Man, Season 1 of the Walking Dead came out of nowhere. Telltale Games had been cranking out licensed adventure games for nearly a decade by that point, and had yet to produce anything that wasn’t completely missable if you weren’t already a fan of the source material. But still, they kept trucking along, spending their days being as inconsequential as possible, then all of a sudden, BAM! Game of the Year. Telltale had a certain reputation, one that didn’t exactly speak to great quality, when all of a sudden they’re leading the pack? That wasn’t the only thing odd about the situation, though. Most of those Game of the Year awards go to whichever games have the most polished shootbanging, the smoothest swordhitting, or the most detailed gutsmashing. The Walking Dead, however, while it did have you shoot some bangs, was notable mostly because of the quality of its storytelling. This was a game that, rather than wow you with detailed mechanics or shiny graphics or complex systems, simply made you sad, but so glad that it did. The Walking Dead delivered the kind of videogame storytelling those plot-first players like me have been clamoring for for years, and executed it so powerfully that it was placed on a pedestal even higher than a lot of the more high-profile polished-to-a-gleaming-shine traditional games that were released that year. The game was definitely flawed, but it delivered such an emotional experience that so many people looked right past those mars and hailed the Walking Dead as one of the best storytelling experiences in all of vidgames.
It sold a lot. So of course there was going to be a sequel. As the game is released episodically, it was a Season 2 to the first game’s Season 1. Nobody was surprised at its announcement. Nobody had expected it not to come. The only question was if it was going to be a worthy follow up to the deep, powerful experience that was The Walking Dead, Season 1. Well, the final episode of Season 2 dropped last week. I finished it all up yesterday. The answer to that question ended up being a bit more complicated than I had expected. What do you say we go through it here?
The biggest question we probably have to address first would be “Is Season 2 as good as Season 1?” No. It’s just not. Which isn’t surprising. Season 1 left some mighty big shoes to fill, and it would take a lot to reach or surpass it. “Is Season 2 good?” would probably be a better question, and one I’ll try to answer here. My feelings on it are complicated. The game’s certainly a lot worse than it had to be. It seems to take the foundation Season 1 laid out, and build on it in all the wrong directions. So we end up with a house that has all of its walls sideways and looks like a design student just vomited all over the blueprints. But you know what? It had some good parts going for it too. The house is still liveable, and has a few bits here and there that make it worth keeping around.
So, if someone were to ask me to sum up the biggest difference between Season 1 and Season 2, I’d point to the writing staff. Season 1 had three writers contributing towards various episodes, two of whom had been writing for Telltale for years, and one of whom is an accomplished screenwriter. Season 2 has five writers, but only one of them has any sort of significant writing credits earlier than 2013. All the other writers, including the lead, seem to have been broken in either with the Walking Dead Season 1’s lackluster DLC, or with their previous game, the Wolf Among Us. The Walking Dead should be Telltale’s showcase series, yet they handed the writing duties, that which the game is most known for, to a bunch of newbies, and it shows so much in the final product.
To sum things up nicely, the writing in Episodes 1-3 is sloppy, Episode 4 brings in a much more experienced storyteller and ends up being the strongest one and the only episode that reaches the quality of Season 1, and Episode 5 really feels like a first draft but has a powerful (yet likely very divisive) ending that, to me, made it all worth it.
In Season 2, you play as Clementine, the Player Character of Season 1’s surrogate daughter, grown up a couple years to a hale and hardcore 11-year old trying to stay alive in the zombie apocalypse. The zombies in all mediums of the Walking Dead are fairly generic, operating by only one or two non-typical rules, but the big thing that makes The Walking Dead what it is are how the people act. In this world, zombies are pretty much just an environmental hazard, it’s the humans that are most dangerous. The breakdown of society and the difficulty of getting resources makes humans infinitely more unpredictable and dangerous than the zombies are, and the big reason that no form of society can be reestablished is that people just can’t trust each other anymore. That’s the setting you have to deal with, that’s what you have to guide Clementine to survival through.
Just because the writers are new, doesn’t mean they don’t have guts, and they make a fair number of bold changes to the Season 1 formula. Most of them don’t really work out, though. One of them that does, though, is the switch in focus on what feelings the game invokes. Season 1 made me feel so sad. It’s a hard world, with a lot of hard choices, and each one I make leaves me worse of than before. Season 2, on the other hand, made me feel like a dirtbag. You join Clementine in a world much devolved, if possible, from the situation in Season 1 two years before, where it’s almost impossible to make do without harming others. You’re posed with choices in the game, but there’s nothing good to come out of them, and the most you can affect is who the bad comes down on or whether the bad is your fault or not. I tend to try and immerse myself in the narrative, and that made me really uncomfortable this time, but it definitely added to the experience as a whole and with some of those wicked choices, I really did deserve to feel like a dirtbag.
I don’t know whether it’s because the writers are inexperienced, or there was a deliberate decision towards this effect, but the way the player’s choices are handled in Season 2 works a lot differently than in Season 1. Choices were a big thing in the Walking Dead. One may say that they’re one of the major factors making the game’s story as powerful as it was. One of the biggest criticisms of Season 1, however, was that a lot of the choices were simply illusory, that they didn’t really have much of an impact on the story. Season 2 seems to have corrected that by removing the illusion of choice. Oh, you’ll still be making the hard choices. It’s just that only a few of them actually make a difference beyond the next scene. Season 2 invalidates your choices all over the place, often right after you make them. Do you remember that scene at the end of Episode 1 of the Walking Dead’s Season 1, where you had two characters who were both in trouble, and only enough time to save one? That was a huge wake up call. It set the tone for the rest of the season, and let you know exactly the gravity your choices would have. Moreover, it had real impact. One character would die, and the one you saved played a significant part in the next couple of episodes. Season 2 does the same thing, except it turns out a bit differently. You have Character X and Character Y both in danger, and you can only save one of them. If you save Character X, he lives and Character Y dies immediately. If you save Character Y, Character X lives and Character Y dies anyways in the first act of Episode 2. And that’s one of the lucky few that actually matters at all. There are far more that are just invalidated as soon as they’re made. For example, there’s one choice regarding whether or not to have Clementine admit to something she did. No matter what you choose, one of your group will just interrupt you before you can speak and take the blame for you. There’s one part where a member of your group is downed in a firefight, and Luke is providing covering fire while you attempt to get behind a wall. You can choose to take that member with you. If you do, both of you make it behind cover and Luke gets shot in the leg. If you don’t, Luke goes out to get that member, and gets shot in the leg. Either way, it never gets called back to again. There’s a couple of times where you can keep a character from getting killed. If you do, they’ll never talk in cutscenes afterwards, and they’ll barely have any speaking lines outside of them. Even the most seemingly meaningless choices in Season 1 had at least some play with how the other characters viewed you, but there’s none of that here in Season 2. I know it’s really, really complicated to actually create a branching narrative, but you could have at least tried, right? There doesn’t seem to be any effort towards that end here.
Another difference is that the game is a lot more linear, here. Season 1 was very well on its tracks, but it still had moments where you could stop, figure out puzzles, chat with your group members, and get more background on everything. This had huge impacts on the game. For one, having the opportunity to be challenged, to have to figure out how to get through situations, to get a chance to explore a small part of the world you found yourself in; it brought you more into the world, made it feel more real, and helped with that all-important immersion. For another, this is how you got most of your characterization out of the game. For such a character-driven experience, that’s absolutely vital. You were given a list of subjects you could go through, leading to a fairly broad conversation with most characters several times per episode. Season 2 doesn’t have much of that. It’s all just playing from one cutscene to another. Occasionally, you might be called upon to actually do something, but whatever it is will be incredibly straightforward and won’t give you much opportunity for conversation or deviation. The few times you do get to talk with people, they’ll have a single things to say, and you don’t get to go through the conversation trees that were so good last time. The game definitely loses something for that. I was never as close with most of the characters as I was last time around, nor did I ever feel like I was as much a part of this narrative.
The episodic nature is definitely not helping this game. It’s not an episodic game, even though it’s sold as if it is. Season 1 was episodic. Each episode had a well-defined arc, a story that began, built up, and resolved, all while creating an arc over the season as a whole. Season 2 on the other hand has two well-defined arcs, one lasting from ep. 1 to ep. 3, and the other building from ep. 2 to the final episode. Breaking things up into episodes just had the effect of making those arcs feel a bit more disjointed, and the blind insistence on always ending arcs on massive cliffhangers is simply sloppy and offensive.
Honestly, that’s not to say it’s a bad game. I didn’t hate my time with the first three episodes, and the package is worth it for the last two alone. I just feel that the experience as a whole is sloppy, and made a lot worse than it needs to be by some really odd design decisions. The writing and story is still a cut above that in most games, and starts approaching the quality of Season 1 in the penultimate episode, although it never really reaches the previously established heights. They do do some interesting things with the plot and characters. They did a really good job of making me hate people then turn around and actually like them after a simple, honest apology. They’ve got something going here, and Season 2 is definitely worth your time. Just be aware it’s starting to look like we’re slipping back into old Telltale, not the storytelling renaissance we expected after Season 1 came out.