The second season of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead is a harsh slog through death, violence, and zombies. Which makes it all the more incredible that Season Two manages to be masterfully, achingly human. I’ll be attempting to keep this review spoiler-free since the main draw of the Telltale adventure games has always been experiencing the story.
The Walking Dead Season Two places players in the shoes of Clementine, the young girl who was a staple character of the previous season. Soon after the second season begins, Clementine becomes separated from her friends and meets a new group of survivors. Players follow her trials and tribulations with the new group and the people they meet as they go through their ordeals.
At its core, The Walking Dead Season Two knows how to construct drama. That mastery immediately sets it apart from many other blockbuster video games that rely on set piece spectacle, graphical horsepower, and marketing. Those bigger titles forget that effective drama relies on the audience empathizing and understanding the motivations of the characters. In this area, The Walking Dead Season Two excels. We understand the motivations of the characters, usually within the first few minutes of being introduced to them. Each character, even the bit players, have their own wants and needs, their own motivations. When we see those needs and wants clash, we can genuinely empathize with the situation, even if that situation is full of zombies.
If any game makes a compelling case for more diverse video game casts, it is the second season of The Walking Dead. The most interesting characters of the second season are mostly women. There are several non-white characters. There is even a great moment involving a male character who is in a relationship with another man. All of this comes together to create a more interesting narrative. Seeing different views and ideologies collide is fascinating, especially when you can understand their viewpoints.
As the season progresses, the player comes to an understanding of the level of violence permissible in the world of The Walking Dead and that understanding elevates the drama. When characters that we care about are threatened by intense, graphic violence we don’t want that to happen on a very fundamental level. When I say that the violence is some of the most graphic I have seen in a video game, I am not being hyperbolic. In particular, one scene stands out. There is a segment that involves a character being beaten into an unrecognizable, bloody mess with a crowbar. It is nauseatingly awful to witness and that is precisely the point. The Walking Dead’s second season makes a statement about how easily we accept horrific acts in our video games and how those acts are almost always treated casually or loosely justified with statements like, “It was war,” or even more simply, “they were the bad guys.” The brilliance of The Walking Dead Season 2 is that instances of violence, even in the most extreme cases, are never cheap and there is always an underlying point to their existence.
I’m currently playing through Wolfenstein: The New Order, so it is hard for me not to compare how violence works in each title. Don’t get me wrong, Wolfenstein: The New Order is a great game, but it falls into a category that I like to call, “well executed dumb.” It is trying to take players on a violence fueled romp through the ranks of Nazi’s who have taken over the world. The core mechanics all revolve around killing. I’d argue that violence is the end goal of Wolfenstein. If you take away the violent interactions there is no game left. You are never meant to think about the Nazi soldiers you kill in Wolfenstein as human beings. You are meant to think of them as monsters. There is nothing wrong with violence for its own sake, sometimes it can be very cathartic. However, violence by itself is empty excitement. When you compare the violence of The Walking Dead Season Two with that of Wolfenstein, you find that The Walking Dead uses violence with a purpose. For Telltale, violence is the means to an end.
Let’s return to the crowbar scene that I mentioned earlier. What end does the incident serve? On a purely base level for the player it provides a certain amount of catharsis seeing an “evil” character get some form of retribution. On a character level it is a statement about what kind of a person Clementine is becoming. It is a pivotal moment where she, and by extension the player, is given multiple opportunities to leave and let the event go unwitnessed. Whether the player decides to stay or leave says something about what Clementine has learned in her time surviving the apocalypse. Then the scene drags on and on. It becomes grotesque. It is not pleasant to sit through, nor was it intended to be. Why does such an occurrence of violence feel so strange and unique in the gaming world? In fact, it is remarkable how often games create similar scenes or situations and treat them casually. How many soldiers have we mowed down in Call of Duty without giving it a second thought? How about Grand Theft Auto? In real life the acts we see performed in most video games would be utterly awful. In that way, despite its cel-shaded graphics and preposterous setting, The Walking Dead Season Two feels like one of the most honest depictions of violence that video games have to offer. It is enough that it makes one question; should violence be so easily digested?
Midway through episode two Clementine is asked what she thinks is the most important thing in the world. No matter what response the player chooses the answer, Telltale’s writers tell us, is family. Where growing up was the central idea of the first season, family is the theme of the second season. We see Clementine through the struggles of surviving alone and then through the struggles of surviving with the people with whom fate has stuck her, much like how we are all stuck with our own families. In fact, there are a lot of different topics that are brought up over the course of playing the Walking Dead Season Two. A lot of people die, causing many characters to question the meaning of life and whether living is worth the trouble. Some find it hard to go on, others soldier on because it is the only thing they know how to do. How important is friendship and family in the face of life or death? Do children belong in such a world? Are the zombies or the humans the real monsters? Often Telltale forces players to make split second decisions; choices made in the heat of the moment that perhaps reflect a truth about how the player views the world.
All of this serious talk might make it seem like The Walking Dead Season Two is doom and gloom all the way through, but that would be a misrepresentation. There is real joy and laughter nestled amongst the sadness and loss. I laughed out loud at several moments and smiled through others. A lot of the humor derives from Clementine being a young girl who is treated out of necessity as an adult. Most of the time she rises to the occasion admirably, but sometimes she can’t help but show how in many ways she is still a kid. Maybe those moments taken out of context weren’t hilarious, but any levity serves such a contrast against the dismal backdrop of the world that a good guffaw isn’t too far away when the comedy hits.
You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t said much about the gameplay. That’s because there isn’t much to say about it. It is the least interesting aspect of Telltale’s recent adventure games and The Walking Dead Season Two isn’t an exception. Between the decisions that players will make are action segments comprised of quick time events. They’re not interesting by themselves, but the context of what players view on the screen makes them bearable. Tapping the Q key is not an interesting way to interact with a game. Often, interactivity is limited even during the moments when players are allowed to search an environment. However, I am more than happy to put up with the annoyance of quick time events and limited interactivity if I can experience more narratives of the quality produced by Telltale Games.
The third season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead has been confirmed which leads me to wonder how the next season will work. The ending of the second season diverges wildly after a certain point of decision the player makes as Clementine, resulting in three different core endings, two of which have several different ways they can play out. This would make it very difficult to start the third season with Clementine remaining as the main character. Perhaps Telltale’s writers will perform some complicated word jiu-jitsu and make it work, but I think it is more likely that next season will have a different protagonist and Clementine will make an appearance as one of the side characters. Only time will tell for certain, though.
The Walking Dead Season Two is one of the best narrative-focused games to be released this year. The writing is excellent, the performances are compelling, and the emotions it evokes are potent. The lack of variety in the interactions with the game world is overshadowed by the powerful narrative. Anything that might distract from the core experience with the story has been stripped away, revealing a journey with characters that will break your heart, mend it, and then shatter it all over again.
The Walking Dead Season Two is available on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.