I know this dance. I've been here before, I've seen this play out. I know how it's all going to end, and for that, I hate this game a little.
See, I've read The Walking Dead — I know what this world is like. I know that you can't win, that safety is an illusion, that nothing ever turns out OK. I know what these poor people are in for. But I can't turn away.
Telltale's The Walking Dead is a game about choice. In fact, the choices are more or less what make it a game — it's a point-and-click adventure, and the only area where players have any true agency is in the decisions they make. Lie or tell the truth? Side with the father or the soldier? Kill the man who wronged you, or let him live?
Don't let those choices fool you into thinking you can "win" — there are no good outcomes in The Walking Dead. The series, which just released its second episode of five, is not concerned with good outcomes. It's concerned with putting you through the ringer, and it does a magnificent job of it.
(Heads up: In this post, I'll keep the spoilers for the second episode light, but will discuss spoilers for the first episode.)
The first episode of The Walking Dead was a pleasant surprise. Many, including me, had been frustrated with many of Telltale's past games, which ride a wide quality-pendulum between "pretty bad" and "pretty fun."
But The Walking Dead game was different. It was smartly written, and unflinching in its embrace of the gritty, hopeless source material. It featured a relatable protagonist and one of the most realistic and sympathetic video game kids I've ever met.
Better still, the game proved to be a much better treatment of the source material than the often frustrating AMC TV Show. But even as the episode one credits rolled, the question remained: Would the next four episodes be able to match the quality of the first episode?
Now that I've played the second episode, I'm more confident than ever that the full series will be excellent throughout. The Walking Dead episode 2, titled "Starved for Help", is just as good as its predecessor, and in several ways even better. It's still marred by the same rough edges, technical shortcomings, and low-budget animations. Furthermore, there are some technical issues with downloading and updating the second episode that feel buggy, unclear, and for some, borderline game-breaking. That stuff isn't really all that forgivable — I want to focus on The Walking Dead as a work and not as a product, but Telltale has got to get their quality assurance up to snuff. Come on, guys! People are buying this game, it needs to work better than this!
Back to the game. Rather than investing in cutting-edge graphics or animation systems, Telltale has wisely put their limited resources into the things that count, namely great voice acting, good writing, strong and expressive facial animations. All three things, particularly the writing, serve to make The Walking Dead a rousing success for interactive fiction.
The game starts hard and fast, more or less immediately dropping you into an intense situation that requires a quick (and ghastly) decision on your part. Doesn't matter what you choose — blood is going to spill. That damned-if-you-do/don't truth holds for the entire rest of the episode, in which I found myself regularly torn between bad options in a bad situation, wishing I could just deduce what the easiest choice would be, watching the timer tick down and sweating onto my controller.
I'd already seen the first 20 minutes in action at E3, and so I used my advance knowledge to "cheat" my way into keeping just about every party happy when it was my character Lee's turn to ration food. Hooray, for like 30 seconds, no one was actively unhappy with me! If I thought that would buy me a moment's peace in the second half of the episode, I was dead wrong.
Most of "Starved for Help" takes place at a dairy farm. The story combines a couple of narrative notes that readers of the Walking Dead comics will be familiar with. (Too familiar. Shudder.) As I said up top — I know too much. I've read the comics, I've been in this world, I know what happens to the people you care about. They die. Everyone dies, and those who survive do so by doing unspeakable things.
"Starved for Help" takes place three months after the events of the first episode, which is an interesting choice — the world has moved on, and has become more the brutal, every-man-for-himself warzone that Rick, Andrea and the gang must try to survive in the books. But the game's protagonist Lee and his group have lived a mostly sheltered live in an abandoned motor inn, living off of supplies they got from a new member named Mark.
As a result, the group is mostly unaware of just how far things have fallen. And so "Starved For Help" brings about a turn of events that coaxes them out of their secure (but food-free) home to this dairy farm, a place that is allegedly safe from zombies.
If you know anything about The Walking Dead, you know that there are no safe places — places are never as secure the people living in them wish they would be. Boasts about fortifications are just that — empty boasts. There is no phrase more damning than "We could maybe set up here long-term." Given some of the outright fortresses I've seen fall in the comics, I was laughing under my breath at the dairy farm's fortifications. But even then, nothing played out like I was quite expecting it to.
The Walking Dead's episodic structure has been an unexpected pleasure. I love how it unfolds like a TV season, and have really enjoyed getting to play each episode along with my fellow "viewers." Every time someone tells me they're waiting for the whole series to be out to play it, I tell them they're missing out — it's been very fun to play this game like I watch TV, and I think that more and more games should look to this model in the future. After every episode ends, we're all in more or less the same place for a bit. As we wait for the next episode, we'll talk and discuss and look over what happened and look forward to what's to come. It's great fun.
One piece of advice about "Starved for Help," and about the series as a whole — you're in for a real ride, and you're going to make some decisions that you won't be happy with. I urge you to go with it, to make your first playthrough your definitive one, no matter what. Do what you would do under the circumstances, and live with the consequences.
One of the running themes of The Walking Dead is that despite the awful things we must do to survive, we anguish over the atrocities we've committed, and that anguish means we're still good. We give up a piece of our soul with each choice, but the pain we feel proves that we still have a soul to give up.
The game stays true to its source material, then: With every decision I made, I felt a little bit worse. I guess that proves I'm still a good person, but it doesn't make those decisions any easier to bear.
This is not going to end well, but damned if I won't be there to see it through.