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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.