By Terry Randolph and Jake Rushing
TellTale has set the tone in interactive storytelling games; their games buckle players in tightly and promise to deliver a gripping, deep and personal story that not only serves as a game, but as an introspective reflection. Most of the choices made, without fail, often demand deeper thought than what might initially feel apparent. I know there were many times throughout my experiences with The Walking Dead: Season 1 and 2 where I found myself picking a decision within a split second to moments later discussing the rationale with a friend.
What makes that even more interesting is the fact that morality has become such an integral part of modern-day storytelling that too often it gets muddled in the process. Decisions, while trying to remain ambiguous and without a guaranteed outcome, often times delineate between good and bad, paragon and renegade, etcetera. Sure, TellTale’s decision trees end up with an either or outcome, or even lead to the same outcome with slightly different parts and that in part is largely due to limitations in both size, scope and narrative tone. However, the ability to keep the viewers immersed, questioning and oftentimes wanting to re-explore the same situations while choosing different outcomes sets it on a bar higher than other games trying to accomplish the same thing.
If you want to know what else we love about TellTale, check out the piece we wrote about it.
For this article specifically, Jake Rushing and I explore our impressions of Walking Dead Season 2:
Terry: I’m stuck in the middle of a walker horde covered in walker guts hoping to make it across a parking lot alive. All of us are, trying to keep ourselves from yelling out in fear. There’s no room for mistakes, and only the hope of staying calm is going to save us today. Gunshots are still pouring out behind us, trying to mow down the walker horde before it can reach the now open compound. Suddenly, the person next to me is freaking out, resulting in getting bit by a walker. The game prompts me into a sequence that confirms something I was dreading; I have to make a decision. Do I cut their arm off, or do I go for the walker? Each one has their risk, their consequence affecting the possibility I’ll survive this moment. I take this moment, reflecting on what my character has learned, been taught, and seen. I make my choice, and swing my hatchet.
This is just one of the many decisions players can make in Walking Dead: Season 2, a worthy successor to the first season that’s worth every penny.
One of the strongest aspects of this game is the perspective shift from Lee to Clementine. Particularly, it was interesting dealing with the inner struggle I found myself in with each dialogue choice; was I making it from my own perspective? Or are they built off lessons Clementine learned from Lee? Choices I might’ve made while playing as Lee vastly differed from the choices I made with Clementine. Then, in moments where I felt myself deeply immersed into the game, I made decisions based on my personal thoughts instead of Clementine’s. The duality of Clementine’s personality felt like it created several awkward moments with other characters. Even though the characters would brush it off while I would pause the game and have to talk it out.
One thing I’ll admit is this; in tough, difficult moments where I had to make a quick decision, I felt as if the choices reflected the lessons Clementine learned. For my journey with Clementine, I’d have done the narrative injustice basing my decisions on my own personal beliefs. Inevitably, reflecting back on the decision after executing it, I’d realize the decision still fit with my own thoughts. And that’s the heart of TellTale’s success: putting players in situations that are uncomfortable but thought-provoking. It’s smart, brilliant, and makes for memorable games.
The other part I loved is Season 2’s story being distinct and strong in its own individual way while both continuing to push the story forward and conclude mini-arcs strongly. I can’t say who, or what, I’m referring to because it’s so much more rewarding if you don’t know. It would be wrong of me to take that away from the experience.
Carver, the “main antagonist” if you will, is a compelling character who’s equal parts brutal, cold, calculating and yet relatable. Is he evil? Probably. Do his decisions make sense? That’s up for the player to determine. For me, while I didn’t agree with his actions, I understood his thought process.
Aside from the technical hiccups that are standard in TellTale games (and unacceptable at this point), two things plagued the Walking Dead: Season 2; a not-so-memorable ensemble and a weak penultimate episode.
Almost all the characters were unconvincing, and I didn’t connect with them. The characterizations didn’t stand out either, each of them became someone I’d care less if they survive or not. Trust me, I know that sounds cold and horrible of me, but most of the characters just really bothered me. Out of the characters you’re introduced to (the original crew plus a few others) I only cared for 3 of them; one was an old friend, another sympathetic but manipulative, and the last was more on a personal level for me than for Clementine. They were the ones I found myself either fighting back tears, having to pause and weigh the choices, or accept what was given and pull the trigger. I wish I could say the same about the penultimate episode (episode 4 of 5).
TellTale, while most of the time consistent in their writing, have always had a difficult time creating the episode leading up to the conclusion. Episode 4 of The Walking Dead: Season 2 definitely showcases this problem. Most of the deaths feel forced, unnecessary and there for the sake of it. Same can be said of the situations, and weird dialogue choices. All around, I found myself wanting to get out of the episode and onto the last one fast. The saving grace of the episode was the last choice you have to make, which unfortunately has little impact on how the last episode starts. It epitomizes the complaints people who aren’t fans of TellTale cite, and in the case of episode 4 is justified.
Otherwise, the game is everything everyone’s come to expect of TellTale, and deserves to be in your gaming library if you love interactive storytelling. Given the vast amount of endings this season had, I do wonder just where TellTale is going to go with the story. Only time will tell.
Jake: Clementine is out on her own. At that point, I became uncertain on how well she’ll do without her old crew. It’s certain that she’s no longer the little girl that we knew and loved from the first season, but she’s not exactly the most capable in hand to hand combat. However, she has been hardened from the trials that she went through in the first season. That is about as much as I want to say without spoiling anything.
This game had me so immersed, that I’d usually forget about being consistent between choices that I have made with Lee and with the choices that that my instinct told me to make. Its signature timed dialog choice mechanic manages to keep you on the edge as you think to make your choices. This doesn’t give you much time to to reflect on the choices you’ve made in the previous season in hopes that you’d try to be consistent with your previous choices last season; this sort of thing isn’t easy to do all of the time given the pressure. And that’s one of the things that proves that Telltale still has the formula nailed down.
Speaking of the previous season, the cool thing about this particular entry in the series is that if you have your save from your previous season, you could use it and have your dialog choices and actions reflected back to you. Did you tell Clementine to keep her hair short in the previous season? You can see for yourself that Clementine did indeed remember that. I find it rather heart-warming that the usage of your choices from the first season makes it feel almost like a trip down memory lane.
The story itself is indeed strong. The combination of the story and hard choices you’d have to make will keep you on the edge more in this season than the first season ever did, even though I’ll admit that I’m still shaken from the second episode from Season One. The antagonist of the second season, Carver, is as brutal and cold as he is unpredictable yet relatable, as he’ll be a contributing factor to the story that will keep you on your toes. There are moments where the story will make you jump without any warning, while other moments will certainly put you on a feels trip. It’s certainly a roller coaster through the story as you make your way through the zombie apocalypse.
One thing that I’ll say about some of these characters though is that there too many of them, which makes some of them not fleshed out enough in terms of showing depth and personality. There are some characters that I’ve enjoyed that were done quite well. There were some that indeed serve their purpose of the story. However, I can’t say that the other ones would fall under either category. I can see potential in unravelling these characters, but they get killed off before we could get a chance to know them more. I am not sure what is the point of adding them without fleshing them out more if you’re going to kill them off one after another in the season. I feel like the game could have been better with less filler characters.
I will agree with Terry that these graphical bugs are pretty annoying. I’m annoyed for the fact that the same kind of graphical bugs that were present in Game of Thrones have been present since (at least) Wolf Among Us, and somehow still exist in the entire second season of The Walking Dead. I can forgive Telltale if it’s just one game, but the fact that the bugs spanned for at least 3 different games tell me that they need to shift their focus on fixing them before they can give different IPs the Telltale treatment.
Despite my qualms that I’ve made about this game, the second season is far superior than the first season. If you enjoy narrative games, you deserve to have The Walking Dead: Season Two in your library. Even if you haven’t played the first season, the second season itself is a solid enough story to play through on its own. The game will keep you on your toes, and it will keep you rooting for Clementine the whole way through.