Losing Perspective in Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season 2

Spoilers, duh.

I meant to start writing this when I finally got around to finishing Season 2 of Telltale’s on-going Walking Dead series in around April of this year, but didn’t. Now I rely on my fading memory of a ho-hum sophomore season where the fallout of Season 1 leaves you in dire straits that play out in a surprisingly slow droll of events. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Like many, I was captivated by Season 1 of The Walking Dead. It was easily far better than the show has ever been and, to my mind, better than the comics. Whether Telltale offered true freedom or merely the illusion of it has become a point of discussion and discontent amongst players but is really beside the point. The success of The Walking Dead has always hinged on its controlled narrative perspective.

In Season 1 you play as Lee, a recently convicted convict on his way to prison when the zombie outbreak occurs leading the police cruiser you are in to crash off-road leaving you to escape. Quickly, you discover a little girl, Clementine, who is awaiting the return of her parents while hiding from zombies. You take Clementine under your wing and are meant to protect her from harm both physical and psychological.

Almost instantly a bizarre paternal instinct took over my behaviour and play-style. I became incredibly protective of Clementine and hostile towards anyone that might potentially cause her harm. This is a testament to the excellent development of Clementine as a character and the narrative around her that takes larger conflict that you and your group face and zeroes in on how they affect Clementine and her goal of reuniting with her family. Clementine begins the game as a feeble young girl, but the writing doesn’t make her irritating and whiny as so many child characters are, she is passionate, bold and fiercely loyal. She clings to her signature baseball cap, her haircut and her walkie-talkie. She befriends the much more annoying child character, Duck, and earns the admiration of the group through her beautifully paced development into a more independent survivalist.

In the final few moments of Season 1, the game shockingly kills off Lee leaving Clementine to flee on her own. This was a profoundly bold decision on the writers’ part and an incredibly emotional one. It also opened the floodgates to Season 2’s potential.

A potential that was largely unrealized, in my opinion. Season 2 was still excellent, but the surprise pleasure of Season 1 has naturally dulled. Season 2 put us directly into Clementine’s shoes but didn’t seem to know what to do with us there.

Without guidance, Clementine must now use all the skills she’s learned and observed in Season 1 and begin to apply them. There will be trouble and danger and injury but we hope she will prevail because without Lee, what other attachment to this world do we have? She shortly discovers a group of survivors, and then another, and then another. They all lack the spirit of the group from Season 1 but their constant conflicts and unmanageable sizes offer novel problems. However, the game style doesn’t reflect this new perspective. You are a little girl with an unlikely story dropped into one group after another like an orphan without a caring home. Everyone treats you with suspicion. How could a child have survived this long alone? As a child, we should be regulated to the sidelines, to watch the adults from the bleachers. We should be excluded from the meat of the game in Season 1: group meetings, debates, votes and hostile interactions. This would force the game to softly reinvent how we play the game. Our choices would skew to sneaking, eavesdropping, playing coy or leading manipulation. The fundamentals of the design remain unchanged but our relationship with this world would create a profoundly different experience. Telltale gives themselves the opportunity to have Clementine sneak and deceive her way into positions of power but they fail to follow through. Instead, Telltale structured the game like a carbon-copy of what worked in Season 1. The group includes you in conversations, they ask you — a child — what you think they should do and then go through with whatever your decision is. The season’s critical flaw is that our intimate connection to this world, carefully constructed in Season 1, is disconnected by the weird void of logic where these desperate, guarded adults talk to Clementine like she is a stand-in asset for an adult character. Like they are talking to us, the mature player, and not a child.

There are times where Clementine must use her clumsy, unpracticed survival skills to keep herself alive, mostly in the beginning of the season such as when she escapes the barn while the adults discuss what to do with her. That was one of the most memorable moments of the season for me. Much less than the Howe’s Hardware chapter where Clementine has the trust of many people around her and has a surprisingly thorough understanding of the layers of deception and danger in this closed society.

How Telltale choose to continue portraying their protagonists of The Walking Dead is up to them, but I strongly suspect that with Clementine continuing to age and mature, they’ll keep that perspective very close to how they’ve always done it. This season felt like an opportunity to reveal a new shade of horror in this fearful world: the fear of not knowing and not being included. They had a chance to show the mania and speculation in a child’s version of the apocalypse; the trauma that Clementine must endure, the confusing and scary sense of being pulled place-to-place and having to read and analyze the faces of a flurry of stangers. That would be a greater nightmare than the apocalypse itself and Telltale should know as well as anyone that The Walking Dead has always truly been about the horror of people.