The Walking Dead S2E1: Still a whole lot better than the show

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It’s the same, but different—and that’s pretty much what I wanted. Last time you took care of the young girl Clementine as Lee Everett: a former college professor with a bit of a troubled past. This time, you directly control Clem, seeing the game’s world from the drastically different perspective of a familiar character who, if you have a slice of heart in your body, you’ve already come to love.

No parents, no Lee, not even no Duck. And having just escaped a kidnapping and made it through a tearful goodbye. Nobody’s been dealt a good hand in this universe—possibly because the dealer is whatever’s reanimating any human corpse it finds—but Clem’s had it rough.

The story picks up a while after the first season, and shortly skips an additional 18 months. Clem spends some time alone, and ultimately is found by a group of people living in a house in the woods. Assumedly, these will the people with whom we’ll need to figure out and forge alliances with as the season progresses.

Of course, rather than playing the more authoritative Lee, you’re now viewing your new companions through the lens of a child and all the vulnerability that brings with it. The Walking Dead Season One stood out for, if your choices didn’t necessarily prevent any deaths, allowing you, as Lee, to resolve conflicts based upon your words and how you’ve treated characters previously. But that always was helped by him being both physically capable, and having the commanding presence and confidence that can come with being an adult.

Clem doesn’t lack confidence, and is sufficiently capable that it doesn’t feel like this is going to be a damsel-in-distress season—which would suck both because it probably wouldn’t be fun, and it would undermine what you, as Lee, worked toward in the last game. At the same time, it doesn’t overdo it and make her a generic action girl ready to kick guys in the nuts left and right. It’s a good balance.

But of course, she’s still a child, and the interactions with the adults—several of whom openly dislike her—are made more unnerving because you’re not given the chance to be the voice-of-reason conflict resolver. So far anyway. This is only one episode, and you’re only able to interact with the characters in a limited way compared to the first episode of last season—there are no opportunities to wander around a safe spot and talk to people at will while you solve all the problems, and there were no situations where you could have had to pick a side in an argument. But there is plenty of conversation and you’re given many opportunities to be diplomatic, assertive, or unforgiving, without venturing into the unrealistic. It feels like it’s progressing Clem’s character well while keeping her in a realistic place socially. It’s a place of less power, but that will likely result in some great drama down the line.

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You might be a little disappointed that there’s no real payoff here, but then it’s the first installment of an episodic series. We get a sense of what Clem’s been going through, how she’s changed, and at the same time we have a whole new group of strangers whose motives are unclear to try to figure out. There’s a doctor who seems strangely concerned about Clem’s interactions with his daughter. There’s a pregnant lady who is dead set against her being around. You’ve got a young guy who seems quick to anger and not great with a gun clearly embroiled in a personality clash with his uncle. There’s some sort of conflict implied with another group that will doubtless be explored—perhaps involving the people from the inter-season short 400 Days?

Speaking of that, there didn’t seem to be any obvious connection between this episode and the five quick stories we got a few months ago, but there are occasional references to what you did in season one. In my game, for instance, Clem mentioned she had a friend who lost a hand while Luke was making small talk about how scars are cooler than stumps. It doesn’t seem like it’s anything major, but it really couldn’t be anyway. Season One was excellent at making you feel like your choices had major bearing on the storyline—until you looked it up online and found out it was mostly an illusion. Some characters were doomed to die at a particular point regardless of who you tried to help and when. Still, it was a good illusion, and it’s nice that Clem will refer to the version of the story that your Lee drove.

As far as the mechanics and graphics go, this is near identical. Nothing was that bad last season for what it is—ultimately, a point-and-click with heavy narrative. There are a few changes, though. When you can do multiple things with an object (look at, search) you’ll get different icons surrounding it to cilck, rather than mousing over and hitting a number. That’s nice. Though with dialogue choices, the option to hit a number to select your choice is gone, which can be a little annoying, particularly if you’re using a laptop track pad. There were some moments in the first season where I would hold my fingers over the keys for the whole conversation, sit back, and make split decisions. The options are nice and big and by all means easy to click, but hovering over one sentence and then moving the cursor to another and clicking it just feels a bit cumbersome, and makes me worry I might scroll too far and miss.

But, seriously, minor quibble and the only one I really had while playing, and would probably only bug a few people.

If the season can take this setup and deliver four more episodes of great characters, intrigue, manipulation, exploration and Tough Choices (even if they just feel like they matter), while avoiding the ruts that the show’s plot has gotten mired in periodically, then we’ll have a ride as special and gut-wrenching as the first season. There’s just enough famiiar here, with Clementine and the walker-infested world, and more than enough new, with both the radically altered perspective of a child, the situation she finds herself in, and the new people she has to deal with. It’s exactly how to start a sequel series.

And the spoilers are below.

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Not even the protagonist of Season One had plot armour, so all bets are naturally off here. You really do get a sense that anything can happen, right from the opening sequence. Most of us suspected that Clem meets Christa and Omid at the very end of Season One, and it looks like we were right. Omid’s joking about baby names as the three approach some washrooms, and I was definitely lulled into a false sense of “aw neat, time to settle in for at least an episode of Fun Guy Omid,” only to be brutally reminded that this game is happy to toss out characters as he was murdered with Clem’s own gun.

Though I did feel a little cheated. Clem’s in a washroom alone, first, and you’d think that nobody in this world sends anybody into an uncleared building alone, especially not a child. Second, this is the apocalypse, and I think we’d all be past going into separate washrooms to protect our modesty anyhow. Third, the woman who ultimately kills Omid gets the jump on Clementine after you’re forced to take her looking for a dropped water bottle—leaving the gun on the sink in clear sight. I know I wasn’t the only person who clicked on that weapon to try to pick it up before leaving it. I was actually expecting a walker to stumble through that door, but regardless, I saw “bad thing gonna happen” coming plain as a hill in Saskatchewan.

Still, losing Omid so fast after months of ‘knowing’ he and Christa would be the ones to find Clem hurt so good.

The next shock was, of course, Sam the dog. You meet him shortly after waking up separated from Christa, with little hope of finding her. Sam trots up to you, and you have a little adventure searching an abandoned campsite together. You can throw a frisbee, and he catches and returns it to you. His barking alerts you to a restrained walker, and you kill it while he whimpers around.

God damn, you’re going to have a girl and her dog journey here. In a post-apocalyptic zombie-infested world where Clem’s lost everyone she cared about, she finds a dog who lost everyone it cared about, and by golly they’re going to bond.

Only that dog turns fast as soon as you offer it some food, putting an end to that assumption. This little glimmer of hope is snuffed out with such callousness you can almost hear the writers laughing at you for being so trusting. This actually works to put you especially on guard once you meet the cabin group, not all of whom are happy to see you. I mean, if you can’t even trust a friendly dog, what hope do you have of these strangers meaning you well?

The third standout moment had to be the suture scene. Left locked in a shed with an open dog bite wound by Clem’s new friends, to see whether she could make it through the night before they assume it’s not a walker bite, she steals some improvised medical supplies, and stitches up her own arm. It’s graphic, looks and sounds ridiculously painful, but shows Clementine’s determination to look after herself in the face of the adults essentially leaving her to die so effectively.

The final choice you make, between helping the bitten Pete who seemed to actually give a shit about Clem or the unharmed but relatively inept Nick who almost shot her earlier, though did make a point to apologise, was the only time you really had to make a hard choice, and it felt a little overdue. But it’s there, and is evidence that Clem will be handed even more difficult cards as we go forward.

The writers of the first season were great at introducing something you grow to like and then tearing it away, or putting you into a position where you had to make the best of two bad choices. That is how you get emotionally invested in interactive fiction like this. Being forced to choose one character over another and seeing them both react to it builds a sort of bond that gets stronger over time. But you build that bond knowing that it can be snatched away, which makes those eventual deaths more meaningful. Sure, a character you’ve grown to not like can die and you might not care much. But for every character you dislike, there’s one you’ve built that bond with.

This installment is about meeting people and starting to feel out who is trustworthy and who isn’t. Who you’re going to try to keep happy, and who you’re going to watch for treachery. You’ll get a feel for these things by the end of it, and that feel bodes well for the rest of the season.

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