On this week’s JtS, Brandon and I talked a lot, in spoilery details, about the first episode of Telltale’s adventure game, The Walking Dead Season 2. We both like it, but where I cannon-balled into this opening chapter, Brandon though it not as strong as the pilot opener for season 1. It occurs to me that the main reason we differ comes down to the notion that our DNA in these things is entirely different. In season 1, Brandon liked entering a world full of characters he’d never met, getting to know them and their histories and developing Lee from an entirely blank slate. I get that. I think that’s how a majority of players are. Or maybe it’s a question of introvert and extrovert tendencies? Being very much the former, I’ve never been big on discovery. Oh sure, once I discover something and like it, then I wrap it around me and live in it like it were a comfy blanket. So warm. So soft. I am home. And safe.
It’s just very tough for me to get to that point. This is true whether I’m playing games, watching movies, or reading books; especially so when reading books. Part of the reason I used to bury myself in fantasy series like Riftwar, and Wheel of Time and Song of Ice and Fire is because I could live in those worlds for so much longer than I could in your typical modern day work of fiction. There was always another book and I didn’t have to spend time figuring out who everyone was and what they were like. I could just jump in and let the adventure continue. It’s the same reason, when confronted with a Netflix list chock full of movies I’ve never seen, that I’m more likely to seek out a sequel or something by a writer or director I already like, or even something I’ve already seen, than to take a risk on something wholly unknown. And so it is that Season 2 of The Walking Dead plays right into my tendencies.
Even with the past set of character largely absent, the central character of Clementine, the one I am to inhabit this time around, is a character I already know. She’s a character that I’ve already journeyed with, protected, and molded. I know who Clementine is and so, when Telltale tells me it’s time to walk a mile in her shoes, I already know how to do that. This makes season 2’s opening chapter much easier to get into. And what an opening chapter it is. (Modest spoilers to follow.)
The curse of a series like The Walking Dead, regardless of its medium is that it relies on shocking you. Oh my god, can you believe they did that? Oh, that’s so awful, how could they do that? And they’re doing it again, oh my god! Oh shit, they killed Kenny! Bastards!!!
You can get away with that for awhile, but eventually the script flips and the only way to shock your viewer/player is not to shock them. The world of The Walking Dead is brutal and at this point we’re wholly conditioned to accept that. It’s no longer a surprise when the friendly puppy turns feral, or the guy who’s the friendliest to you is the first to get bit. It’s not surprising when zombies appear at the most unlikely and inopportune time. And yet, so far, it still works, and that’s because of Clementine.
Season 1 ensured we invested in this girl. She’s young, yes, but we know she’s not helpless anymore. As Lee, we saw to that (or I did, at least). And so now we take a different kind of journey. The mystery is gone. The world has collapsed and the new equilibrium, such as it is, has settled in. Now it’s truly about how you, as an individual, figure a way to go on living and what you’re going to make of life in this world. Because there’s surviving and there is living.
I’m not sure yet if that’s what Telltale’s end-game is for season 2. It could be I’m reading more into it than is there. Maybe what follows will be another four episodes of torture and human foulness and the worst possible things happening at the worst possible times. Maybe, like the TV show, those are the only bullets they have in their gun and you’ll be able to set your watch by the recurrence of human tragedy. But I don’t think so.
Oh I think that element will be there still –it is The Walking Dead– but I think Telltale has something else to say about humanity and how it handles apocalypse. That journey started with Lee, in the first season. Ultimately, however, Lee only existed to shape and mold Clementine. Now it’s time to see what she’s really learned and how she’ll apply those lessons in the face of new challenges and new tragedies. And it’s precisely because I already know this brave girl so well that, as a player, I already feel well-equipped to help her get there. Clementine’s shoes are worn, but they’re sturdy and comfortable.
I had a plan. It included skipping Brakketology last week. It’s a holiday and there wasn’t much happening that I was interested in writing about. I mean sure, I did land an Xbox One on launch day, but that’s all considerably less exciting when it’s a gift for the kids that will go unopened until December 25th. (I am trusting you with this secret. Mum is the word.) I’m rather proud of myself, actually, for not so much as opening the box, which I was sorely tempted to do. Not part of the plan was our esteemed Mr. Abner landing the flu Sunday night, forcing us to cancel the podcast. We’re definitely sorry not to have an episode go up yesterday, but Brandon and I will get something recorded this week and up for next Monday.
And so it goes.
In the meantime things are happening…
This was a lie to get you to click over. There is very little happening. Almost nothing remotely interesting at all. So instead of rounding up the Internet in search of boring things, let’s talk about actually playing stuff. Which I’ve been doing! Huzzah! (Fair warning, while I try to be vague in most places, there are spoilers herein.)
Running from the dead. Like, a lot. A couple weeks ago I played through Telltale’s Walking Dead adaptation. It’s every bit as good as you’ve heard about. You have to give Telltale some real credit here because all choice and consequence in a game is illusion and this is one of the most effective efforts I’ve seen at making said illusion feel authentic. The way they weaved characters in and out of the story made it possible for Telltale to keep the interesting choices coming every time conflict arrived (be that conflict be with zombies or between characters). And, yes, having a kid to protect, though easy to botch, always makes things more interesting. The fact that Clementine is not much younger than my own daughter (do they establish her age?) amplified my protective motions ten-fold. I didn’t see little Clementine in danger. I saw my own kids and I made decisions based on what I’d do if it were my own kids in mortal peril.
Now there are your obligatory pitfalls and they mirror the same pitfalls you get from the show. Encounters with walkers coming out of nowhere are all too predictable. Has the story gone for awhile without a zombie? Is this the worst possible time for a zombie to appear in the most unlikely of places? If the answer to those questions is yes, you’re going to find a zombie jump on top of someone, often when all common sense says this would be impossible. Also, because there is need for character drama, characters do bicker and argue and fight for reasons that strain credibility. Not in every instance, but it happens. No one is more emblematic of this than Kenny. There are times he’s a dick and it feels incredibly forced and other times… shudder. What that man endures.
Then there’s the end. You had to know your own fate was coming. There’s just no place else it could’ve gone, but The Bite is a classic example of one of said forced zombie gotcha moments. The fallout from it, however, prevents this contrived moment from derailing the story. How you handle your crew and how it leads into the variable paths in the final chapter is brilliant. (I’m proud to say I kept everyone together upon entering the final chapter.) What I’m less okay with is little Clem on the run. I had it play out such that two of the characters were supposed to be waiting for her at a specified place. She knew where she was to go. Why do I see her wandering in the middle of nowhere in the final shot? Perhaps the 400 Days DLC, which I’ve purchased but haven’t started yet, provides an adequate answer to this question?
The enemy. He is within. But not really. I finished the XCOM expansion, Enemy Within, last night. This really doesn’t prevent the game from being great, but the Enemy Within theme is a bit of a red herring. One, there’s the terrorist organization, Exalt. It’s rather insane to think a group like this would have these motivations –Aliens, yay! We say, let ’em win!– and still be anything more than a fringe group gathering in some in a basement or off in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. The notion that they’re a well-funded XCOM rival is ludicrous. Whatever. It does make the gameplay better by presenting you with a few more interesting encounters that force you to adjust your tactics. Exalt squads operate like XCOM squads and that makes them much different to face on the field than the aliens.
Then there’s the gene splicing and meching. You splice and dice your soldiers six ways from Sunday, which you’re supposed to believe creates a moral dilemma in which you wonder if adapting alien DNA and whatnot to human soldiers comes with undesirable consequences. Aside from Chief Engineer Killjoy hemming and hawing every five minutes, it does no such thing. No soldiers are compromised through having their abilities. In terms of gameplay gene splicing and meching out and adding psi abilities is pure win with zero pitfall. This is fine. It’s what best serves the game, but it also makes the Enemy Within framing look silly.
As Ray Stanz will tell you, don’t look at the trap and you’ll be fine, because the game itself is aces. There is no going back to pre-Enemy Within XCOM. Gene-spliced skills are gravy. Properly upgraded and used MECs are essential tools throughout. The only real problem is that XCOM is a game in which the beginning is hard, but if you survive to the middle it gets progressively easier. This is even more true with all these extra tools at your disposal. By the end, playing on Normal difficulty, it’s laughably easy. I had all nations satellite covered with no raised panic levels. I had researched everything I could find. (Either somewhere something didn’t pop or the achievement is wanked in Steam.) I had built everything in the Foundry. I could field two full squads of major/colonel-level troops, complete with maxed out psi abilities and a host of gene mods. I reached the final mission (unchanged after this expansion) and waxed the Ethereal Commander dude two turns after he appears. This is not the climactic battle you were hoping for. (And it would have been one turn had he not deflected my sniper’s epic headshot.)
I understand some of this is that the difficulty level in that Normal is really too easy. My next game will have to bump up to Classic difficulty, which I’ve read is punitively difficult. (There are still too many problems with errant clicking and the occasional crash to make playing on Ironman mode worthwhile.) That’s not the problem, though. The problem is that the difficulty curve actually starts out high and then, as long as you are successful through the midgame, drops precipitously. This doesn’t change with the difficulty. It’s backwards in that it’s all about surviving until you have satellite coverage (no small feat, that) and once you do, you’ll have enough extra resources coming out of your ears to dress up every aspect of your squad(s). It is disappointing that Firaxis didn’t do more to re-balance the curve (and possibly stick a difficulty level in between Normal and Classic, where aliens land ridiculous crits aplenty), but it does not stop this from being a must-play for XCOM fans. Hell, I’ve now played through twice on PC, with about two other half-plays, plus another 2/3 completed game on iOS. This is not something I do with other, non-Bioware, games.
Some other things worth noting:
– Medals are a cool addition, but the game went from dishing them out too often in the early going, to not at all from the mid-point forward. I don’t know if it’s coded this way (which would be odd) or if I hit a bug that prevented them from being awarded. It was a bummer either way.
– Meld, like many facets of the game, is both great and far too plastic. If a mission has Meld it will feature two cannisters of it. The first cannister is always nearby and almost always easy to get to. The second cannister lasts longer but is harder to suss out. You will not have to try hard to have enough Meld to field a couple of fully upgraded MECs and a handful of gene-enhanced squaddies. I think they would have made the decision to go after it or not more difficult if it didn’t act as full-height cover.
– The new maps for random missions were sorely needed and made a huge difference.
– Fire >>> Chrysallids.
– Sectopods == Death (still)
– The scripted missions are better than the ones in vanilla XCOM. The XCOM base invasion is just bananas (in a good way), but I think it was a bit crap to not let you equip your guys before it starts. I see what they’re going for, but equipping your squad is a pain in the butt that is only tolerable because the game establishes that you always get to equip your squad before the mission starts. (The new free up equipment button is a godsend.) Having it throw your guys into the fray based on whatever they had on last (including whether or not they ditched equipment because of injuries) is incredibly dumb and potentially game-killing because if you lose the mission you lose the game. (Ironman players, you are warned.) Then there’s the whale mission. LOL. Hat tip.
– Being able to use international voices for your international soldiers doesn’t change gameplay, but the little extra flavor is worth a lot.
It’s hard to review the last chapter of Telltale’s The Walking Dead without reviewing the series as a whole. It’s also hard to review the episode without getting into spoiler territory, as a large part of what makes the episode, and the game in general, so affecting is the plight of its characters. I have no intention of spoiling the episode for folks here in the intro paragraph so instead, for those that haven’t played it, I’ll just say that when the end of year best of lists come out, The Walking Dead deserves to be on them.
Long before Lee was bitten by a walker, I sensed that he wasn’t going to make it out of this game alive. Nothing foreshadowed it and there certainly weren’t any big clues in the episodes, this isn’t that kind of game, but given the general tone of the comic that the game is based on, I figured that Lee wasn’t going to live. Of course, knowing someone is going to die and watching are two different things, adding an even greater tone of dread to the episode. One of the best things that Telltale did was have Lee get bitten at the end of episode four, rather than make it a last minute twist during episode five. Whether you decided to tell your group of Lee’s impending zombification or keep it to yourself, knowing that time was running out on Lee’s quest to find Clementine gave the game a sense of urgency far beyond the typical bouts of manic activity brought about by walker attacks or bandit ambushes.
More importantly, it gave me time to have Lee get his affairs in order. Despite being filled with dead people, The Walking Dead is a game about real live people, the choices they make, the way those choices impact those around them and the way they deal with the payment for those choices. It may be an overly simple system, to have one man responsible for the fate of so many people, but this is how it has to be. There can’t be a cop out for the player or a way of shifting responsibility to another party. You can’t feel the weight of a decision if you’re not the one making it and this game is all about feeling the weight of your choices.
So when the opportunity came to talk to what was left of my group about the choices I’d made in the past, bad or good, and own up to them, I gladly accepted it. As much as I was worried that the group would reject me for having been bitten, telling them about it afforded me a sense of freedom, freedom to make plans for Clementine’s future, freedom to make amends for past wrongs, freedom to let go of all of the second guessing and doubting that plagued me for the entire run of the game, freedom to focus on what was important, namely rescuing Clementine.
Not all of the choices are handled well in this episode, especially when the game revealed who had been stalking you to Savannah. Well, let me rephrase that. The choices weren’t handled well if you didn’t take part in ransacking the seemingly abandoned station wagon found earlier in the game, like I didn’t. Sure, your attacker makes the point that it was Lee’s group that took food and batteries, which is true, but Lee and Clementine didn’t and that should have meant something. Granted, that’s how life goes sometimes, the actions of others affect you even if you didn’t take part. It’s a shit call, but it happens.
Unfortunately the stalker being batshit crazy and toting around the animated, zombified head of his wife didn’t sell his kidnapping as moral payback, which somewhat diminished the impact of his story, but hey, everyone responds to pressure differently. Some people drink, some people turn inwards, some people carry corpse heads around in bowling bags.
One thing that I did like about the stalker was how it tied into Vernon and the sick people stealing the boat found at the end of episode four. Kenny is the most incensed at this betrayal and he was the most vocal about stealing supplies from the station wagon. It’s not exactly the same thing, as he thought the station wagon had been abandoned and Vernon et al knew what the boat was for, but it still served to highlight the unfortunate aspect of human nature that allows us to put aside our morals for our own safety and survival yet condemn those willing to do the same thing. Again, it would have had more impact had I actually stolen from the station wagon, but I still appreciated it being there, if only to further characterize Kenny.
As episodes go, this one is the shortest by far, yet don’t take that as a slight against it. It’s a tough episode to play, particularly because you know where it’s going and were it longer just to be longer the length would have robbed it of its impact. I’m not going to lie, the final interaction between Lee and Clementine, he dying and handcuffed to a chair for fear of turning, her pleading for him to come with her, left me shaken and upset. I knew Lee was going to die since the end of the last episode and I knew his dying would turn him, but I still wasn’t prepared for saying goodbye to Clementine.
One of the hardest thing about being a parent is the lack of control over your child’s behavior, and by extension, their choices. All you can do is teach them how they should act, and give them examples via your own actions and hope that they learn from you and take what they’ve learned into account when deciding what kind of person to be. I approached my treatment of Clementine this way in the game, hoping that she’d turn into someone that was still hopeful and decent as the world fell to shit around her. The worst part of the ending of the Walking Dead was knowing that Lee would never see how she turned out, never see how his role in her life shaped her, never see what he meant to her. It was heartbreaking to tell her to leave, to see the choice of consoling her when she was at her lowest point but being too afraid to choose it, now knowing when he might turn. It was awful to tell her to leave Lee to die, rather than shoot him and keep him from turning (an option most people chose) because you didn’t want a nine year old girl to kill the only caretaker she’s known for the past few months.
When the game was over, all of the major characters were shown on screen with a list of what happened to them. For every character there were four possible outcomes and while some choices, such as saving Ben or Carly were known to me beforehand, seeing other characters there with unfilled options made the ending all the worse. Could I have saved these people and extended their lives? Was there something I could have said or done to change their outcome? For all that I did, could I have done more? I’m sure that if I were to go back and play it again, I could fiddle with the knobs and dials and figure it out, but that would rob the game of its impact and the game deserves to exist as the developers originally planned.
You could argue that the choices were all meaningless as Lee’s death was inevitable but in the end, we all die. The Walking Dead is telling us that how you choose to live is what’s truly important.
If the first episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead was about the dangers of zombies and the second was about the the dangers of humans, the third is about the dangers of choices. Granted, the spectre of the wrong decision has loomed over the game ever since Lee Everett first crashed outside of Macon, but this episode brings with it the hardest set of choices yet. Compounding the severity of your decisions is the vague, unsettling feeling that the impact of these choices are not only unpredictable, but far reaching.
A proper discussion of this episode can not take place using the vague, shadowy language of a spoiler-free review, so I’m not going to try. If you haven’t played this episode yet, I would strongly suggest, beg even, that you stop reading this until you play it. The spoilers herein would rob the game of some very important moments, moments that are very much the point of this episode.
All of the episodes thus far have had a large component dealing with actions undertaken to ensure survival, but while the previous episodes seemed more focused on the physical aspects of survival, food, shelter, ammo, Long Road Ahead is the first episode where I felt the emotional survival of Lee and the group was at stake. That’s not to say that there isn’t action in this episode, because there is, but the action is more there just as a reminder of the world these people live in. The weight of the episode takes place away from bandit ambushes and zombie hordes.
Having read every issue of The Walking Dead, I’m somewhat used to shocking acts of violence that come out of nowhere, but even so, Lilly’s murder of Carly took me completely by surprise. I wasn’t firmly in Lilly’s camp or in Kenny’s camp, having pinballed between the two as the episodes progressed. While I was initially on Kenny’s side, in part due to his sweet RV, his murder of Larry in Episode 2 soured me towards our mustachioed friend. In the aftermath of that event, I had somewhat warmed to Lilly, seeing her more as a rudderless woman with no one to turn to, and less of a controlling megalomaniac. Unfortunately, her moral compass went missing along with her rudder and when the argument about the missing supplies got heated, Carly ultimately paid the price. Choosing to kill Carly (or Doug had he been chosen for survival in Episode One) is a somewhat cheap way for Telltale to avoid needing two different sets of assets from here on out, but at the same time, the payoff was a pretty surprising and emotional moment. At least for me it was.
Part of what makes these moments so impactful is not knowing the extent of the effect of your actions and conversations. There have been conversations that seemed benign, but ended with a notice that this person or that person will remember what was said. Conversely, there have been actions and talks that felt pretty important, but garnered no such mention. As a result, I have no idea when I’m going to say something that’s important, or do something that’s important. I have no idea what impact my words and deeds will have. I have no idea what could have been prevented and what was inevitable. In short, this game has turned into a simulation of real life, only with more zombies and badass train rides. This fear of making the wrong choice has replaced any fear of zombies and bandit attacks. I can’t help but feel that this has been the point all along.
I’ve also noticed a shift in who this game is about. It’s easy to think that the game is about Lee, what with him being the main character. As the player’s character, he’s knee deep in the killing, he’s the one who has to side with someone or try and remain neutral. He’s the one whose actions are somewhat determining the course of events. At the beginning, he felt like the most important person in the story. Now, not so much.
I hope to be proven wrong, but I’m 100% certain that Lee will not survive this journey. Maybe it’s all of those back issues of the comic, but it feels like Lee’s purpose at this point is not to save himself, but to save the soul of Clementine. As the episodes progressed, Lee’s relationship with Clementine moved on from one of a protector and the protected to that of a father and daughter. Taking care of a child, that is, providing the items necessary for survival, is relatively easy. If you make sure that they have food, water, clothes, shelter and somewhere to go to the bathroom, you’ve pretty much covered it all. Being a parent, on the other hand, is a much more complex thing.
Being a parent myself, ever since Lee first rescued Clementine from the tree house, I have always chosen the conversation option that best matches what I would use with my own kids, namely honesty tinged with hopefulness. I don’t lie to Clem about our situation, but I don’t try and scare her either. Clem knows about Lee’s past, about the crimes he committed and about the severity of the current situation. She also knows that Lee thinks everything will eventually work out. Ok, maybe that last one is a lie, but sometimes a little hope can go a long way.
So, when the time came to decide who should kill Duck, poor, goofy, zombie bitten Duck, I thought about what message I would be sending to Clementine, and by extension my own kids, if I let Duck’s parents do it. Was it hard to give peace to Duck? Jesus yes, even knowing that this was “just a game”, but I couldn’t think of a way I could explain that I made a parent kill their own child without coming off like a coward. Sometimes, being a parent means making difficult choices that ultimately benefit the entire family, even if the short term affects aren’t positive. Even if the game didn’t provide me with the opportunity to explain my actions to Clementine in that fashion, I’d still feel better knowing that I did the right thing. How this will affect things down the road is anyone’s guess, but in the absence of a time machine, I had to do what felt right. I’d put the odds at about 50/50 that it goes sideways on me.
Having gone past the halfway mark, I’d say that The Walking Dead is probably my favorite piece of “games as interactive fiction”. It’s a hard game to get excited about, due to all of the hand wringing and dead children, but at the same time, when I play it, I get completely sucked in and the hours fly by. The next episode’s foray into Savannah, one of my favorite towns, seems pretty dang creepy so I’m hoping that I can ditch this existential dread over the impact of poor decision making and focus instead on some good old fashioned monster scares. After this last episode, I’m gonna need it.
The most disturbing thing about seeing Telltale’s next episode of The Walking Dead wasn’t the gore, or the tension or the fact that it took three swings of an axe to handle a particularly grisly deed. The worst part was the meat.
No, not human flesh, but the smell of smoked turkey legs sitting in two giant warmers on the other side of Telltale’s booth. When you’re walking around E3 and all you’ve had to eat was a Fiber One bar and a bottle of water, the smell of smoked meat is enough to get your stomach growling. Having that smell then associated with zombies and the consumption of human flesh is an extremely uncomfortable association, especially when you then attempt to take said turkey leg and eat it while not thinking of it being someone’s arm. Oh well, a man’s gotta eat.
Warning, Episode One spoilers to follow…
Episode Two of The Walking Dead is still set amidst the zombie apocalypse of the comic books and the tv show, but while the first episode was more about surviving zombie attacks, episode two focuses more on managing the ragtag group of survivors surrounding main character Lee Everett. That’s not to say that there isn’t a fair amount of walker attacks to fend off, but the decisions you make when you’re not capping walkers are just as important as how well you can swing an axe.
Upon making it back to the settlement after a forest hunting trip goes awry, Lee is faced with the unfortunate task of deciding who should get the last four pieces of food, de-facto leader Lilly having decided that she’s tired of looking like the bad guy for rationing. In this playthrough, Doug was saved in the first episode and while he may not be as good with weapons as Carley was, Doug has put his technical experience to work by rigging up a zombie early warning system.
Unfortunately, Doug can’t use these skills to conjure up enough food for everyone and Lee’s unenviable task of distributing food makes it clear that the developers are forcing the player to make choices that will have ramifications well beyond the immediate future. Choosing to take care of Kenny’s son with a piece of beef jerky makes Kenny open to taking Lee with him to the coast. Similarly, choosing to not provide the other adults with food may make certain people weaker if the zombies do eventually attack, because you know that the zombies will eventually attack. After all, this is the Walking Dead. The zombies aren’t there to make cookies. The developers are currently planning on making Lee’s decisions and the relationships that rise and fall as a result last into the fifth episode but with only one episode in the books, it’s anyone’s guess how well they’ll be able to carry through on the plan.
On my way out of the booth I was able to play the upcoming release of Episode One on the iPad. Like all of the other Telltale properties that have been ported to iOS, this version looked almost identical to the console version and the touchscreen controls worked beautifully. I had originally planned on waiting until every episode was released on the console before playing them all, but if they’re coming to the iPad, I doubt I’ll be able to resist.
Episode Two of The Walking Dead releases this month on PSN and XBLA. The iOS version of Episode One is slated to release this summer.