Alex Phillimore: (alex.phillimore-deleteme[at]-deleteme-direman [dot] com) 2014-08-31 05:49:32
The Walking Dead: Season 2 review
A lot of the big reviewing sites have started to review episodes of Telltale Games's games separately, presumably because some websites appear to have a fap-friendly relationship with the studio, such as IGN. While talking about individual episodes is fine, however, the real way to analyse these games should be as entire seasons, as this allows the player to reflect on how a coherent narrative has been created throughout. And while episodes of Season 2 of The Walking Dead have been enjoyable on their own grounds, when you look at them as a whole they lack clarity.
Season 2 chose to put players in the shoes of Clementine, the girl you protect in the first season. This was a problematic decision from the start, because nobody will realistically listen to a little girl during a zombie apocalypse, and this issue remains consistent throughout the entire season. There are countless conversations where you give your input only to have people either entirely ignore you or disagree with you and tell you that the group is doing something regardless of your contribution. You aren't the one making the hard decisions in Season 2, and it really doesn't matter what you do right up until the fifth and final episode.
One classic example of your lack of significance in the story is in the fourth episode, where you can either steal medicine from a young Russian boy called Arvo or let him go with the medicine. Whichever you pick, the result is the same - he accuses you of theft and his gang attack you. Season 1 had an illusion that your choice mattered during certain scenes, but never did it so blatantly make your choices so irrelevant. You can tell that your choices throughout the season mean absolutely nothing by the fact that there is no 'Judge' in this game. Recall Season 1, where the Stranger examines your big decisions from across the season and judges you accordingly; or in The Wolf Among Us where the Crooked Man's trial is influenced by the things you did throughout previous episodes.
There is no such confirmation of involvement in Season 2 of The Walking Dead. You don't get judged for anything you do because your decisions are so pointless. Characters die regardless of what you do - the majority of them are barely developed and it isn't until the final episode that the game actually tries to explore them during a scene around a campfire that is all too fleeting. By this point, however, you've already lost 70% of the people you've encountered in the game...all without getting to know so much as a footnote of information about them.
The only choice that matters is the final choice of the fifth episode, which forces you to choose between saving Kenny or Jane - the former a character introduced in the first episode of Season 1 and the latter a young woman introduced out of nowhere and given a disproportionate amount of development in the fourth episode of Season 2. The choice for me wasn't difficult to make, but it did at least prove that I had some control over the game. I let Jane die and went with Kenny to Wellington - if I'd gone with Jane, I would have ended up in an entirely different location.
Sadly, this is the only choice in an entire season that makes the slightest bit of difference to how the narrative develops. Season 2 is painfully linear and playing as a little girl forces you into the role of voyeur - you get to watch people fall apart around you and you can't do anything to stop it. But rather than feeling like a clever observation of the futility of life in such dark times as a zombie apocalypse, it instead merely feels like lazy game design. Telltale Games has proven that it arbitrarily makes changes at the last minute in its episodes (episode preview trailers often don't match up to what actually happens; delays often occur without explanation) making it difficult to believe that they had a consistently well thought-out idea from the start with Season 2.
So many bits and pieces in Season 2 don't match up between episodes and ideas are introduced and then abandoned carelessly. One key example is that from the second episode of the season onwards a conflict between Kenny and Luke is clearly growing, with plenty of 'Kenny / Luke will remember that' decisions and lots of points where you're forced to pick between siding with one or the other. This doesn't lead to anything - there is no climax where they fight, or where all of these 'will remember that' decisions achieve something. Luke is killed off while crossing an ice lake (which is a stupid thing to cross in the first place when the map of the area shown in the fourth episode clearly shows a bridge is in the area) and decisions made throughout the game once again mean nothing.
I would go as far as to say that the different writers for the episodes were coming from entirely different angles when putting together their plots; and thus the episodes only loosely tie together and continuity is sparse. I don't think there was a grand plan for Season 2 - I feel that a lot of it was made up as they went along, and the overall poor quality of the majority of the cast is the unfortunate outcome. In a game where the gameplay is so lacking that creating a decent storyline and characters is utterly imperative, Season 2 really does fail to say anything meaningful. The whole season feels like a missed opportunity, meandering back and forth in different directions without ever having a real focus. On their own merits the episodes are enjoyable, but the second season of The Walking Dead as a whole could have used a little less walking and a lot more direction.