Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
After leaving me in a state of extreme emotional fragility for just about every single episode, I considered Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 1 as one of the most powerful works of fiction I’ve ever experienced and a testament to the intrinsic artistic value that video game medium possesses.
With such great expectations set by the first season, it’s incredibly hard for The Walking Dead: Season 2 to actually live up to them. If I were to measure this second installment strictly by those expectations, it fails for the most part.
[There will be spoilers for The Walking Dead: Season 1 here on out.]
There is nothing that’s mechanically groundbreaking about TWD: S2. Gameplay is still mostly interaction through a series of conversations and short quick-time events. For a majority of these segments, you have limited time to react accordingly. The chats are more open-ended in how they affect the story, but the QTEs usually result in restarting the section after meeting a gruesome death.
If there’s any difference worth noting in that aspect of the game, it’s that there seems to be far fewer moments where you’re given freedom to move around, talk to people and interact with the environment in a relaxed state. The puzzle-solving element in the first game has been discarded. The puzzles themselves were never really the point though, as they were never a challenge. They were simply a mechanism to let the game breathe for a few moments in between the drama, and to draw more connections with the characters during the downtime.
And I guess that highlights the problems that I have with The Walking Dead: Season 2.
As thrilling as the action sequences and the dynamic movement of the plot as it barreled towards its climaxes, they left me feeling a bit cold for what’s supposed to truly matter in this type of story: the characters.
I think it’s safe to say that the overall cast of S1 is stronger than S2’s. Kenny was a bro, positive and negative connotations included. Carley was charming and broke my heart. Larry was a memorable ass. Lilly was just as memorable for her strength and her weaknesses. Duck made me laugh and cry. And who could ever forget Ben? Even tertiary characters like Omid, Christa, Chuck, hell, even the cannibal family in the farm were remarkable in their own way.
I can count on one hand the number of characters I actually feel strongly about in S2.
Because of how things seem to move much faster in this series, I’m left with only an inkling as to who the majority of the cast really are. So when a character meets his/her doom, I find myself shrugging instead of mourning their loss. I’m not asking for more bombast, but even the death scenes in and of themselves weren’t very memorable compared to the (face) crushing fatalities in Season 1.
If there’s a positive side to all the comparisons being made to the spectacular first outing, it’s that this season did a good job building from what connections were left in the aftermath to forge an even stronger relationship between me and Clem. The decision to make her the main character without jumping forward in time to make her an adult or at least a teenager gave me plenty of doubt in the beginning. Although they are not so gracefully executed all the time, the circumstances that forced Clementine to be the one making important choices were believable enough for me to swallow. From playing the role of protector of Clementine to playing as her, the harrowing brushes with death feel all the more terrifying because of their greater sense of immediacy.
This transfer of agency applies more importantly to how every choice I make contributes to the growth of her character. I see her grow up with all the trying situations she finds herself in while struggling to maintain some semblance of innocence or humanity in a world where those values are growing scarce. Considering how I’ve always been more of a goody two-shoes in games that offer a level of freedom in how actions are taken and how dialogue is steered, there was little, if any, player-character identity separation in pursuing a more “humane” choice. There is a great surge of pride when she takes the initiative in a risky situation, or be more of an adult than the rest in quelling arguments.
Because of this bond with Clementine, the newly introduced characters that made a lasting impression on me were the ones that were given ample time to engage with Clem; namely Luke, the kind-hearted yet emotionally unsure de facto leader of the new group; Jane, the survivalist loner; Carver, the charismatic violent villain and Michael Madsen’s scariest performance since Mr. Blonde; and to a lesser extent, Sarah, alternate reality Clem had Lee coddled her too much.
Of the four, Carver deserves the most attention, as he fulfills a role that could have easily been seen as a reliance on bad guy tropes. The cannibal family in S1 were good stand-alone antagonists, but Carver brings a real fear with his presence and even plays a crucial role in the development of Clementine and a returning character. There’s no denying his singular importance that the Stranger in the first season couldn’t muster, especially for the many players that made the “right choice” in Starved for Help and felt no moral dilemma in No Time Left.
However, the most compelling relationship in this season happens to be one that’s with that returning character. It’s no slight at all given that S2 is a direct sequel so it only makes sense for it to enrich established friendships, and the way it’s handled throughout the season certainly make for a heartrending car crash plot line that you know won’t end well but can’t look away from.
However, it does end well for some players because Telltale made yet another bold decision in allowing multiple endings. Whether this is a direct response to complaints about choices not mattering in the previous game or not, having 4 vastly different outcomes has big implications on the future of the series. Telltale already confirmed that there will be a third season. With how radically different the endings play out, there’s a good chance Telltale jumps way further ahead in the timeline for the unique situations to no longer matter in case we still play as Clementine. Or we might play with a brand new set of characters removed from the events of the end of Season 2.
Whatever the future holds for Telltale’s The Walking Dead, my only wish is that the dev team brings back the care in crafting the supporting cast so that the stakes remain high for the entire season. They might not have the safety net of past relationships to fall back on, and the constant paranoia and tragedy starts to numb.