I almost reached the point at which it seemed prudent to board up every possible data point through which new zombie media might break into my computer or television. Zombies were dead to me. Things have changed. The most surprisingly engrossing corpse to shamble into sight has been Telltale’s Walking Dead series. The first episode was bleak, character-driven drama and I found myself unblocking the entry points and actually waiting for more ghoulish guests to arrive. It took a while but the second course is here and so is wot I think.
In the fairly decent pilot episode of The Walking Dead TV series there’s a scene where a man says, “Not the ones they put down. The ones they didn't - the walkers”. Today, we’re not putting a Walker down but we are putting one aside as I take over the reigns of this ongoing critique of Telltale’s latest from John. That’s partly because a second pair of eyes might offer a variety of opinion but primarily because our very own adventure man is having a post-Rezzed holiday. To bring us up to speed – and that’s definitely Romero speed – on all things Walking Dead, here are some opinions.
The source, Kirkman’s comic series, enthralled me for a good portion of its run to date. For a while it was essential reading, on or near the day of release. That was until the Governor plot dehumanised the remaining humans to such an extent that I decided it was time for a break. I haven’t gone back since. It felt as if the riffs on the well-trodden zombie story had reached an endpoint, a mire of disgust and extremes, and I didn’t particularly want to watch the remains of the remaining characters limp to the next catastrophe. Maybe one day I will.
I was hugely excited about the television show but, like many people, the promise of the pilot wasn’t enough to make me stick with the banality that soon followed. Then the first episode of the game came along and reminded me why I’d loved the comics when a friend first introduced me to them. Believable characters, a likeable lead and a horror made more horrible by its presence in a collapsing but recognisable world. There were also grim choices to be made, literal life or death decisions, and dialogue sequences in which emotions flew high and mistakes were made, a response selected out of panic and momentary indecision.
Episode two needed to continue with the quality of storytelling while proving that those choices, whether major or minor, had a significant impact on occurrences down the line. The combination of those two things seems the greatest challenge for the development team because the further from a single decision events move, the more branches and offshoots it might create.
There are spoilers for episode one from here on in.
I saved Carley, a lady who doesn’t know how to use batteries in episode one, leaving Doug the techie to be dragged screaming into the slathering mob and devoured. She was a good shot, I reasoned, she had kindly kept my secrets. She was also holding a gun and if we lost her, we would most likely lose the gun as well. Oh, and there are jokes about the batteries suggesting that at least one person at Telltale found that particular blunder as ridiculous as everyone not at Telltale.
Having a character live who would otherwise be dead and a character die who would otherwise be living presumably makes a fairly significant difference. While I regretted my choice at times, particularly when dealing with an electric fence and, more significantly perhaps, because of the gnawing guilt, the gun did come in handy. The Walking Dead isn’t about guns or barricades though, handy as they are, it’s about people and in the second episode this is more clear than ever by virtue of the fact that the zombies are barely a threat at all.
Starvation is the first enemy, with an opening scene that takes place a few months after the end of the first episode. The band of survivors, more fractured than The Beatles circa Let It Be, are out of food and out of patience. Lee begins the episode on a hunting trip which ends with a scene that I thought might be the bloodiest I’d see in a good while. Turns out it’s not even the goriest scene in the episode.
More than the first, Starved For Help presents itself as a tale of guts and horror, with grand guignol flourishes that aren’t entirely successful. With no rules and little hope, what will people be driven to do to one another? That’s the question asked and, as with the more gratuitous excesses of the comic, Telltale don’t hold back on the misery, suffering and cruelty. Part of me wants to applaud the creation of such a boldly violent and virulent examination of desperation, which suits the striking visual style brilliantly. The thick lines and exaggerated expressions convey the carnage well and it’s amazing the difference that it makes seeing a person suffer as opposed to seeing a zombie unflinchingly eviscerated.
The applause doesn’t quite come though; there’s a part of me that refuses to join in, meaning one hand tries to clap alone and just sort of wafts at the air. It's not the quality of execution, although at one point, Lee did drift through a truck during a dialogue sequence, his upper body sticking through the flatbed. There have also been reports of more serious bugs, ones that affect the transition between episodes and what the game ‘remembers’, but I haven’t come across anything like that personally. Apart from the incident with the truck, which was fixed as soon as the camera angle changed, there’s nothing to report on that front.
The problems are more complex. Although Starved For Help is a fine continuation in many ways, some of the subtlety of the first episode has already been lost, which is worrying before even the midpoint of the first season. Amid all the spurting blood, severed limbs and exploding faces it’s easy to lose sight of the more powerful moments. Deciding who to feed the last packet of crackers and cheese to feels like a more meaningful decision than deciding how to deal with a rampaging villain, especially one who exists more to communicate an idea than to represent a possible person.
Any quibbles are about parts of the writing rather than the writing as a whole, which is on a par with the work in episode one, although the big reveal was much more of a shock to Lee than it was to me. That's not the important part of the game though; it's the throwaway comments and the characters' dubious decisions that deserve the most attention. I had Lee tell a new member of the group that obelisk-chinned bully Larry was a racist – I don’t remember having any clear evidence that he is, it just seemed to fit with the way he treated Lee and, hell, I really didn’t like the guy. The way that comment cut through conversations like a dorsal fin changed the tone of all my interactions with him from then on, even when it wasn’t mentioned explicitly. In some way, perhaps small perhaps not, I was the bad guy now.
Small choices haunt or recur pleasingly. I taught Clementine the word ‘manure’ in episode one and she was pleased to show off her new vocabulary later in this episode. I also took a clear side early on when the schism in the group was forming and I’ve stuck to that, even when loyalties become questionable and characters change. Apart from Carley being with us, I don’t think any of my choices changed things massively, not in terms of the events that happen, but the mood of the game belongs to the characters and the things they remember can alter the composure of a confrontation.
Similarly, the work that’s gone into the relationship between Clementine and Lee is some of the strongest in the game. As the situation improves, she turns to him for guidance, to learn and to grow, but when life almost impossibly takes a turn for the worse she becomes withdrawn, needing a protector, a killer even, rather than a calming father figure.
It’s fascinating that in a story that is so intensely grotesque the smaller moments can be seen through the viscera and it’s vital that they shine all the brighter because some of the larger set pieces veer toward farce. There's also no interactive sequence to match the length of the motel infiltration. Despite the eventual histrionics, the majority of control is in dialogue and simple exploration. I'm fine with that too because the game feels more like an interactive storybook than a puzzle-strewn adventure but where my concerns arise is in the treatment of that storybook's cast.
The survivors who walk away from the encounters of episode two are going to have even less in common with their audience than your average man about zombietown. If they weren't all victims of trauma before, they surely are now. That’s risky because the ability to connect is important, it helps me to care for them and to take care over the things I say to them. Four or five hours in (months in game time, of course) they are already a good few atrocities away from the society we know and some of them have been participants as well as witnesses.
Still, even after the horrors seem complete, there’s room for more of those quiet moments. I did something, something that seemed insignificant after everything that had gone before, and Clementine looked at me as if I’d stamped on a bag of kittens. I felt terrible. A single moment of disappointment, betrayal of ideals and sorrow meant more than all the butchery that I’d clawed my way through to protect her. I suddenly realised, stricken by the thought, that if she were to survive into adulthood this would be her world, not Lee’s, because she would almost always have been a part of the brutal new ways. God forbid I be the one to teach them to her.