Back in 2012, Telltale Games came out with one of “those” games: The Walking Dead. Releasing to critical acclaim for all five of its episodes, The Walking Dead raised a lot of questions about what video games were at the time, with its stripped down adventure game mechanics and focus on narrative. Whether or not it was a traditional game didn’t stop people from liking it; The Walking Dead had such a good grasp of pacing, theme, character-writing, and its own episodic structure that it was one of the most memorable experiences of the year. That first season was bold. It had vision.
Season 2 of The Walking Dead is a different story.
It isn’t an especially BAD game, but season 2 of The Walking Dead can’t help but fall flat when compared to its predecessor in nearly every regard. Oh sure, there are some minor improvements: some noticeable engine upgrades essentially eliminate a lot of the framerate issues of the first season, and the game as a whole has a little bit of a sharper look (partially due to a wider color palette). But these are all small fixes; when it comes to the stuff that really matters, mainly the writing, season 2 really fumbles.
The problems start immediately in episode 1 (or as I like to call it, “Absurdly Bad Shit Happens to Clementine”). The decision to remove Omid and Christa from the outset seem to be in service of punishing Clementine as much as possible, and that’s a theme that runs through nearly all of the episode. Clementine goes from losing Omid and Christa, to being chased through the woods, falling into a river, getting bitten by a seemingly friendly dog, being shot at when people find her, and finally being forced to perform surgery on herself. Telltale’s writing staff this season seems to think that misery is an automatic catalyst for good drama, but it only marginally works here because of a lot of work last season setting up Clementine as a character. She’s really the only consistent saving grace this season, with Melissa Hutchinson delivering another great performance this time around, particularly in this episode, where the other characters are set up as complete assholes.
Things improve a little by the end of the episode, with a quieter dinner scene that feels pretty welcome after all of the earlier chaos, but the episode also sets up a lot of threads that don’t really go anywhere as the season progresses. For example: Rebecca’s hostility towards Clementine essentially diffuses halfway through episode 2, Pete and Nick’s relationship doesn’t really have any time to progress since Pete gets killed off pretty quickly, and Sarah…well, Sarah’s arc certainly GOES somewhere, but it’s nowhere good.
The following two episodes are easily the best of the season, mainly because the pacing is a lot better and the conflicts are less arbitrary. The opening moments of the second episode with Nick work to make the character a lot more relatable than his off-putting introduction last episode, and that’s used to pretty good effect by the end of the episode with Walt. That sequence actually has a lot of tension; Nick’s reasoning for shooting Matthew is shoddy but ultimately understandable, and I like that the end result depends on how honest you are with both Walter and Nick. Even better is the Carver stuff, which leads to legitimately threateningly moments for the group. Bringing back Kenny also works (within this episode, anyway) by giving Clementine some actual good news.
Really, the only main issue with the third episode is that its placement within the season feels too early. The Carver stuff provides such a clear force of conflict that the next two episodes feel really adrift trying to figure out what to do. There’s also some clumsy stuff with trying to draw parallels between Clementine and Carver (and some really poor payoff for the 400 Days content), but the rest of the episode is an interestingly set prison-break scenario. Kenny’s conflict with the rest of the group (whom, due to prior experience, has little hope of escape) is a lot more sensible than his later ones would be, and Carver is a pretty believably shitty overlord. The final moments of the episode are also likely the season’s best, with Clementine’s group wading through a group of walkers while guards take shots at the horde, and the decision to cut off Sarita’s arm is a really gnarly one.
It’s at this point that season 2 decides to try its best to destroy the goodwill it worked up over the last couple of episodes.
Episode 4 is a huge mess, and throws a large wrench into any of the season’s long-term attempts at theme and character building. The biggest issue is easily the treatment of Sarah, which gives the episode a pretty unsettling vibe, and not in a good way. In addition to being sheltered from the worst of the post-apocalypse, it’s implied throughout the season that Sarah has a mild mental disorder; because of this and the graphic death of her father in front of her, she enters a state of shock that she has trouble snapping out of. Characters (specifically Jane) suggest that maybe Sarah shouldn’t be saved, that she won’t be able to handle the world around her. Telltale seems to agree with this sentiment, because it is impossible to save Sarah by the end of the episode (to delay her inevitable death you’re forced to slap her out of her state of shock, which isn’t how that works). In an episode that seems to use a baby as a symbol of hope, it’s gross that Telltale thinks a disabled teenage girl is less capable of surviving in the post-apocalypse than an infant.
Her death, and the deaths of Carlos and Nick all receive bizarrely muted reactions from everyone in the group. It makes these deaths especially apparent as little more than shock value, a lesson season 2 seems to be taking from The Walking Dead‘s TV incarnation. This isn’t the only thing wrong with this episode, with the introduction of Arvo and his group of Russians makes for a really lame cliffhanger at the episode’s end. They’re a source of conflict introduced out of the blue in this episode, and it’s made even worse by the decision to kill off Rebecca in the middle of the standoff. I get it, season 2, your world is really dour and unfair. It’s a shame it isn’t interesting either.
I don’t know if anything in this episode works at all, unless viewed through a lens where all parts of it are separate from each other. For example, the campfire bonding scene early on in the episode is a good start, but whatever sense of camaraderie formed there doesn’t extend to anything beyond that point. Luke’s death is part of a well executed “thin ice” scene, but what exactly does his death serve? Luke’s character seemed, from the reintroduction of Kenny in episode 2, to be the one that would butt heads against Kenny in the finale; his death serves no greater purpose than shock value, par for the course in season 2. The character writing is likely at its most inconsistent within this episode: Kenny turns from agreeable and friendly one moment to irrational and violent the next, Jane’s return is pretty inexplicable (and her set-up for her final showdown with Kenny only starts this episode), and Mike and Bonnie’s decision to take Arvo (someone they had met only two days ago, during which he almost got them killed) and leave behind Clementine with Kenny is absurd.
The endings are all born from more ridiculous irrationality from Kenny and Jane, and none of the three ending cutscenes are particularly satisfying (particularly my ending, where Jane and Clementine meet some people and then the episode just kind of ends). Time and again, season 2 wants to expect me that an eleven year old is a more rational person than nearly any adult within her group. Season 2 could have used this season as a way to explore that perspective of a young girl in the post-apocalypse, but it resolves instead to just make all of the other characters idiots in order to make Clementine the most rational person.
The Walking Dead season 2 is sporadically enjoyable, especially during its middle stretch, but it ultimately fails at nearly everything the first season nailed so well. Characters die so shortly after meeting Clementine that there’s rarely anytime to build meaningful relationships with them (and those that do persist are often underwhelming). Clementine is given an undue amount of responsibility among characters for an eleven year old, leaving the writers the task of writing them as irrational to justify it. There is little sense of an on-going thematic thread, and conflicts rarely persist from episode-to-episode, giving the season a disjointed feel. The Walking Dead season 2 is a let down of the highest sort, content to do little more than flounder around depressingly for eight-to-ten hours. Clementine deserved better.