That I enjoy Telltale’s The Walking Dead video game—nay, that I consider it one of the greatest games ever made—still surprises me on occasion. By the time I had gotten into the game in the latter half of 2012, I was for all intents and purposes burnt out on everything zombie-related. The Walking Dead TV series had reached its acme by the end of its first season and, according to most people whose opinions I trust, has been plunging in quality ever since. The comic series had turned into an unforgiving, nihilistic drag, with few if any sympathetic characters remaining. And David Wong’s This Book Is Full of Spiders subverted the whole subgenre, revealing a lot of zombie fiction to be a kind of desperate, wish-fulfillment power fantasy that, upon consideration, couldn’t be less appealing to me.
But the game is a far different, if still just as bloody, affair. Set in the same universe as the comic series but with an entirely new—and more likeable—cast of characters, Telltale’s episodic Walking Dead game placed emphasis on problem solving over zombie slaughter and turned each interactive conversation into a test of mediation, trust, survival, and sometimes a combination of all three. It put you in the shoes of a flawed but well-meaning protagonist, whose relationships with his fellow survivors could be drastically affected by what he did—or even did not—say. It was all the stuff I loved about the Mass Effect series but without its increasingly tedious combat sequences.
The announcement that the player would be controlling Clem this time around was initially met with some minor protest, but after completing the first episode, I’m completely boggled as to why such concerns were even raised. Apart from being far less naïve than any 11-year-old would be in her situation, as well as being incredibly resourceful, she also possesses an intriguing narrative hook, in which a kid is forced to stand her ground and repeatedly argue for trust and even survival to adults who won’t take her the slightest bit seriously. In the final act of the first episode, Clementine is severely bitten by an animal, a fact which is all but ignored by the survivors who find her and believe she’s actually been infected by a zombie. This leads to one of the most tense sequences not just in this episode but in the whole series so far, in which you must have Clem sneak undetected through her would be allies’ camp and steal the rudimentary medical supplies that will stop her bleeding. I won’t mention what follows but it’s easily one of the most harrowing things I’ve seen in a video game—and that’s including all the shit that goes down in Spec Ops: The Line.
As with the first season, combat in “All That Remains” is relegated to occasional quick time events, where unlike most zombie games your survival depends not so much on your skills with a weapon as your ability to think on your feet and obey your instincts. Telltale has even tuned your available actions to better fit the new protagonist: while Lee’s combat sequences in the first game often hinged on sheer force and button-mashing, controlling Clementine prioritizes swift movement and evasion at the drop of a hat. When you are forced to fight off or even maul a zombie, your options are fairly straightforward and require you to be more quick than creative, though there was one sequence in which an out-of-the-way item led to Clem getting fatally bitten three times in a row. You know what’s hard to explain to your roommates? The sound of an 11-year-old girl being mauled. Thanks for that, Telltale.
Being the first of five episodes, the second season of The Walking Dead has yet to sink its depressing claws into me. Though it features the sudden and heartbreaking death of one of my favourite characters from the last season in just the first few minutes of the game, “All That Remains” has Clementine spend most of her time with a new cast who I haven’t yet gotten attached to for any of their deaths to feel particularly traumatic. But that’s just a matter of time. After all, the final episode of the first season was so, so effective that it briefly tricked me into thinking I had a child. That’s an accomplishment if there ever was one.
But I’m looking forward to the rest of what Telltale has to offer. I know it won’t be pretty, and it will probably lead to even more crushing heartbreak, but by the time the credits rolled on “All That Remains” I was genuinely excited to see what happens next.
The Walking Dead: “All That Remains” is available for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PlayStation Vita, PC, Mac and Ouya.