Apocalypse Regained: How Telltale Saved Season Two of The Walking Dead

Spoiler Alert: This post discusses the plot of Season Two of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead, include the endings in the season finale.

The Walking Dead Season 2

In a pair of previous posts, I explain why Season One of The Walking Dead was brilliant and most of Season Two (as well as The Wolf Among Us) was relatively weak. Here, I’ll discuss how Season Two started out alright, and then, more importantly, how it saved itself at the end after losing its way.

When Season Two came out, I was excited to continue the interactive story from Season One and 400 Days. And the first episode of Season Two did a good job setting the stage, presenting the player and Clementine with hard scenarios, painful growth, and one or two awkward, imperfect choices that increased my anticipation for Episode Two. My disappointment with most of the middle of Season Two (and with The Wolf Among Us, Telltale’s other release in the meantime) got me to the low point, however, where—in sharp contrast to my acute anticipation of S1:E5 after the cliffhanger ending of S1:E4—I finished Episode Four of Season Two feeling frustrated, disappointed, and pessimistic about the end of the season and Telltale’s future in general.

Happily, after an extremely lackluster opening, S2:E5 regained its footing and turned into a Telltale episode on par with Season One. The middle of the episode presented a tactical decision about saving Luke that made me feel terribly guilty and upset over my failure to make things work. (Later research showed that it was a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t scenario, but in this case, I feel Telltale’s ability to unsettle me wins out over the fact that they did it by tricking me). I later felt embarrassed and angry about having stood up for a character (Arvo) who turned out to be a thoroughly terrible human being (an even more extreme version of how I felt about the Lilly debacle in Season One).

The lead-up to the game’s finale (frustratingly written as it sometimes was in order to get the characters to the plot crossroads the designers wanted) filled me with creeping dread as I realized the choice I was going to have to make. Even so, when I realized how the choice was going to be presented, I was horrified by the terrible options at hand. I made a choice that I hated but felt—and still feel—was right: I shot Kenny to keep him from killing Jane. Kenny’s acceptance of this felt a little too neat in retrospect, but in the moment I was simply grateful for being partially absolved of the terrible thing I’d had Clementine do. I felt satisfied with the hard edges and imperfect outcomes of my final series of choices, and I felt that the dialogue was written well enough that though some of the scenario was clearly plot- rather than character-driven, I could still come up with character motivations that made sense both with what happened and with who I knew Jane, Clem, and Kenny to be. I felt the loss of what could have been with Clem and Kenny terribly, but I still believed that I had been right to save, and go with, Jane (and to help the family afterward).

But, and this is where I feel that Telltale finally regained the greatness that made the first game so affecting, I could completely understand why statistics showed players almost evenly divided amongst the game’s five starkly different endings. The most common ending (as of 8/29/14, four days after release) of Clem + Jane + family has 36.8%, and the least common, Clem + Jane without the family, has 10.4%, with the other three between 13 and 23% each. Aside from the “Clem and Jane rebuff the family” ending, there’s not a permutation that I wouldn’t be tempted to take, and I think all of them work dramatically (some bad dialogue flow in a couple of the options—especially when leaving Kenny to set out on your own—notwithstanding). Having watched all the endings, I didn’t regret my own decision so much as grieve for the loss of bits of happiness and redemption only available in others. I badly wanted to see Kenny redeemed, as he is in the Clem-goes-to-Wellington ending. Or to see hope on the horizon and a more functional Clem-Kenny relationship, in the ending where they stick together but there’s hope for acceptance into Wellington later on. But I think it’s right that this redemption can’t be clean—that it can only come at the cost of looking away as Kenny kills Jane in a preventable murder. No ending lets you have it all, because these people are imperfect and they live in a horrifying world. Being forced to accept that and make choices anyway, while wishing it were otherwise, is Telltale’s narrative achievement at its best. Since playing Episode Five three days ago, I’ve found myself brooding often on the pain of having to kill Kenny after having gone through so much with him over two seasons, but I’m still glad I didn’t just look away. Kenny gets better in the Clem-Kenny endings, but at the climax, he was once again acting with impulsive, selfish, violent rage, while Jane’s idiotic plan was at least dedicated to creating a better situation for Clem.

The endings of Episode Five work well, and they give me hope for Telltale’s future. This is because they finally demonstrate a willingness to provide strongly divergent narrative paths rather than constantly bottlenecking things again so the next season can keep going along one basic path. I care a lot about Clementine, as I did Lee, but I think she’ll be in Season Three only peripherally, if at all—and I think that’s a good thing. The power of Telltale’s narrative focus is on giving player choices meaning, and part of that possibility space must involve meaningfully divergent endings. They got that right with Season Two, even if much of what got us there was stumbling and unaffecting. Like episodic TV, there’s a strong incentive for writers to not do anything drastic to main characters in a plot so the show can go on forever. In avoiding the temptation of riding the Clementine story until they’d squeezed the last penny out of it, Telltale instead rewarded us with a painful, thought-provoking season finale—determined by our choices—that makes me, at least, want to stay aboard for Season Three, whomever it may be about.

Written By: Brandon Perton

Sequels Can Be Good for Videogame Storytelling

Videogame Storytelling

In another post gaming sequels are king, I argued that the unique relationship between technology and the medium of videogames makes game sequels less gripe worthy than, for instance, movie sequels. In this post I’ll make the argument for game sequels as good for game storytelling. (The argument for sequels as the cash cows that allow developers and publishers the leeway to finance riskier endeavors has already been well made.)

First, though, I should make clear that I think the best video game stories are still likely to come from the rare games that dare to focus on stories that aren’t designed around the potential for sequels. A story whose main goal is to not end is at an inherent disadvantage compared to a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, because a closed story structure is almost always stronger than one that doesn’t know where it’s going.

But the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of games are never going to take that risk. Most games want to leave the door open for sequels because, as my previous post points out, sequels are good for gameplay development (and for making money). In this much wider segment of videogames, sequels can often be good for storytelling.

This is in part because of the gameplay improvements sequels usually bring. For one thing, being able to focus on incremental gameplay improvement rather than building a game from the ground up allows more attention to the narrative—which is also being revised rather than developed from nothing. Take Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, for example. Able to start with existing templates for the rakish protagonist and his supporting case, and to do the same with the adventure/platformer/third-person shooter gameplay, Uncharted 2 does both better than the original game. Gameplay and narrative/character development interact more effectively to create an effective Indy-like adventure vibe. Indiana Jones is a classic in large part because of charisma (mixed, of course, with great action), and Uncharted finally hits that stride in Among Thieves. Storytelling depends on pacing, and the pacing of a game is contingent on how smoothly its gameplay functions, so (Uncharted 2 opening sequence SPOILERS in the next link!) sequels tend to get this right to a greater degree than first games.

Also, because sequel-oriented games tend to be more focused on gameplay than on story, the character development in the first game often tends to be a bit clumsy, a situation that often improves in the sequel(s) once developers have gotten to know the characters better. A great studio like Naughty Dog is capable of getting this right without a trial run in The Last of Us—but a few years before that, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series took until Uncharted 2 to really get their protagonist’s charisma right.

The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series provides another good example of a series stumbling onto interesting storytelling in the first game and really nailing it in the second. (Modern Warfare 1 and 2 plot SPOILERS ahead!) In the first Modern Warfare, Infinity Ward realized that their multiple-player-character approach opened up the door to doing surprising things with individual player characters (PCs) that a game with one (or two) main PCs can’t—as players found out when Sgt. Paul Jackson’s tour of duty ended prematurely in the “Aftermath” level. This narrative technique of using multiple PCs to enable bold narrative choices was taken a step further in MW2’s infamous airport level, “No Russian,” a choice enabled, I believe, by Infinity Ward witnessing the dramatic impact on players of “Aftermath” and similar moments in the previous game. Having taken one risk and succeeded, they (and their publisher) felt willing and justified to take the further risk of making the player do shocking things for dramatic effect, not just witness them and be unable to stop them. The narrative risks taken by Infinity Ward (and publisher Activision) in MW1 and MW2 wouldn’t have happened if those games weren’t sequels. Infinity Ward was able to build on their gameplay and narrative work in CoD 1 and 2, freeing them up to think more creatively about the narrative experience of a first-person shooter. And the fact that CoD 4: MW was a sequel actively encouraged them to think creatively, to avoid the sequel-killing situation in which the game comes across as just more of the same without any new experience to recommend it to players. This inducement doesn’t lead all sequels to be as narratively successful as MW 1 and 2, of course, but it does offer a nudge in that direction.

There are many other game sequels whose narratives and narrative/gameplay combined experiences are improvements over their predecessors for the basic reasons described above with the Uncharted and Call of Duty examples: my personal list would include Mass Effect 2, Red Dead Redemption, and the later games in the Elder Scrolls, Persona, and Grand Theft Autoseries, to name a few.

There’s probably an argument to be made that the effect of sequel-ready game series as opposed to games that focus on telling a good story now, in this game, is a net negative—though since sequels are never going away, I’m not sure how useful that line of thinking is. But I think sequels offer meaningful opportunities for good games in a way they don’t in other media such as movies. What do you think? Do you think that sequels are terrible for gaming, great, or offer a mixed potential? What downsides of sequels counteract the benefits I’ve mentioned in this post and the previous one? What are some great sequels I’ve overlooked here?

Written By: Brandon Perton