I have no shame admitting I’m an enormous fan of The Walking Dead. Telltale’s take on the franchise, in particular, always seemed the more compelling and introspective look at the human condition. The writing felt snappier, the characterization more pronounced, and to top it all off, it had an effective illusion of choice going for it that bolstered an already emotional journey.
Still, there’s no denying that The Walking Dead is starting to reach the inevitable roadblock of franchise fatigue. Between the long-running comic book, several novelizations, two separate TV show adaptations, and multiple video games, it’s safe to say there are only so many stories to tell in the zombie-infested post-apocalypse. I’m in the camp that believes the well of stories hasn’t run dry yet.
That is why it grieves me so much to see Season Three of Telltale’s The Walking Dead stumble. For all its attempts to broach new and interesting ideas, it retreats back into tropes that have become rote. The writing is lazier, characters make weaker impressions, the episodes are shorter, and choices are less meaningful than ever. It all results in a haphazard effort that fails to reach the series’ heights.
The biggest elephant in the room is the change in protagonist. Instead of Clementine, players now control Javier, a disgraced and estranged former baseball player. To the game’s credit, he’s no slouch of a character. He’s a family man with a spotty past who royally sucks at actually being there for his family when they need him. Whereas Lee and Clementine had to make peace with strangers, Javier’s story is about making amends with a family he’s known long before the apocalypse ever began. It’s a different kind of story about doing what’s best for one’s family, even if it means invoking their spite.
There are some other neat ideas, too. The opening flashback harkens back to old-school horror in a delightfully crude, yet effective way. What follows is a flash-forward to the present in which we get a glimpse of how the apocalypse isn’t just pervaded by a looming sense of danger, but also incredible boredom, which is reflected by a monotonous gas-siphoning scene featuring some very tedious button prompts. It’s a clever bit of storytelling that’s enhanced by the gameplay, or lack thereof.
But for all of Javier’s intrigue, the cold and bitter truth is that he’s not Lee, and he’s certainly not Clementine. Unlike those two, who were pretty much blank slates that we spent a lot of time grooming, Javier already has an elaborate past. More importantly, he’s got a whole cast of family members we’re supposed to feel sorry for, but the script doesn’t take the time to make us care about any of them, which just ends up creating tension between the player and character. Before long, people are killed and characters are separated from one another, but there’s little incentive to be bothered by any of it.
The second episode helps drip-feed more of Javier’s backstory, but it would have been useful having that earlier on when the game throws dialogue options at you that come across as rather moot in the moment. The game already does this in the very first scene, and it’s very difficult to be invested in the emotionally charged responses you’re picking when you’re not familiar with the people you’re speaking to.
In fact, the only character worth truly caring about at this stage is Clementine, but only because we already developed an emotional attachment to her over the course of two seasons. She’s older, smarter, stronger, and more paranoid than ever. You might even say she’s a bit unhinged, which might have been a cool development if it were a direct result of our choices.
The problem is that Clementine feels like a direct contradiction to the girl I spent two seasons developing. She makes choices that fly in the face of the ones my Clementine would have made. This is explained away by a couple of brief, playable flashbacks that try to bridge the gap between Season Two and Three, and serve as the only time players get to control Clementine again.
As veterans might recall, Clementine may have ended up in one of several places at the end of Season Two, depending on player choice. If you’re like me, you probably figured these choices wouldn’t amount to much in the long run, but the laziness with which the flashbacks are handled is so mind-numbing that it’s borderline offensive. Whatever choice you may have picked at the end of Season Two, the outcome is a rushed mess that’s handled in an almost dismissive manner, as if the writers just couldn’t wait to free themselves of those burdensome variables.
One flashback in the second episode even has you deciding whether Clem joins a nefarious group of strangers. I opted not to, but as it turns out, she ends up joining the group anyway. This type of obsolete decision-making looms over most of the initial two episodes. What is the point, for example, of agonizing for thirty seconds over whether to stay in a camp or leave right away when thugs show up at the doorstep five minutes later anyway?
No, Telltale games were never about truly branching narratives. They were always interactive adventure that let players add their own flavor to their narrative, rather than re-write it completely. But like a magician who’s already revealed his greatest trick, that illusion of choice is wearing pretty thin, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to take choices as seriously as the writers want players to take them.
The fact that Clementine plays such an integral role in a lot of the decisions means that there’s a large amount of meta-gaming involved that skews the moral ambiguity in her favor, which was only confirmed to me by the highly lopsided statistics shown at the end of each episode. Unless you’re a newcomer to the series, it’s only natural that players would side with Clementine each time due to their emotional attachment to her. This unnecessarily creates dissonance between the player and Javier, who is supposed to be unfamiliar with Clementine. It also reinforces the argument for making Clementine a fully playable character instead of Javier.
There’s also an overabundance of plot convenience sprinkled across the narrative. Why does Javier all of a sudden become a de facto leader when there’s been little indication of him earning that kind of trust from others? Why do my mortal enemies all of a sudden hesitate to open fire on me after they had no problem introducing themselves earlier by shooting someone in the back of the skull? Why does Javier wrestle with a thug over possession of a gun, only to drop the gun moments later for no apparent reason? These moments are not only annoying and plentiful, but immersion-shattering.
While the second episode is comparatively a lot more exciting than the first episode, there’s the inescapable feeling that we’ve seen many of the same beats before. People lose their loved ones along with their sanity. Our heroes find shelter in a promising community. The community gets raided. Our heroes look for another community. And so on…
There’s nothing wrong with adhering to tropes, especially if they’ve worked in the past, but it doesn’t help that each episode here only clocks in at around an hour. This has the unintended side effect of making the world feel a whole lot smaller. Season One had entire story arcs dedicated to mere supply runs filled with content, with most of the relationship-building and character development unfolding naturally from there. By contrast, Season Three is always in a hurry to teleport players to the next set-piece. Big events, like losing a home or loved one, now feel disappointingly routine.
It really doesn’t help that the gameplay hasn’t evolved in any significant way, which wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for an over-reliance on action. I never once took issue with the quick-time events in past seasons, given that this has always been a narrative-driven experience. But when said narrative-driven experience decides to prioritize shooting and stabbing zombies, I expect certain evolutions to the gameplay. Alas, the gameplay still remains an exercise in spamming the same button over and over again during quick-time events. With the absence of any notable puzzle-solving, the action is starting to feel redundant.
On the bright side, the presentation has seen significant improvements. The graphics are cleaner, the camera angles have more cinematic flair, and the voice acting is top notch as always.
It might seem unduly harsh to harp on about the negatives. The first two episodes of Season Three are by no means bad, but it’s hard not to hold them to the same standard set by Telltale’s previous work. There’s still enough intrigue here to justify coming back for the rest of the season, but it might be best to wait until the whole season is out before hopping on the bandwagon.
Dried-up zombie blood
Although Telltale still has a couple of tricks up its sleeve, 'Ties That Bind' retreads old water and presents a step backwards in terms of writing.