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Saturday, 22 November 2014

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead S2E3: In Harm's Way

Telltale Games' The Walking Dead
Season 2, Episode 3
In Harm's Way.

I remember when playing the first series that Episode 3 was the weakest episode for me. Possibly it was because I was a bit worn out from the cannibal shenanigans of Episode 2, or possibly it was because it was a bit of a bridging episode, in which you spend less time making choices and more time doing watered-down point-and-click adventure busywork to try to get a train running. Long Road Ahead, the first game's third episode, was very much the 'calm down and relax a while' episode of the bunch before the relative insanity of the final two episodes, and it wasn't really a good look for it.

I wasn't really apprehensive about this season's third episode, though. A lot of that is to do with the pretty strong set-up of it: Carver had established himself well as a villain, Lee was in the wind, and Clem and the others had all been kidnapped to go to Carver's utopian (har har) community. Which, it turns out, is the community Tavia was telling people about in 400 Days. 

For anyone who doesn't know, 400 Days was the DLC of the first season, and a 'bridging episode' of sorts between the two series. It revolves around four characters at various points during the zombie outbreak, each undergoing their own trials and miniature stories before ending up at a campfire at the end, where a woman named Tavia approaches them and asks them to come join her 'safe community.' Some of the characters we see in Carver's community are ones from 400 Days, even: Ex-con Vince has a cameo, as do sisters Shel and Cissy, and Bonnie is a major character in this episode.

(My playing companion did wonder why I was being so harsh with Bonnie. It was mostly because she, you know, lied to us, abused poor Walter's trust, and led Carver straight to us in the previous episode, but also, I remember you killing an elderly woman with a rebar, Bonnie. I do remember that.)

So that's a nice bit of continuity.

If Long Road Ahead was, well, long and kind of flat, In Harm's Way is short (both in the sense of its abruptness and in the sense that on my playthrough it weighed in at about one hour forty minutes) and - sharp? It might be the most visceral of the episodes so far this season, having many characters dispensing beatings or, in one case, a shove-off-a-rooftop to others, with the king of the beatings without a doubt being the prolonged, brutal one that Carver delivers to Kenny. I wasn't that fussed, never been keen on Kenny, so it kind of failed to produce the emotional reaction intended.

Still, harsh, Carver.

On the other hand, it has never been more obvious than in this episode just how much your choices sometimes don't matter in this game. You can protest all you like, make as many moves as possible towards another plan, but one way or another, you will be using Carver's PA system to draw in a herd of zombies, and you will be fleeing through that herd. It was a good story, but the illusion of choice held a lot more thinly here than it did in other episodes, because the dramatic set piece it's building up to is utterly inevitable, and not in the fun 'it's very obvious, in the manner of a Shakespearian tragedy, that you cannot avoid this fate' but in a 'well, we'll pretend you can avoid it, but we'll just drag you back that way anyway' way.

Choice can be difficult in games. It's a fine tightrope you have to walk, wherein some of those choices will inevitably be illusory, and some of them really have to affect the plot if you want to keep your credibility. Some games, like the otherwise mediocre Alpha Protocol, excel at walking that tightrope. This episode of The Walking Dead didn't, and that's an issue in a game that markets itself on choice, from a company that markets itself on games about choice. 

But the actual story was a very good one, and there were some really gut-wrenching moments here. Kenny killing Carver especially - which also made a rather good end to a compelling villain (and a timely one, too. Carver's a good villain, but he would've been outstaying his welcome a bit if he survived past this. This is not a game series built for a long term villain) and a nice capping point to the story so far. 

Ah, Alvin. Not in my playthrough of this episode, because my
folly got him killed in episode 2.

One thing that is starting to vex me from a storytelling standpoint is Sarah, though. Obviously she's neuroatypical, but the game portrays her as cartoonishly incapable in a way that actual neuroatypical people usually aren't (I say as someone who is very much neuroatypical). Sarah seems to be meant to be the 'one you protect' - the Clementine to Clem's Lee for this season, and it doesn't work. Sarah comes across instead as a liability. 

I enjoyed this episode, though. Next week, the gang takes shelter amongst some ruined buildings, there's a search for Sarah, and - stuff. It looks like Bonnie is properly with the group now, so. Yay. I guess. Still bitter at her for leading Carver to us. 

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