Release Date: May 30, 2017
Developer: TellTale Games
Publisher: TellTale Games
Rating: M for Mature
Genre: Interactive Storytelling, Click and point
Platforms: Xbox One, Playstation 4, iOs, Android, Mac, PC/Steam
TellTale has always been narratively ambitious with their The Walking Dead series. Each season routinely examines the concepts of family and the human condition through the lens of a single question: At what lengths are you willing to sacrifice your humanity to protect those around you? Players are put into increasingly morally ambiguous situations, aiming to make players question their choices until the end of the game. What makes this question effective are the smartly written characters that feel relatable, flawed, and normal. However, The Walking Dead series also feels like a writing exercise because all the seasons seem to go through the same story beats and pacing. Regardless of the new cast, the new setting, and circumstances, the stories end up feeling indistinguishable from one another.
The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier is an example of trying to try new things but being unable to break away from what works. The story itself feel ambitious in narrative scope and but feels underwhelming in delivery. Part of it may be the normal storytelling pratfalls that TellTale can often succumb to, and part of it feels like they were unsure of how they to tell the story. The narrative’s crushing weight results in TellTale’s choices in storytelling feeling flawed, half baked, or too slow/sudden. The characters never get a chance to be fully fleshed out, often times feeling like extreme caricatures when compared to previous seasons. There are some bright moments within the game that feel reminiscent of previous seasons, but they are too far and few between.
Episode 5: From the Gallows is an episode that represents everything right and wrong with this season. It’s too slow in some spots, then rushed in others. The character choices in action and dialogue feel odd and contrived, leaving nothing lingering after the key decisions are made. It’s an episode that feels like it’s trying to show players how far they’ve come and the price they are paying for it. As a writing teacher once told me, it’s telling players what to feel, not showing them something to let them feel it.
What Does It Mean To Be Human?
Episode 4: Thicker Than Water ended with Richmond disintegrated into chaos. Joan, the main antagonist for A New Frontier, is dead. Their leader killed in front of them, the remaining Brave Frontier begin a retaliation attack on Javi and the crew. In a desperate attempt to get Javi and company out of Richmond, Katie drives their escape van towards the war zone. However, a molotov hits the front screen of the van, causing Katie to ram into one of the walls holding the muertos out of the city. With an opening in the wall, the horde of muertos begin pouring in.The city of Richmond is no longer a safe haven, but a graveyard.
Those who are able to survive find refuge in an apartment building surrounded by the muertos. The imagery is gruesome and depressing; people wounded by bites or by bullets, parents or children screaming out for missing family members. Katie and Javi are being forced to reap what they sow, the imagery a stark reminder of everything they’ve done for the sake of their “family”.
Now, the question is no longer what would Javi do for his family, but something bigger: what would you do for this city?
In a season uneven in emotional weight, Episode 5: From the Gallows is one of the most conflicting experiences I have ever played. The previous two episodes ended up feeling very light in emotional brevity, providing no build up to the contrived ending of Thicker Than Water. A lot of the moments inbetween gameplay feel hollow and neither move the plot nor flesh out the characters all too well. By the time the curtain is raised on the major heart wrenching, gut churning conclusion, it carries no weight. Where the dialogue could have lifted the sequence up higher, it ends up feeling contrived and manipulative. The lingering effect that the big twists are supposed to have in that moment feels like TellTale’s plea to the player to feel the emotions they are expecting players to feel. Essentially, the final concluding chapter feels too in-your-face in order to force players to feel something, not allow it to organically happen.
Thus, Episode 5: From the Gallows feels much more even and balanced in emotional weight. A lot of the moments between dialogue choices and gameplay carry weight and meaning. For me personally, I began asking myself if everyone I had sacrificed was worth the cost of my humanity. These are other people fighting to survive in a world that is cold and unforgiving. It had me wondering if what I had done in all of the other episodes was something others would have done, or whether or not there were other ways to make it through life. It also made me reflect on a sequence in Episode 3: Above the Law, when Jesus was questioning my choices on how to gather information on the raids occurring in other settlements.
For the first time in my experience as a player, I felt like I was the monster and antagonist of The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier. I have been interrogating and killing people to gain information and vengeance. I pulled the trigger on people without hesitating to protect those that I loved. I selfishly decided whose life was valued, and decided to kill Joan. Even if my actions have some sort of justification, it did not leave me feeling like I was a good man. Instead, seeing the people who lost people in the horde of muertos or to gunfire made me feel like I was just like Joan.
Episode 5: From the Gallows is also a solid example of using the narrative for solid character building. From the Gallows is very heavy in terms of how much is going on within the time constraint. A lot of these moments end up being defining for certain characters, clearly outlining their relationship to Javi and how the season’s events have affected them. A lot of the moments can be heartbreaking, but gratifying in their closure to character arcs.
Whereas the flashbacks in previous episodes feel unnecessary and without purpose, the flashback utilized in this episode actually makes sense. It’s not poised at the beginning to eventually be tied with something that takes place in the episode, but instead is told somewhere in the middle and naturally tied into the episode. When the notification on the top right hand corner pops up indicating the moment tied to the flashback, the emotional weight feels there.
The overall tone of the story is defined by how the players decide Javi’s story ends. For my personal journey, I felt like the story ended on the right note for redemption. Javi will have to carry the weight of acknowledging that a lot of his choices had deep impacts and ramifications on everyone in Richmond, but at least he could try to fix whatever possible. It could start by rebuilding Richmond into a safe haven for those still alive.
Yet this is also what I find problematic and frustrating with Episode 5: From the Gallows: the narrative ambition is fulfilling in this episode, but makes players wonder where it was for the whole season. It’s an episode that clearly highlights the season’s underwhelming, inconsistent pacing, tone, and brevity. This was a Javi that felt more complete and realistic, whereas the rest of the season felt contrived and flat. The themes the story was trying to explore: the definition of family, human nature… all of exploration felt lacking in substance.
From the Gallows also feels like it highlights another major problem I have with this season: it’s exploring a lot of themes that have already been explored far more effectively. By the time players will finish Season 3, the themes feel tired and boring. The experience is diminished by the shiny, new exterior covering the old engine…kind of like its TV counterpart.
Last, but not least, From the Gallows also highlights another major problem I have with the franchise: the feeling of having to have a high body count to have impact. I do not want to give away what I mean by that, so I will summarize it: a lot of characters die that are meant to creating feelings, but instead just add to the total body count of the series. The high death count is far less effective than using death sparingly, but effectively. I would rather have quality in the writing off of a character than having a lot of characters die with little impact.
In the end, TellTale’s The Walking Dead: Season 3: A New Frontier feels like a story that should have been told in a condensed format. The narrative ambition feels underwhelming because of the bloat in the series, particularly in episodes 3 and 4. By the time the writing starts to pick up, and get stronger, it becomes a frustrating experience. Why now? Why not consistently throughout the series? With Walking Dead: Season 4 all but certain (as it says “Clementine’s Story will Continue….”) hopefully TellTale can go back to figuring out what made their series so exemplary and what can be done to improve? Otherwise, it might only end up feeling like a franchise that’s already been explored more than enough.