Warning: This opinion piece contains spoilers for all of The Walking Dead titles from Telltale Games.
In 2012 my gaming world was turned on its head as I got my first taste of The Walking Dead from Telltale Games. Admittedly I already had a little bit of positive bias as the game was based on my favorite TV show which was, in turn, based on my favorite comic book. Despite a few presentation hiccups, I wholehearted declared that the five episodes comprising Season 1 of The Walking Dead were among the greatest pieces of media ever created. I still feel that way which makes it, all the more difficult to see what heights the game has fallen as I finished up The Walking Dead: A New Frontier this week.
The first season of The Walking Dead was great for any number of reasons. Most often cited though is the storyline and characters. Lee and Clem’s emotional connection was a great centerpiece to the story as Lee moved from obligatory guardian to father figure. The fierce loyalty towards each other was organically fleshed out over the course of the five episodes leaving me to make my decisions and choose my words based solely on how they would impact Clem. In short, it was perhaps the first time in gaming that an NPC proved to act as a true moral compass for my actions.
The first season also pitted the crew in some truly harrowing predicaments. From having Larry suffer a heart attack while looked in a small room with the rest of the gang who were wondering when and if he will turn to when the group unsuspectingly had dinner with cannibals, the game had a near constant source of dread and danger. This played well with the magnitude of decisions from choosing to let Ben die when you could have saved him to stealing another group’s supplies.
So where did the series start to falter from this Herculean strong start? It all began with season two when there was a decidedly reduced amount of actual gameplay. Season one had far more environments to explore, items to find and tasks to complete. While it was kind of lame to get batteries for Carly’s radio, at least there was plenty to keep you busy. There was far less of this in the second outing of The Walking Dead with a greater proportion of time given to conversations. While you would think this would lead to greater story development, some of the most poignant moments in Season One were when Lee could approach each survivor in each environment to hatch a plan, calm their fears or generally get to know them better. These moments were all but removed from Season two.
Perhaps Season 2’s failings can be attributed even further to its prequel release, The Walking Dead: 400 Days which briefly introduced four characters who would appear in the second season. Playing 400 Days left me with great optimism for Season 2. After all, I thought, there must be writers at Telltale generating a web of connections and upcoming critical plot points that would tie all of this content together. In fact, I pictured the writers with a big wall of character photos connected with red pieces of yarn like you see police detectives do on TV when trying to solve a murder. Alas, all 400 Days did for me was to give me an “oh yeah, I’ve seen that person before” moment when those characters were introduced in Season 2. It was a lost opportunity for sure making 400 Days unnecessary.
My biggest beef by far though has to be with The Walking Dead Michonne which was a train wreck in terms of providing actual gameplay. It was virtually a talking simulator or animated choose your own adventure book. Sadly, some episodes offered the gamer little else to do than to walk Michonne along some rails as she had her nightmares or is escaping an inferno. As Telltale has introduced some new and dynamic gameplay options in Batman, such as piecing clues together or planning an attack it was truly disappointing that they choose to basically remove all gameplay in favor of talking. This wouldn’t have been quite so bad had the conversations and story been as engaging in Season 1. Instead, we are left with Michonne dealing with the personal angst of losing her family. While the subject matter is grim, the delivery never quite hits home.
So it was with perpetual optimize that I played The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. The series had outgrown my PS3 which I played all other content on and I thought perhaps the shift would mark a resurgence of the series. Focusing on a new protagonist wasn’t a bad idea for A New Frontier but Javier’s relationship with his overbearing brother didn’t have nearly the same heart as Lee and Clem. In short, the relationship felt like it never divulged past a skin deep exploration. Javier’s dialogue options also felt like a step backward from Lee’s in Season 1. Lee often had to choose whom to lie to and whose ego to massage strategically in how they could help Clem. Javier’s options often felt less nuanced with choices between being nice, kind of nice, or a jerk. This removed to subtlety from the personal dynamics in the game.
The choices, dialogue or otherwise, got even worse when Lingard asks you to kill him with AJ’s location hanging in the balance. Oddly you have to select the option to kill Lingard to get the information as he holds the needle out to you. Seriously? The way it is presented is gray in the fact that the decision could be interpreted that not killing him would get the info as you hold off doing it until he acquiesces. Selecting a misleading decision changed how Clem saw my Javier and how I intended things to go. All in all, A New Frontier improved upon Michonne but still had a long way to go to get back to the gameplay and storytelling that made me fall in love with the series.
So where does that leave Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead franchise? There will be more for sure. Clem tells us as much at the end of Episode 5 of A New Frontier and it will focus on her search for AJ. While I earlier said the fall of the series began with Season 2 and 400 Days I think the reason it happened at this time is that Telltale Games has continuously bitten off more and more content they need to develop. Success begets more and The Walking Dead Season 1 can be directly attributed to why we have The Wolf Among Us, Tales From The Borderland 2, Minecraft Story Mode, Game of Thrones, Batman, and Guardians of The Galaxy. In five short years, the developer has become an episodic assembly line and with that, I feel it is little surprise the quality of content has suffered.
I continue to purchase all of The Walking Dead content because it is still a good game with good stories. I’ll gladly drop $20 on the prospect of that. What disappoints is that out of the gate The Walking Dead was so good that I would wait for the release of each episode the second it was available because I could not consume the content fast enough. Those days are long gone. I waited two months after release to even purchase A New Frontier. I now need Telltale to give me a reason why I wouldn’t continue to do the same in the future.