Saturday, January 5, 2013

A brush with death?

The Walking Dead was excellent for the first four acts. Then it wasn't anymore.

Caution, massive and complete spoilers after the picture.

Don't say I didn't warn you.
I can count how many adventures games I have played on one hand, and the only one that I really enjoyed was Tell Tale's own Wallace and Gromit. It removed much of the difficulty from more traditional adventure games, allowing the player to make steady progress instead of wandering around a single area for hours with a bag full of knick knacks that may or may not have anything to do with the current puzzle. In other words, they modernized the genre. The Walking Dead takes it a few steps further: puzzles are often contained to a single area and there are very few items to pick up. Getting stuck just means walking back through a few rooms and opening up the drawers again. The adventure 'game' aspects took a back seat to the actual adventure.

This would not have worked without an excellent cast of characters. Tell Tale knew that even a simplified adventure game would not pull in the audience it wanted without giving them someone or something to hold on to. How they did it was ingenious: the most like-able character is not the one players control. Lee becomes a conduit for the players reactions, but they are not reacting to Lee, they are reacting through Lee to Clementine. She is the moral center and the game would not have been nearly as engrossing without her. Without Clementine I would have helped Kenny kill Larry. I would have dropped Ben off the bell tower because he is a fuck up. I, through Lee, was worried about disappointing her. I wanted to show her that survival was possible without becoming worse than the zombies themselves.

I told you not to take the food.
Now that all the niceties are out of the way...

For four episodes characters were introduced and killed off. At the beginning of chapter five it was down to Lee, who was bitten in a twist that everyone saw coming, Kenny, who was loyal but useless when anyone other than his family was in danger, Ben, who was also useless but without Kenny's red neck charm, and Omid and Christa, the two most sensible people you meet in the entire game. Clementine is gone, kidnapped by some 'random' stranger.

This is where things fall apart for me. Ben, out of nowhere, grows a pair and fights back against Kenny's constant abuse. Kenny has enough of an epiphany that he sacrifices himself to make sure Ben doesn't become a walker. He could have shot him and ran away, but no, he had to kill zombies first, then shoot him, then get killed. It felt forced, as if the writers wanted to kill him off but couldn't think of a good way to do it because he had been established as a coward.

Lee changes as well, and not just because he had a death sentence and cut off an arm in an attempt to slow down the infection. He had always been the optimist of the group, and I wanted to keep him that way even after he knew that he was going to die. Every dialogue choice ended with him getting more depressed, to the point that I wonder why Omid and Christa didn't abandon him sooner. Christa's pregnancy might account for wanting to save Clementine, but in the end it is not clear they even did that. Lee was never likable and without Clementine there he only got worse.

Then there was the kidnapping. The Walking Dead took great pains to show that the dead were not the greatest danger. There were bandits and cannibals and the group itself was always on the brink of self destruction. Clementine's kidnapper being the owner of the car the group emptied was a nice way of tying things together. It would have been nicer if it made any sense. Logistically, how could he have gotten there, much less set himself up in the hotel as quickly as he did? Lee and company took a train and were followed by a hoard of walkers. Either the stranger was on the train with them or he could fly.

To be played by Steve Buscemi in the movie adaptation.
Putting that aside, the stranger's motivation was completely wasted. I had Lee sit down and have a nice conversation with him, try to reason with him to get Clementine back. Through their discussion I came to understand why he took her: he was trying to save her from the constant danger that being with Lee and the rest of the group put her in. It made sense. Then along came a bowling ball bag containing the zombified head of his wife and it all went to shit. The stranger being crazy nullifies any of the impact he could have had. Instead of Lee dealing with the moral choice of keeping Clementine or leaving her with someone who wants to take care of her and is better equipped to do so he just saves the day and kills the crazy guy, only to die later and leave Clementine to fend for herself.

There was never supposed to be a happy ending but the tragedy we are left with is much less moving than is should have been. The whole game was about making difficult choices that may or may not affect what happens in the story and the final choice is the easiest of all. 

The Walking Dead is still a very good game. It stumbles a bit when it strays a little too close to action games in Lee's final moments and quick time events that you cannot win are never acceptable. Tell Tale did what they could to make an adventure for the masses. If the multiple game of the year nods mean anything, they have succeeded. I feel cheated by the final act, though. They worked themselves into a wonderful corner, one that could have created the finest tragic ending since James Sunderland smothered his wife because he loved her. Instead you have a dying guy kill a crazy guy and a little girl wandering the wilderness, waiting for next season's game to pick her up again.


  1. I have to go snuggle with Kayla, but there will be CHAT about this!

    Also - can I just use the R&C Full Frontal Assault emails for a C&C post? I really think we say all that needs to be said on that one.

  2. Sure. I didn't play enough of Full Frontal Assault to say anything intelligent about it beyond 'ewwwwwwwwww.'

  3. But when you nail it with one long syllable, why say more?