was relieved. Finally we could perhaps see a different perspective, find some new stories. That promise was immediately unmet when it instantly plunged off a cliff into a mud-pool of cliche, with whingy teenagers “your not my real mum and dad”ing their way through the apocalypse, before parachuting in our young friend in the opening minutes. But worry not, because within an hour or so, yup, they escape their chronological shackles of being stuck with a teenage Clem by using flashbacks, and you’re once again watching young Clementine suffer. Suffer and suffer and suffer. (Her appearance is spoiled by the Chapter Select menu, by the way, in case you think me overstepping here.)
Within seconds she’s being attacked by walkers, has her hand crushed in a car door, is sobbing and suffering while unable to help baby AJ, screaming, staring at her buckled fingers. Oh, they love watching that little girl struggle, so much that even now she’s no longer little they’re crowbarring in ways to show it to us.
(And if you think I’m exaggerating about this theme, just get to episode 2 for the most morbidly obsessive sequence of suffering little girl syndrome - can’t explain because of a genuine spoiler, but bloody hell.)
It seems there are only three possible storylines for the unimaginative zombie writer:
1) There’s a baddun in the group who undermines everyone else’s safety
2) Someone needs some medicine, and it’s on the other side of that group of zombies
3) Things are briefly idyllic, so a band of baddies show up and spoil it
Seasons 1 and 2 bludgeoned the first two into a grisly pulp, so season 3 leans immediately on the third. It’s so incompetently predictable at every stage that its “big shocks” feel idiotically inevitable. And once again this is just more of the same barely interactive dross, where your most likely cause of failure will be not realising the game finally wants you to do something before a timer runs out.
Much better suited for a tablet, where dumbly staring with nothing to do feels less utterly soul-destroying than with your hands uselessly hovering near a mouse and keyboard, the half-arsed PC conversion just underlines the futility of your role. Hammer at Q, press E. Wait eight minutes. Choose to say one thing rather than another thing that someone will “remember” (which is to say, later vaguely allude to it as the exact same events that would have happened either way play out). Wait four minutes. Press right, press E, press down. Wait seven minutes. Get told to walk forward for literally six steps, then sit back again as it takes over. Then a short sequence where you “look at” three interactive spots in a room, where for some reason the game only shows the character’s face doing the looking, rather than the thing he or she is looking at, and then wish for the biting chomp of the undead to take you away from all this.
It’s positively mindboggling when you realise that you’re sat through yet another identical sequence where you’re separated from your (in-fighting, OF COURSE) group, and a stranger puts a gun to the back of your head and wants to talk threats. REALLY?! Again?! I can’t even imagine the writing process, where they sit down in a room and say, “Wait, everyone, I’ve got an idea!”
“No, me first!” shouts someone else, before pitching the notion that they could have one of the group suddenly pull a gun on someone else in the group and then the player have to choose a side!
HOW?! How are these the major plot beats twelve sodding episodes into this? And there’s nothing else besides it. It’s exactly the same bland drivel, but with even less humanity to make any of it feel worthwhile.
Tweaks to the clunky old Telltale engine see it looking prettier than before, but unfortunately so much of the direction is artless as to render it moot. Nearly every shot is poorly framed, drably lit, or badly arranged. Every now and then when things look decent you realise what a nice looking game it could have been, if only it had been more adept. And as ever, the acting is all good - a strong cast, well directed, but unfortunately delivering the banal filler-speak that makes up the majority of the script.
You could argue that a new cast inevitably resets the emotional development of the series, but the fact that Clementine is still just an emotional and physical punchbag shows there’d be little hope of anyone developing into anything meaningful if they were allowed to live more than three episodes each. The series absolutely deserves to be lauded for its multi-racial cast, but denigrated immediately afterwards for making no one interesting or deeper than a particularly stupid puddle. The result is yet more of the same, no more involved, no more compelling, equally futile, and mind-numbingly repetitive. Oh, and the episodes are shorter, too.
It’s pure agony at this point that they’re re-running the exact same bloody plots yet again for a third five-part series, as if they weren’t miserably worn out before even Telltale scooped them up off the floor and blew off the crust and fluff. That they’re not even trying to take the slightest new angle belies a barren and bereft production not worth dragging your own mutilated corpse through.