I liked the first season of The Walking Dead, though perhaps not as fervently as everyone else. It was emotionally draining and had a deft hand at making characters you like die in horrifying ways, and that’s really what it was best at. Despite how small your choices were in the grand scheme of things, it felt like everything you did was important to the group. Your choices had reverberations that would pop up a couple of episodes later and make you go “whoa! They actually did remember!” and, with the exception of Station Wagon Man, could be pretty smartly done.
But when people started all this hubbub about how it could change game narratives forever and started handing it awards, I was a little confused. It had some of the same problems as a game like Mass Effect did, just on a smaller scale–choice was essentially an illusion to get you to one specific point in the end, it was linear and had a bad twist at the end. Where it really stood out was character. People mattered, and some of the deaths in Season 1 were shocking, horrific, heart-breaking even. That’s what was important about it. The narrative structure was pretty safe, but the wrappings and the journey and the growth was what made it so worth playing.
It’s actually the narrative structure that’s most fascinating about it. It presents two things that games don’t really do that often: nonlinear narrative and short stories. And both are fascinating ideas. I played through the days out of order, and it resulted in me finding out things about characters that we weren’t meant to until later. It made my playthrough so much more interesting. It gave me a chance to piece together a puzzle. In fact, playing through in the correct order would probably be the worst way to play this game. There are small little carryovers between stories, and finding them in the wrong order was a fun way to piece together where things happened. Even better, it shed a different light on characters when certain things happened, taking them from “well, they were just surviving…” to “who are these monsters?” in the time it takes to realize who they are.
While it’s certainly interesting that they decided to go with short stories for this, the problem then lies in the fact that you don’t get much in terms of character development OR your choices and interactions having much of an effect. Everyone is sort of presented as is, or they get their full characterizations in the first five minutes of their segment, and there isn’t much subtlety. Each episode then sort of gives you a couple of choices, some of them feel a little more contrived, like the characters are forcing you to take a black-and-white decision without any middle ground. I was even surprised when some of scenarios wound up as choices because there were likely many better ways to go about this than how they did.
There’s also a problem with exactly how the game gets you involved. Being thrown right into the middle of a group dynamic that’s clearly been developing for months and asking you to make a choice as to who should live and who should die doesn’t really help me in any way because I don’t know these people. What do I care if this character is being asked to kill someone? I don’t know either of these people so I don’t know what that actually means. What was their dynamic? Were they even friends?
And then it kind of doesn’t matter. It throws up the usual results screen, but to what end? There is a final scene where people decide whether or not to go to a camp of survivors, but why does it matter who went? It doesn’t give me any reason to care about that core question of “what is the point of what I just did,” and I’m left to assume that it’s going to feed into something that happens in season 2, but for now it just seems empty and completely lacks punch. I liked the drama that built up in the episodes, but by the end of each one, they just completely fizzled out for me.
On top of that, because there are so many characters in this, you know Telltale is just going to kill off a chunk of them to make the writing easier and even out the results. Just like they did in Season 1.
The narrative experiments are definitely awesome, but you can’t just put style over substance, especially when all the same problems return. Hitchy framerates, action sequences that hang too long and make you fail them at least once thanks to technical error, the fact that you want to say something but your character doesn’t give you the option.
Without those characters and the weight to your choices really coming together, I don’t think there’s much point in playing this. Telltale says it’ll tie into the second season, but there doesn’t really seem to be a need for this. Taking away everything that made the first season great– characterization and a smart use of choice– you get a narrative experiment that doesn’t go anywhere and leaves no lasting impressions. Even looking back at the names, I already don’t remember who these people are. It’s a strange stopgap between the two seasons, but really, I’d have preferred to wait than to shell out money to get something so entirely unrelated and ultimately unsatisfying.