Season two of the The Walking Dead has started strong, taking on the task of switching to a new player character confidently. Clementine is a complex character, capable of carrying the narrative while also reacting to the player's input in a believable fashion. With the third episode, the story enters a new phase, one that shifts the setting and tone somewhat, and places the focus on a smaller cast, with Michael Madsen's Bill Carver at the fore. It's bleak and brutal, but that's nothing new. It's also a bit underwhelming. Here's wot I think, with spoilers carefully avoided.
Quick note - I said I was avoiding spoilers but I mean for this episode and this episode alone. Play first if you're worried about hints as to themes and ongoing subplots though. I haven't named any characters from this season except Carver and Clem, so you won't find out who lives and dies, but if you haven't played episode two you'll almost definitely want to skip this until you have.
In Harm’s Way expands on Clementine’s story intelligently but, in doing so, it highlights some problems related to Telltale’s streamlined storytelling and the episodic format. The key strength of the excellent second episode lay in the pacing and appreciation of a wider world beyond the huddled group of survivors. Characters briefly introduced at the beginning of the season were given room to breathe (and, if your choices were as disastrously gung-ho as mine, to stop breathing) and Clem and her companions set out on a journey. They had a goal ahead of them, a villain at their heels and enough internal tension to make every step potentially divisive.
In this latest episode, that forward momentum has dissipated. The journey ends in another huddle, another series of high-risk tasks maddeningly delegated to a child* and a swift exploration of the core relationships and themes. As gamespaces, with places to walk and things to prod and look at, episode three’s locations are probably no smaller than those in the previous instalment but they are visually limited and drab.
The closed setting is mostly made up of interiors, with narrative shackles and barricades to go with the usual ludological restrictions. The characters share the player’s lack of agency, planning and plotting but hemmed in by threats and restraints. During a couple of confrontations, the dialogue brushes against memories and connections that almost make the episode more thriller than filler, but I finished with the feeling that this was a speedbump in the larger journey.
There are some scenes and decisions that will undoubtedly be essential to our eventual understanding of Clem but the nature of this particular sidestory does not gel with the episodic format. The usual complaints about episodic gaming relate to the wait for a new chapter, especially when delays occur. It’s a problem that Telltale haven’t eliminated, even though they are one of the few companies who regularly prove the value of the format.
The wait wasn’t overlong this time but there is a major flaw - in an episode that feels like a culmination of the season’s first major arc, the brevity of the experience works against it. With such a short time spent with a new set of characters in a new location, conclusions are seen on a near horizon almost immediately. There’s no time to expand on the misery of the situation and the few attempts to explore the mundanity of new horrors are quickly swept aside in favour of a rush toward the next big moment.
We’re in territory that would be handled more effectively in the slow-burn of a comic series. The short running time of each episode combined with the limited number per season has led to every scene containing clear character and plot development. It’s the source of those exaggerated bug-eyed responses and awkwardly overlong shoegazing. The Walking Dead’s survivors couldn’t disguise their emotional response to Clem’s interjections if their lives depended on it, which is a shame because their lives often do depend on it.
Quiet moments sell the screaming and the shouting in the same way that the death of a friendly character is only shocking if six other allies haven’t already been bludgeoned to death in the previous scene. The prison camp setting of this episode would have suited a drawn-out fraying of nerves and relationships, particularly given the attempts at appeasement that arise from some unexpected sources. As it is, the course toward closure and confrontation is set by the end of the second scene which leaves precious little time and space for the new social setup to influence the cast. It’s an episode that uses gruesome beatings to do too much of its talking.
Carver’s ideology and justifications don’t percolate and seep into Clem and the rest of the gang. Too little time is spent exploring them for anything more than a cursory overview, although there are some admittedly powerful comments on Clementine’s development and tutelage under Lee. All those moments in season one when you taught her to look after herself at all costs, when you trained her to survive and to stay safe? Carver has his own interpretation of what that attitude creates – a stronger generation of kids, raised to survive by cutting off any weakness, whether it’s an infected limb or an inept or wounded companion.
If it slows you down, kill it. Unless killing it would slow you down, in which case simply leave it to die. Carver has built a community and is unwilling to compromise its safety, even if that makes him a monster, and he recognises that Clem has a similarly fierce will to protect herself and those she cares for. I suspect the payoff for their too-brief exchanges will arrive before the season’s end but for now we’re mostly left with suggestions.
Choices in previous episodes do leave a larger imprint here than is usually the case. 400 Days save files will be used if they’re available and your game most likely has at least one survivor of the lodge that I was missing (oops**). Of the new characters, only one has enough screentime to be seen as more than a henchperson or person of potential future interest and most of the conversations are over far too quickly.
The best moments all belong to Clem and, by association, to the player. I’m becoming convinced that I might push her too far down the path of desensitised survivor and create a tiny monster, but I’ve never felt that her reactions to events are out of my control. There’s usually a choice, even if it’s a small dialogue selection, that punctuates a scene and allows the player to impose a reaction.
Perhaps this will be a lull in an otherwise strong season. There’s plenty of food for thought but most of it goes straight down the gullet rather than being chewed over for a while. Tortuously extending that metaphor, I’m hoping that digestion will prove enlightening but I’m also slightly concerned that the next episode will hurry toward another conclusion.
The Walking Dead explores survival and suffering to great effect, and it continues to do so here. It’s disappointing, however, that when the setup created an opportunity to explore a society built among and upon that suffering, the game failed to scratch beneath the surface. We could have spent a season exploring this place and the people in it, but it’s almost possible to hear the clock ticking.
Like harried gallery guides, Telltalle usher the player into the next room, onto the next episode. “We have so much more to show you, just through here.” That's wonderful and I'd love to see more but it’d be great if we could occasionally stop to smell the decomposing.
*It makes sense that Clem has to do everything because that allows the player to do those things rather than being left out. But some tasks literally involve pushing forwards for a second so that a cutscene takes over and then choosing a couple of dialogue options. Clem could just as easily be an observer in some situations and it might be more plausible, as well as playing on a different set of tensions and anxieties.
**Whenever a character that could have died in a previous episode is in a scene, it's like the opening of an episode of Casualty - just waiting for them to tip a saucepan of boiling water directly into their eyes or stand on a rake.