Monday, September 22, 2014

Just Keep On Walkin'

Man, talk about brutal! The ostensible reason I gave myself for waiting to start Season 2 of The Walking Dead was so I could “binge play” it and get through all of the episodes without needing to wait for months in between. Frankly, though, I was probably at least somewhat influenced by a desire to avoid the inevitable anguish for as long as possible. The Walking Dead is a fantastic game, one of my absolute favorites of the last few years, but it’s also one of the bleakest and most heartbreaking.

On a technical level, the second season builds on the successes of the first. The overall art style is the same, although there’s a higher level of polish that makes the characters look more vivid, and the new settings are generally even more impressive than the relatively mundane ones of the first game. I also feel like they’ve really perfected the gameplay. Even over the course of the first season, they gradually de-emphasized the more traditional hunt-and-seek adventure game tropes, and correspondingly put more weight on in-depth conversations and quick-time events. Early in Season One, there were occasional spots where I would briefly feel stuck, and would get very slightly frustrated as I tried doing a bunch of random things to advance. That never happens any more. It isn’t completely on rails - there are optional things to do along the way, and some limited opportunities for exploration - but it’s always very clear how to proceed to the next sequence.

I recently heard someone describe TWD as more of an “interactive story” than a “game”. I initially bristled at that characterization, and then started wondering why I had that reaction. My gut reaction is that an “interactive story” is a cheap and uninteresting thing, while a “game” is high-quality and engaging. Really, though, practically all of my favorite games have compelling stories, and I’m always harping on it when a story disappoints me in some way.

It might be fair to say that TWD lies somewhere between a choose-your-own-adventure comic book / TV show, and a video game. It’s true that you do spend proportionally more time watching and listening to other characters; however, your actions can have profound impacts on the direction of that show. Unlike CYOA, which tends to be purely branching (you pick between mutually exclusive paths), TWD has a broader and richer state. You might have conversations with three different people one night, and then get in an argument with them the next day. Each one of those three will remember what you said the night before, but all of your choices were independent of one another. The result is a very organic-feeling adaptable structure which rarely calls attention to itself.

And, in a way, the diminishing of the “game” portion of this experience aligns nicely with my evolving preferences. Minute-for-minute, I get more enjoyment out of TWD than most games, just because I’m always seeing something completely new, always driving the story forwards. There’s no fighting multiple enemies to level up, no time spent fiddling with items in a giant inventory, no incremental upgrades of slightly-better weapons. Just a story that keeps punching me in the gut over and over again.

MINI SPOILERS (for TWD Season 2, MEGA SPOILERS for Season 1)

I’d remarked last year how odd it felt that we had three popular, successful, critically-acclaimed games that all featured gruff middle-aged men looking after young girls. Although their gameplay was different, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us and BioShock Infinite explored this trope in a lot of different ways, and with generally great results: the female characters felt fully developed and believable, they were helpful and didn’t die easily.

I don’t think I could have predicted that, more than a year on, all three of those games would have add-ons in which you actually played as that young girl. I’ve already written about my experiences with Elizabeth in BioShock: Burial at Sea Part 2; I haven’t yet played as Ellie in Left Behind, but did play as her for a good-sized stretch in The Last of Us. I’m pretty happy with how all of them have turned out. The gameplay is fun and rewarding; it recalls the original experience of playing as the male lead, so it isn’t as if you’re missing out or playing a simplified version; but at the same time, you’re controlling a very different character (most notably physically different), and the game mechanics change to reflect that. Ellie had an entirely separate set of moves from Joel: she couldn’t sneak up behind someone and put them in a chokehold, since she’s too short; but unlike Joel she could leap up onto their back and, uh, stab them in the throat with a knife. In Burial at Sea, particularly if you played in 1998 Mode, Elizabeth’s stealthy, pacifist modes of progress stood in stark contrast to Booker’s shoot-everything-that-moves-until-they-are-all-dead way of operating.

The Walking Dead is very different from those action games, and the in-game controls are the same for Clem in Season 2 as they were for Lee in Season 1. Nonetheless, it feels like the developers did a great job at reflecting the place you hold in this very dangerous world. Lee, a fairly strong man, could use his physical strength to smack back zombies and leap over fences. Clementine uses a pistol, hatchet or knife when she needs to engage with zombies, and is capable of crawling into tight spaces that Lee wouldn’t have been able to enter.

TWD has always been mostly about its conversations, and here too they continue to do a great job. It’s an interesting challenge: as the player character, we naturally expect to have a lot of autonomy in making decisions; however, as a young girl in a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested landscape, we would expect to be dependent upon others. The writing is consistently sharp, coming up with very natural and believable reasons for why Clem is being tasked with doing some particularly dangerous errand; they even lampshade it a few times later on, with characters saying things like, “You’re just a little girl, and you’ve done more for the group than anyone else!”

On a personal level, too, Clementine generally has a better time navigating group politics than Lee did. Most people like her, and few view her as a threat. As Lee, the tension often came from worrying that other people would act directly against you. As Clementine, the tension generally comes from worrying about dissent between other factions within the group: everyone wants you to be on their side, which might feel a little like a child caught between two parents in a divorce.

In keeping with the pattern established in Season One, the story can vary in a lot of different ways: you’ll still move through the same locations from one episode to the next, but different people can die or live at different points, which has ripple effects on the rest of the story. And there’s also everyone’s opinion to worry about; there’s not necessarily and “right” or “wrong” way to play the game, but my goal is usually to stay on good terms with as many people as I can for as long as I can. Of course, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and any taste of victory will swiftly turn to ashes in your mouth… but that’s all part of the lovable charm that is The Walking Dead!

One of the most fascinating features of TWD from its very first episode has been the graph which shows at the end of each episode, describing what you decided for the major choices in the episode and how it compared to the average. Looking at this tends to make me actually feel really optimistic about the human race: while many of the choices are tough, there tend to be really solid majorities behind the choices that clearly demonstrate empathy or pure acts of kindness. It kind of flies in the face of the stereotype of gamers as immoral sociopaths, which is very encouraging. (Of course, I should note that the audience of The Walking Dead is self-selecting and probably not representative of gamers as a whole.)

The choices that tend to interest me the most are the ones where I’m in the minority, or where there’s an overwhelming majority. Neither happens all that often. There was one spot in the game where one person was about to harm another person. (Sorry, being vague here.) You had a choice to remain or to leave. I decided to remain; my thinking was that this way at least I could keep an eye on things, and intervene if the situation got too dire. At the end of the episode, I saw that most players had opted to leave. That made me realize that, of course, most people would probably think that sticking around would indicate complicity with or approval in this act of torture, and would vote to show their protest by removing their selves. To their credit, the developers didn’t enforce any particular interpretation on this: they keep a faithful record of what decision you make, but don’t require you to declare your motivation; therefore, in addition to the different game routes people will take based on their in-game choices, people will also come away with very different ideas of what happened in the game based on their own internal thought processes and ambitions for the character.

For example, late in the game I came to realize that the group I was traveling with was not stable. I began to plan in my mind about how to best manage its inevitable dissolution, so we could continue our lives with a minimum of collateral damage. I had even gone so far as to mentally select leaders, followers, and destinations for each faction. Of course, such well-laid plans are doomed to failure, and the group began splintering of its own accord. But it felt personally tragic because the people abandoning me were the very ones I was hoping would be in my faction. My private narration added a whole other layer of betrayal, on top of the one explicit within the game itself.


So, big decision points:

I saved Nick at the end of Episode 1. It looked like Pete had been bitten, and if I’ve learned one thing from zombie movies, comics, TV shows and video games, it’s that there’s no hope for someone after they’re bitten. Of course, after that I started feeling guilty. After all, Pete had said “I’m fine!”, and he’s a solid, level-headed guy. What if he had just scratched himself on the weeds, and it looked like a bite to me? Which would be very ironic, since Pete was the only one who believed me when I said that my own injury was not the result of a zombie bite.

I sort of took Nick under my wing, trying to help him calm down and also stay engaged with life; he’s kind of a tough person to like, but he seemed to get better, and made it until near the end of the game.

As noted above, I generally tried to be as nice as possible to everyone and get them all to like me. Rebecca is one of the few who is strongly against you from the beginning; I stayed respectful, and didn’t blab about her child’s paternity, and she gradually came around. I was really happy to see Bonnie from 400 Days show up, and trusted her; that made it sting when she turned out to be in league with Carver, but she has a strong moral compass, and her guilt eventually transformed her into a helpful (though not eternal) ally.

I was initially delighted to see Kenny again: it was great to see a familiar face after so long, and I quickly restored our friendship. (Incidentally, I seriously loved all of the [Hug] options in dialogues, and took advantage of pretty much all of them.) I was happy to see him doing relatively well after the tragedy of losing Duck and Katja; but he’s still kind of on edge even when you first encounter him this season, and that edge just gets crueler and crueler as the game goes on. I supported him killing (but not torturing) Carver, not out of revenge but from sheer pragmatism: if I’ve learned one thing from The Governor, it’s that you don’t leave a charismatic sociopath in your wake.

When Sarita got bitten at the end of Episode 3, I quickly hacked her arm off with a knife, figuring that way she at least had a fraction of a chance. But no, it was hopeless. Kenny spiraled even deeper after that. The one thing that seems to bring him back to normalcy is the baby Alvin Jr., but I felt like by the end of the story, even that paternal feeling of love has been corrupted into a dark source of hatred: he can justify any cruel action to himself if he thinks it’s for the benefit of the child.

In contrast, I was quickly simpatico with Jane. She reminds me a lot of Michonne, who might be my favorite character from the comic and TV show: she’s practical, no-nonsense, smart, resourceful, and independent. On a practical level, she’s managed to survive for several years both in groups and on her own, and has actually paid attention during that time, figuring out what had worked and what hadn’t. Best of all, she seems to like Clem and genuinely respect her. I decided that I’d hitch my wagon to her; it wasn’t always a smooth ride, but it seems like the best possible outcome in the very dire situation you find yourself.

Anyways… as noted above, I’d realized a while before that our group wasn’t working out. I’d initially fantasized about Kenny, Bonnie and AJ taking one group while myself, Jane and Mike took another, but of course that didn’t happen. I was more confident about staying silent in this season than the one before, and during several stretches I showed my disapproval of Kenny by refusing to engage with him. (Silence also worked wonders with Carver, who has a bizarre conception of who you are and will talk you up by himself if you keep quiet.) I was pretty sure that it would end with either Kenny or Jane going down, and at the very end I was the one who pulled the trigger.

I was slightly disappointed that this automatically segued into a return to Howe’s; getting away from Kenny had been my top priority, but I was actually intrigued by the idea of living in a cold area that slowed down zombies. On the flip side, neither Jane nor Clementine were about to breast-feed AJ, so I’m glad they returned to a place where they knew they could get formula for her.

And, that’s pretty much where it ended! I hesitated pretty heavily at the final choices, but ultimately decided to let the others in. Frankly, I’m not sure if it makes sense to try and remain in Howe’s and build it back up or not; I’m always perplexed in the comic and TV show when the survivors try to repair and shore up a place that has already been decimated by an earlier attack. I think the best-case scenario would be to get a small but sustainable group of folks in there, including someone to look after AJ, and then hit the road again with Jane.


All in all, I’d say that TWD Season 2 improves on the first one: the gameplay is more fun, the story is even more focused, and the stakes have gotten incredibly high, building on top of all the emotional investment from the first season. It doesn’t feel quite as revolutionary this time around, but that’s just because I’ve come to expect great things from Telltale.

It probably goes without saying that this video game series is, hands down, the best aspect of the Walking Dead franchise. It has the visceral immediacy of the comics, but refuses to allow you to simply be a spectator for this dark story: you must become complicit in its construction, which makes the experience even more powerful.

At this point, I’m pretty much totally committed to whatever Telltale feels like doing. A third season of TWD has been announced, which I’ll definitely be grabbing. There’s currently no word on a follow-up to The Wolf Among Us, but it seems to have been well-received and I’m optimistic they will continue that story as well. And a Telltale Games entry based on the Game of Thrones HBO show? Sign me up!

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