The latest instalment of season two for The Walking Dead game is going to be a divisive one to some players. On one hand, it continues the impressive streak Telltale has established for spinning some of the best stories seen in the entire medium. On the other hand, this newest episode seems to have done so at the expense of the cornerstone of games; interactivity. There’s a great Walking Dead story unfolding here, but it may have done so by sacrificing the Walking Dead game that people wanted to actually play.
In this newest episode, things have gone from bad to worse, Clem and her new friends are essentially prisoners of Bill Carver, a megalomaniac in self-appointed charge of a hardware store converted to a survival compound. This entire episode falls back on a classic plot structure; the jailbreak. Everything about In Harm’s Way is about Clem and friends dealing with their new life as captives subjected to forced labor under the eye of an egotistical sadist, and their attempts to escape this new situation. In that regard, there’s no particular innovation as plenty of games have protagonists trying to escape a captive situation, but once again, strong writing from the Telltale team keeps this simple story riveting. As usual—at least on the PS3—this game is hindered by some performance issues that make it clear Telltale doesn’t have a strong grasp of the platform, but these problems don’t plague other hardware. When Telltale finally starts making games on the PS4, their tech team will breathe a sigh of relief.
That doesn’t mean that this new episode is a home run all the way through. Like any great TV series, this instalment is going to have people talking. It’s full of those coveted water cooler moments that make for enthused discussion among fans. However, a lot of the actual gameplay/interactivity has been diminished to let the writers maintain better control of the story. There are fewer moments of free exploration as Clem to examine and search for objects, little to no actual puzzle/problem solving and there are fewer choices and possible branching point as well. This episode feels very much like the writers, Sean Ainsworth and Pierre Shorette, had a goal in mind for a specific story arc, and they weren’t leaving anything to chance; or player choice.
Consequently, this game is loaded with some great story, but a lot of agency has been taken away from the player. There are long stretches of dialog with either minimal or no choices available, and traditional cutscenes have much greater presence here than in past episodes of the game, or in peers like The Wolf Among Us. Part of this is down to the choice to Clem as the protagonist of the second season. She is, after all, an 11 year old girl, so she has far less independence and action hero moments than most characters, and this is underscored by just how often “the grownups are talking” in this episode where she sits on the sidelines while the adult characters argue—and ultimately take matters into their own hands to move the plot ahead under direct writer, rather than player control.
It creates a more conflicted game than past instalments. Season Two of The Walking Dead game is clearly leading up to something. The writers want the audience to have a very specific experience, and in order to do that, they had to take some control away from us in this episode. For some, the sheer strength of the storytelling will make this forgivable as there are some terrific story moments here. For traditional adventure game fans, it will feel a bit disappointing to have so much interactivity reduced. This is not the strongest “game” in the latest season, but it compensates by having one of the stronger traditional narratives, something that looks to be even more prominent as stakes rise higher still in the last two episodes.