We are now up to the third game in Telltale’s Walking Dead franchise, which is really more of a ‘4.5’ once you consider side adventure Michonne and add-on 400 Days, and since Telltale hit critical acclaim with the first title’s unique ‘streamlined’ (that can be viewed as an expletive depending on who you are) type of adventure gameplay Telltale has invented something of a small new genre. A genre that they’ve been practicing at since Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, but never quite nailed until the appearance of Clementine and her guardian Lee roughly four years ago. In that time we’ve seen many more Telltale titles, The Wolf Among Us, Minecraft Story Mode, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and Batman, and we’ve seen others still throw in their lot with Telltale’s gameplay in the form of Dontnod’s Life is Strange and Night School Studio’s Oxenfree. Occasionally, whether from the source or a new indie lot, these games manage to remain exciting and sometimes even innovate. The rest however are infected with a crippling syndrome that has plagued mankind from the dawn of creativity. A syndrome we call: Formulaic.
It’s hard to place blame squarely on Telltale’s shoulders for the stagnation of the Walking Dead series. The television series is apparently filled with more fluff than a pillow, while I bailed from Robert Kirkman’s comic books a long time ago due to so much wheel spinning, I may as well have been buying rims. So maybe all we can do as an audience is hope for the ‘best version’ of Walking Dead. For the first seasons of TV, Telltale’s first game set and the first volume of the comic, that was survivors in over their heads in a new world where Zomb… Walkers chased their every step. As these respective series trotted on they became less about the New World Order and the Walkers, and more about the threat of other survivor bands. As Rick Grimes infamously put it “We are the Walking Dead.” So maybe now Telltale is caught up with the show and comics in that a down to Earth, high stakes zombie romp has become more of a big action set piece in a Fallout reminiscent universe that just happens to have zombies in it.
Yet I’ll dare to ask, nay, demand more of Telltale’s Walking Dead. During the first two seasons of the game many players acted whether directly or via proxy through the character of young Clementine. In Season 1 Lee was this convict well familiar with death, yet his behavior (essentially yours) was modified by having the responsibility of taking care of this 8 year old girl. You were her surrogate father and by most accounts, no matter how well you tried, you were doing a terrible job. When that game ends: SPOILER ALERT: Lee is at the end of his life and has to leave poor Clem all alone. He loads her up with advice then sends her off. In the second game you inhabited a ten year old Clem. A once thought risky endeavor for a video game, especially one with Walking Dead’s tone and level of violence. Yet Clem proved to be amenable, tough and, in an admittedly strange way because why would anyone defer to a 10 year old? Strong leader of the group. At the end of that game, MORE SPOILERS, you had to chose to go with either tough and unstable Kenny or tough and…a liar, Jane.
It seems for all intents and purposes Clem has what one might call an “arc.” Certainly all those moments of “Clementine will Remember That” from the first game and selecting your flavor of asshole in the second would have some kind of impact. Yet it doesn’t. None of it really seems to track. Clementine just appears as some random badass who knows the ins and outs of the Zombie Apocalypse. You are instead Random Jerkoff Survivor #15, Javier, another man from another shit set of family circumstances just trying to out swim the apocalypse. Aside from a few pitying awkward flashbacks of Teen Mama Clem, which I almost wish were the game, you’re fuck up Uncle Javi. But that’s good right? It gives the game some much needed fresh blood (no pun intended)? Well. No. If you were expecting that you paid no attention to 400 Days. Or Michonne. Or the last two Walking Dead games. Or the last several Telltale games with few outliers. Or the entire genre.
See, if you’ve played enough of these, you can predict beat for beat what’s going to happen. The main protagonist is going to be traveling with a group of buddies. This group of buddies is going to be ripped apart by the bad guys or one another. The protagonist is then going to have a bad time, be curb stomped into the ground by their enemies (and friends!) and find eventually find another group of not so good buddies. The world will keep falling down until there’s only two characters left, the protagonist and Clementine. Now stack that against Batman or Game of Thrones or hell, Life is Strange, designed by another company entirely. Because that’s the formula. But there are key spiritual things that have been sucked out in boiling it down to its most basic ingredients.
First off, maybe Walking Dead gets a pass for it beating and breaking the player, where a title like Game of Thrones or Batman doesn’t, because that’s Walking Dead’s world. It’s living folk shuffling around desperate for bare essentials like zombies, because hey guess what? They ARE the Walking Dead. However in order to be broken you have to have attachments, you have to have triumphs. Walking Dead season 3 weakly tries at the latter, but the few good moments you enjoy are so cheesy and over the top they might as well have a guy enter the frame and shout “Hey, something bad is about to happen!” I think I’m painfully used to revolving door crews of survivors, it actually happens at a pretty ridiculous rate in the games. In the first title I was able to get attached to characters like Kenny, Christa and Omid. Why? Because they survived more than one damn episode. Rather than Telltale going for the cheap frills of “Kill the little Girl, dead little girls get people emotional.” Oh right. SPOILERS there. The few survivors I do get to stick with are just pissed off the entire time, at me, at the world, at the enemies, because of hormones, that it’s painfully difficult to get attached to any of them.
Finally, the depressing atmosphere of the games no longer works for me because the rules of the world have bent so drastically. In the past, the Walkers were something to be avoided at all costs, don’t draw attention, get away from them safely, hide until they pass. Now they’re just something to serve for some cool bullet time cutscene and watch Clementine take one down like her name is Donald Sutherland. The camera work in Episode 2 ‘compliments’ this by the way, with so many camera pop-ins and steadycam shots and rack focus I thought I was honest to god watching an episode of 24. But hey, the game looks good. In the character model department it’s the Telltale that out-Telltale’s the Telltales.
I’m not allowed to get attached to the characters, the atmosphere is completely broken, the camera work is dizzying, the action is reaching ‘spectacle’ levels and none of my choices matter. What’s even the point? I may as well have saved my money for a ticket to Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.