Release Date: April 25th, 2017
Developer: TellTale Games
Publisher: TellTale Games
Genre: Third Person Perspective, Platformer, Action-Adventure
System: Xbox One (Reviewed), Playstation 4,, PC, Mac, Android, iPhone
For the first time in a long time, Walking Dead has forced me to face the consequences of every decision I’d made up until this episode. I had to question whether or not any decision I made was a mistake and that sheer, dumb luck was the only reason my family was still alive. As a result, Thicker Than Water forced me to experience utter shame in knowing that my decision had put the people around me in jeopardy. It’s a refreshing departure from Walking Dead: Season 2, where decisions I made mattered but never culminated into a whole product. For a season that has been about characterization, development, and choices that feels underwritten and underdeveloped, Thicker than Water’s conclusion might be this season’s saving grace.
Episode 4: Thicker Than Water feels like a showcase of everything this season has tried to establish: what does family mean to you, and what will you do to protect it?
Family is a constant theme revisited in each episode with a flashback centering around Javi. In Thicker Than Water, the flashback focuses on David and Javi’s tense and strained relationship. After recently getting kicked out of baseball for betting money on himself, David decides to take Javi out to the batting cages for some bonding. Inevitably the situation goes south quickly, with David getting agitated with Javi’s playful antics and immediately walking away. However, it becomes quite clear that there’s something else weighing on David’s mind. After Javi finally talks David down, David admits that life is not going the way he thought it would be. His uncomfortableness with normal life was something he wanted to escape from, and to do so meant going back to the army.
This moment is meant to show that, for someone who feels responsible to guide Javi to become more family oriented, David couldn’t handle the strain. It’s insight into David’s inner conflict because he’s a failure of his own beliefs. Contrasting this moment of selfishness is Javi, who tries getting David to reconsider his importance to his family. It’s a powerful moment that shows a dynamic shift, and an indicator of Javi growing into the person David wanted him to be.
The question of family is also examined further in the dynamic of Clementine and Javi. Clementine has become a solid crutch that Javi can rely on in the toughest of situations who isn’t related to him by blood. Whether or not Clementine wants to admit it, her and Javi have formed a strong bond as friends. In one particular moment towards the latter end of the episode, Clementine begins experiencing the literal pangs of growing up into a woman. Initially, Javi feels a little uncomfortable trying to wrap his head around explaining what she was going through. Instead, he gives a brief explanation while also deferring the rest to Kate. Clementine smiles and thanks him for the advice, showing just how far they’d come as friends.
This particular moment also brings up another motif throughout A New Frontier: growing up into an adult in a muertos-infested world. Themes like teenage romance, puberty, are being explored in tasteful (and hilarious) moments littered throughout the series…especially in the hilariously awkward moments between Gabe and Clementine.
Thicker That Water also starts to justify Clementine’s inclusion into the season. Throughout A New Frontier, I’ve made the argument that Clementine was an unnecessary addition to the series. I felt like it reflected a lack of trust with TellTale itself in being able to have a new cast to carry on the series. Clementine’s story felt like it recycled old themes the previous seasons had captured succinctly. She is also meant to be a foil to Javi; someone who has been through too much and is telling herself to never care for another person again. However, in this episode her story shifts a bit into something far more interesting; growing up into adulthood in this world. It adds a new element to Clementine’s character: someone trying to understand the changes she’s undergoing through puberty. There’s a new layer of vulnerability to her that gives a little justification to her inclusion in the story. While I still believe her story was not necessary for this story, it makes having her in Episode 4: Thicker Than Water understandable.
Walking Dead Season 3: A New Frontier has also been asking players another question: how do you retain your humanity in the world of muertos? Over the course of the season, Javi has been put into situations that force players to make a choice that is meant to rattle them. While some of the choices have been cathartic, the aftermath ends up making the moment feel disgusting and horrifying. It’s meant to make a player sit back for a moment, replay what just happened, and ask themselves whether their decision was justified. In Episode 4: Thicker Than Water, players are left with several moments that really make them question whether or not their choice was the right one and if they could live with the guilt? Thicker Than Water also adds a little extra to the decisions by having them impact other people in horrible ways.
Yet, Episode 4: Thicker Than Water exemplifies the current season’s biggest problem: inconsistent writing. A lot of situations feel contrived thanks to a lack of buildup. A lot of Thicker Than Water felt empty and hollow: On the surface things were building up but nothing felt meaningful. Sure, the situation had everything needed to create the usual hopeless situation; muertos surrounding the area, stuck in enemy territory, and little to no supplies to make it out alive. Yet nothing felt grave or serious enough to me; it was just another situation to magically fight our way out of. The writing also heavily foreshadowed that the situation was going to go wrong, simply because nothing ever goes right in The Walking Dead. Even if the situation feels impossible already, Walking Dead cannot give you a fighting chance.
It also makes sense that the conclusion of the episode was led up to so strongly, given how weak of a main antagonist Joan has been for this series. Simply put, Joan is the most hollow, basic, underdeveloped villain I’ve ever seen in The Walking Dead. She’s a walking culmination of clichés that have plagued both the TV and video game series; a character that initially seems powerful but loses it through a very ill-timed power trip. From the conclusion of Episode 3, to the beginning of Thicker Than Water, Joan seemed to have finally gained the power she needed to helm the role of main antagonist. However, towards the end of the episode she became a caricature of a villain: so drunk on power that it ultimately makes her powerless. I am genuinely unsure of how captivating her character could be for the season finale.
Her character arc exemplifies my other biggest problem with A New Frontier: Almost all of the characters feel very underdeveloped. While I can appreciate the fleshing out of Javi, Kate, Gabe, David and Clementine as characters, the rest of the cast feel like they have had very little personality. There’s very little reason to care for the fate of these characters because there isn’t a lot of time invested into them. If anything, they feel like they are only there for being part of the trip and not a part of the experience. By the time something is happening to any of them, there’s very little reason to care about their fate. As a result, Thicker Than Water relies on shock tactics to make you feel like players care for the cast. When players take a step back and assess what just happened, that detachment felt with the cast comes back full swing.
Ultimately, Thicker Than Water left me feeling torn about Walking Dead Season 3: A New Frontier. On one hand, I love that TellTale is trying to focus on fleshing out the main cast in order to solidify the themes being explored in this season. Players are being put into situations that make them question how they define family and what they would do to protect that. It’s a season trying to force players to face the consequences of the choices they’ve made all season, and it can be a gut check when it’s laid out in front of them. At the same time, the writing has felt a little weak and underdeveloped, resulting in a weak main antagonist and central conflict. It’s a season that is trying to do a lot….but seems like it hasn’t done enough. The buildup has been there, but the execution is lacking. Here’s to hoping that the fifth episode, From the Gallows, is a great, satisfying conclusion.