There’s a moment in the The Walking Dead Season 2 opener involving a dog that a lot of people talked about.
Our hero Clementine discovers the archetypical post-apocalypse mutt, names him Sam, and invites him join her for a little traipse around the wasteland.
They walk around for a little bit, fun around in some eerie woods, discover an abandoned camp, and then find some much needed food. You search around until you find a knife, and carefully, carefully remove the lid.
Now you have a choice: feed this poor, hungry dog, or let him starve.
Regardless of your choice, Sam shows his true survival instincts and attempts to rip out your throat, snarling and ravenous.
You’re forced to put him down in gory, almost fetishized, fashion and the audience is shown how tough and ruthless Clementine now is. Much like the storied ‘Save the Cat’ / ‘Kill the Dog’ scenes in scriptwriting lore.
Something that the opening of Netflix’s House of Cards used to great effect also. Clementine and Frank Underwood. Two peas in a pod, thanks to writing craft.
This scene garnered a lot of attention from a large majority of gaming presses, often mentioning just how much of a ‘badass’ Clementine had grown up into being.
However, there was another scene involving Sam that stayed with me for much longer.
But not for a good reason, such as character development, or it’s because it shocked me with its depravity. I remembered it because of its insistence to enforce such a monotonous tone of drudgery through its gameplay.
The opening chapter of the second season of The Walking Dead seems to focus solely on the theme, to paraphrase from the game, ‘bad things happen to everyone.’ This is then shown through Clementine, and her ongoing struggles to survive without the aid of her original protectors.
Whilst its gameplay thoroughly enforces this, by doing so, it makes the game a trudge to play through; something that I thought the first season never suffered from despite its own insistence to keep to its own chosen theme.
Looking back at the first season of The Walking Dead, and more specifically its first chapter, it’s clear that its tone is one of responsibility. Responsibility for your actions, as well as for your humanity. Large swathes of the game meditated on the troubles of retaining your humanity despite all the terrible post-apocalypse can throw at you.
This is something that can be seen in the opening scene in Lee’s conversation with the police officer. Many of Lee’s dialogue options, including the default top option, paint him a remorseful light. One of a man who has come to terms with his actions, and has accepted the consequences of them.
This theme of responsibility is shown through the gameplay numerous times in the first chapter, most notably when choosing between saving the characters of Duck or Shaun.
The game does a good job of leading up to this choice, by giving the player some down-time between set-pieces, to wander around at your own pace and talk to the varied assembly of characters on hand.
This not only relieves the tension from the hectic previous scenes (the ‘trough’ between the ‘peaks’ of the action scenes) and allows for some quick character development, but the idyllic setting also reminds the player of the other important theme: retaining your humanity.
The action scene then shatters this sense of security, and deliberately enforces the player to have agency over the characters in this world.
Throughout the first season of The Walking Dead, these themes of responsibility come up time and time again, shown by Lee’s frantic protectiveness of Clementine to his dying breath. Not only did this theme reflect perfectly with the overriding narrative of returning Clementine to her parents and keeping her safe, but in doing so it also made the game much more engaging.
The theme dovetails perfectly with the gameplay, putting the player through the same kind of emotional turmoil that the characters are themselves going through. This makes it incredibly easy for players to grasp new concepts or ideas in the game, as well as allowing players to get emotionally invested in the plot of the game, rather than it just piecing it together various set pieces.
This succinct method of making players get attached to both the story and its characters through the theme was the greatest accomplishment of the first Season of The Walking Dead.
And because of this, I believe, is one of the main reasons why the themes shown throughout Season Two, and most importantly the first episode of the second season, make it so underwhelming.
Whilst the theme of reasonability placed the gamer right in the midst of the ragtag group of the first Season, the second season’s theme of toughness through adversary actively pushes away the player from getting involved with the story.
Before the moment where Clementine is forced to slay her ex-new found canine friend, there is another moment that illustrate the game’s theme even clearer. A moment that showed that not even the sacred game of fetch is not safe in this dangerous post-apocalyptic world.
Whilst searching the abandoned camp, you happen to find a battered frisbee, something that our play-starved companion would probably be extremely interested in. This frisbee becomes of one of the only objects in the game that offers multiple opportunities to interact with it, allowing the gameplay to mirror the repetitive nature of playing fetch with Sam the dog.
This allows some touching dialogue from Clementine mentioning how long it’s been since she’s had an opportunity to do anything fun. It’s a cheery scene, one that harkens back to the first game, and the importance of the character’s humanity and hope no matter how dire the situation.
However, these warm feelings are dashed when after selecting the frisbee multiple times, instead of playing fetch with Sam, we watch the frisbee sail into an inaccessible part of the level, and Clementine remarking dryly, ‘Shouldn’t have wasted the energy anyway.’
This is the game telling us, quite literally, that there is no point in having fun, because that surviving is the one and only thing that matters.
And whilst this deliberately and clearly enforced the chosen theme, it only serves to alienate and bore players. The vast majority of players simply have no way to properly empathise with characters going through these kinds of emotions, surviving at all costs, and so it becomes harder to get invested in them.
Every person has responsibility thrust upon them in life at some point though, which is what made The Walking Dead Season One the engrossing game that it was. Every player was able to relate and empathise with what the characters were going though.
The Second Season, however, ratcheted up the action and drama to the point where the average player cannot comprehend the kind of emotional turmoil is going though, leaving them to interpret the game as simply one bad thing after another. A string of unfair circumstances that gets tiring and dull after a while.
From the beginning of the chapter to the Frisbee scene, Clementine is held and gunpoint and robbed, has to watch two people get shot in front of her (one a long-time friend), be privy to a mother losing her child (implied), has her only companion left in the world taken from her, chased for her life until she falls into a river, nearly drowns and then narrowly avoids being eaten by zombies.
The average viewer can only take a certain amount of depressing and terrible events, before they get frustrated at the game for what it is doing to your character. This kind of criticism is often levelled at such games with ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ for much the same reason. We instinctively don’t like when our characters are put in situations or act in a way that they should not.
Without these ‘peaks’ of happiness, or satisfaction for their accomplishments, the ‘troughs’ of hardships cannot be felt as strongly as when we have juxtaposing emotions. Watching our protagonist achieves his or her goals without any struggles or conflict, will never be as satisfying to watch our protagonist achieve them against all odds.
Looking back at the first episode of the second season as a whole, I believe that whilst the gameplay portrayed the tone and theme that the writers wanted perfectly, through it’s tough decisions, illusion of choice, gruelling actions scenes such as the self-stitching Clementine performs on herself; the theme and tone make the game a chore to play.
Through fully committing the theme of ‘bad things happen to everyone’ and the tone of danger around every corner, the player is never given a chance to relax and take a breather.
This is exacerbated by the washed-out setting we are taken through, from grotty gas station bathroom, to desolate campsites, to corpse strewn riverbanks. Not once does the sun shine. It all feels like the equivalent of Paranormal Activity if it was all set in at night-time.
Whilst this opening chapter only serves as the opening act of a movie, and therefore it’s choices in tone and theme are arguably justifiable if our characters use these hardships to achieve their goals, it makes the chapter unengaging to play; something that is inexcusable when you’re trying to get the player to buy the next episodes on the basis on the first.
A tactic that failed on me this time around, and judging by the decreased lack of interest despite continued good critical receptions, I believe that many players feel the same way as I do.
Whilst the second season undoubtedly as good a game as the first, its theme and tone prevent most gamers from being truly engaged with it. Something that ultimately draws in more sales in episodic formats like this, and something that the first season pulled off excellently.
Something that made the first season the ground-breaking series it was, and something that the second season sorely, sorely lacks.