The Stupidity of Sequels
The Walking Dead is a work of art, it is an achievement in interactive storytelling, a clever amalgamation of emotional investment and the illusion of choice, and a terrific social commentary on human capacity for good and evil if pushed to the limit. It deserves the praise heaped upon it, and accepts the generous helping of flaws it possesses. In the end it is an unapologetic title, one that surges forth on the blood of its many protagonists, fueled by their grief, propelled by their quests.
Unfortunately, it also seems oddly incomplete and unsatisfying.
There is a strange trend in video games these days. Irrespective of the genre, the setting, or the mechanics, it seems the investment in the engine, the team and the intellectual capital is too great to allow games to be self-contained. In other words, every title seems hell-bent on twisting the narrative at the last second to ensure that there is, inevitably, a sequel. The Walking Dead is no different, where the ending seems forced, twisted, and leaves us with more questions than answers. But the one thing it leaves us completely sure of is that there will be a sequel.
The fifth episode picks up exactly where the last one left off, with Lee responding on the radio with the choice that you made at the end of episode four. The undead threat is more palpable than ever as Savannah has been invaded by a mobile herd that followed Lee's train. Clementine's inexplicable disappearance, Lee's pending mortality, and the conflicts between the members of the group add pressure to an already desperate situation. Things are spinning out of control, the decisions are tougher, and the very first one involves an enormous personal sacrifice.
A few days prior, developer Telltale Games released the statistics for episode four, establishing that most players were "good guys" as the empirical data suggested that people were making positive decisions. I think that may have some measure of truth to it, but it is not the whole story. Lee and Clementine are fully-fleshed characters, protagonists that seem closer to us than some actual people we may know in real life. Their lives matter, their story matters, their suffering matters. In my review for episode four, I mentioned that I was beginning to make decisions that would largely benefit Clementine and Lee, and not what I thought would be pragmatic, rational choices as a potentially neutral observer. The very first choice was a tough call; I actually had to pause the game to artificially stretch the amount of time I had to make the decision.
No cheap tricks
The amount of tension is ramped up in this episode, and while the actual game mechanics remain elementary at best, they are often used to incredible result. There is a section where Lee has to cross a makeshift bridge over a chasm filled with the undead and the bridge is constructed with rotten, creaking planks and crumbling sections of plywood all held together by, ostensibly, duct tape. The camera shifts as you inch Lee forward, expecting the plank shattering underfoot to make its predictable appearance. It builds tension, but manages to surprise you in the end without having to resort to cheap tricks.
The voice acting remains incredible, with the highlight for me being a screaming match between two characters who have been at odds for a while. Lee's gradual mental deterioration is very ably reflected in the tone of his voice, the desperation of his actions and his commitment to protect the little girl he now considers family. It all reaches a literal deafening crescendo, a desperate romp through zombie-infested Savannah to get to Clementine. Then it takes a diametrically opposing narrative structure, culminating in a quiet room, a look into the eyes of insanity masquerading as a rational conversation. But the inherent rescuer-victim relationship between Lee and Clementine is not nearly as black and white as we have come to expect from many forms of narrative. Clementine is Lee's salvation, his lifeline, his purpose in a wretched life filled with grief, failed friendships and fallen friends.
Problems and Drawbacks
Episode five is not without its problems. There are serious plot holes that make no sense. Zombies ignore characters using zombie guts as camouflage, but attack seconds later simply because it helps build a better sequence. Lee is maimed fairly brutally in the beginning, but somehow manages to accomplish incredible feats of strength as if nothing had changed. The puzzles in this episode have clearly taken a turn for the worse: ill-conceived, ill-designed and badly implemented. If a puzzler involves picking up object A to unlock object B, and those two are the only objects in the room, something went wrong in the development cycle.
All things said and done, the collective experience that is The Walking Dead: Season One is a thing of beauty. It defies convention, transcends genres, and begs us to categorize entirely new genres. I just wish they had stuck to the formula that made the first few episodes so incredible and given us some measure of closure at the end. For a game that breathed so much new life into the undead genre, I really wish they had not burdened the finale with flat puzzles, illogical plot elements and an obligatory sequel setup.
Story is strong, the choices are brutal, the world darker and more unforgiving than ever.
Uninspiring puzzles, some not so believable plot points, left more questions than it provided answers.