(I don’t normally do spoiler alerts here, but given how recently this game came out, I’ll say: spoiler alert.)
When playing the second season of The Walking Dead, conversations felt very different to me than in the first season. When playing the early episodes of the first season, I treated conversations with a straightforwardly egotistical point-and-click style: I was either getting information or figuring out what branch I wanted to go down, and either way my choice was all about me and how others would see me.
About halfway through that season, though, my conversations got more nuanced: I stepped away from an instrumental view and started thinking about them more as, well, conversations. And conversations with a much richer potential flow than I was used to in a video game: in particular, I stopped exclusively seeing the timer as pressure that I would always respond to, and started seeing “don’t respond” as an affirmative choice. In real life, I wouldn’t always need to get my two cents in after somebody says something (though, to be honest, I almost always want to, but that’s a character flaw!); eventually, once the game helped me unlearn some habits, I realized that I could make the same choice here, and doing that occasionally made my interactions richer.
In Season Two, I made the “don’t respond” choice a lot more often. Because, over and over again, I got the feeling that the conversations really weren’t about me: they were about somebody else processing a horrific experience they’d just had that built on a sequence of prior horrific experiences over the previous couple of years. In a situation like that, they didn’t need me to inject myself, to make it about me; they generally needed me to listen and occasionally make supportive noises. (Unless, of course, shit was in the middle of going down, in which case that’s still what they needed but it wouldn’t help either of us right then for me to act like a therapist.)
Frequently, it wasn’t about me even when they were talking to me, accusing me. Kenny after losing Sarita, for example: for the second time, he’d lost his wife, and I’d not only been there while she died but had cut her arm off! So yeah, he’s going to be plenty pissed at me; he was really pissed at the world and overcome by grief, of course (he even admitted as much in the next episode), but right then, he needed to yell at me as a proxy for the world, and my yelling back wasn’t going to help.
So that’s one way in which conversations changed: so many conversations were tips of an iceberg with years of horror under the surface. Which is, more broadly, a way in which the second season differed from the first: in the first season, the apocalypse had just started, and you were in a narrative trying to hold onto hope. Whereas, in this season, the apocalypse was the new norm: we know that people who are here today may be gone tomorrow, we know that that may happen at the hands of zombies, at the hands of humans, or at the hands of a lack of resources. The new norm, but not a norm that we’ve learned how to deal with; indeed, not a norm that it’s clear it’s possible possible to deal with.
My Clementine was better at dealing with the new reality than most people, at least. I played her as a surprisingly self-aware and pulled-together child (which, of course, she is): people see her as a child, but rather than either giving into that or resisting that with protestations of how grown-up she is, she’ll respond in whatever way seems most likely to lead to a good outcome in the interaction in question. And not necessarily simply the best outcome for her personally: she realizes that sometimes other people need to hang on to a bit of normalcy, to treat kids as kids and to treat themselves as competent adults. (I loved Bonnie’s repeated returning to her gift of the jacket!) But every time my Clementine acted like a kid in an interaction, it was a conscious choice.
And, of course, it’s not like other people really thought of her as a normal kid. In fact, it frequently was almost explicit that she was the real leader of the group: they’d need something done or they’d need to make a choice, and everybody looked at her as if her opinion was decisive. This didn’t feel to me like a videogamey “the protagonist is always the leader” thing: this felt to me like a desperate and exhausted group of people that sometimes needed to give up the reins. So it was up to Clementine to sneak around the mall, Clementine to talk to Kenny when he’s at his darkest, or even up to Clementine to decide whether to travel today or tomorrow. (And we got to see Carver and Kenny as alternate versions of leadership.)
Just when I was getting used to this version of Clementine, Jane showed up. She was the non-Clementine character who interested me the most this season: she was the only person who seemed able to navigate this new world on its own terms. Yes, there’s a horde of zombies approaching, but that doesn’t mean that you have to put up a commensurate resistance to them or die trying: you can instead cover yourself with walker guts and walk right through them if you’re careful. That’s her way of dealing with the zombies: her way of dealing with other humans gave me rather more pause, but given what the game showed us this season, I couldn’t say that she was wrong to try to detach as much as possible. But I was also glad that a detached persona wasn’t all that we saw of Jane, that her interactions with Clementine showed that she could still care about people and that, with Luke, she could, uh, acknowledge her physical need for human interactions as well.
I was still trying to figure out the implications of Jane as potential role model when the fifth episode showed up. And that episode, honestly, went off the rails for me right from the beginning. We’d ended on a cliffhanger with a group of Russians showing up as a major threat with very little context; the new episode defused and got rid of them without giving any more context. And now we had an orphaned newborn baby with us: a baby who was almost certainly going to die soon and who would probably be a drain on resources in the meantime; the game had built up to the baby enough that I could understand why Kenny would be incredibly protective towards it, and I could accept that some of the other people would feel that same way. But I as player didn’t feel any particular affection towards the baby, I was pretty sure Jane also wouldn’t, and I wasn’t convinced that Clementine would let herself get too attached to the baby, either.
So, while I could accept Kenny being protective of the baby, pissed at Arvo, and as domineering as always, I also felt that, at this point, Kenny was pretty clearly unhealthy to the extend of being an active threat. And I felt that Clementine was self-aware enough and had learned enough from Jane that, even though she cared about Kenny because he was the person around with whom she had by far the longest history, she realized that it wasn’t at all a good idea to stick with Kenny. Yet the game not only kept us right with Kenny until the end, it did so with a very odd quadrilateral of Clementine, Jane, Kenny, and the baby; it is of course the case that the other remaining characters were window dressing, but the way in which they left the scene felt quite odd. And what felt even odder was Jane’s behavior around the baby at the end: I simply think that Jane wouldn’t have cared about the baby, she would have let Kenny do whatever he wanted with the baby instead of lying about it.
That meant that the game set up a climactic fight and choice, but did so with a buildup that felt quite off. (In stark contrast to the climactic choice in the first season.) And then it backed off a bit and ended in what seemed a reasonable enough manner, but decided that it had to throw in some scary music when we learned that the father of the family we let in has a gun. Yes, we get it, random people are scary; but you don’t have to throw that in our face, and everybody who is still alive at this point has a gun!
A really good season most of the way through, and one that was very good in interestingly different ways from the first season. But it really stumbled at the end, and did so in a way that left me not very optimistic about a possible third season. Hopefully the developers will surprise me; or maybe they’ll just leave the series be, I’d prefer that to clumsily tying everything up in a bow.
- September 7, 2014 @ 22:18:03 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- September 7, 2014 @ 22:18:03 by David Carlton