The Good, Bad and the Ugly with TellTale Games
Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers about The Wolf Among Us and Season Two of The Walking Dead by Telltale Games (and implied spoilers about Season One).
In a previous post, I discuss why I think Season One of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead is a brilliant achievement in episodic narrative gaming. In a follow-up post, I discuss how Episode Five of Season Two of The Walking Dead achieves similar greatness. Here, though, I will address what went so wrong in between.
Bigby Wolf and Clementine are both sympathetic player-character. Both Bigby and Clem are consistently forced to make difficult decisions. But here’s where the first core problem sets in that differentiates these games from The Walking Dead: Season One: their choices are rarely significant to the plot or emotionally meaningful enough to really drive investment in the characters or the game.
In The Wolf Among Us, a large percentage of Bigby’s choices have to do with how brutally he pursues his murder investigation in Fabletown. Do you rip off Grendel’s arm or not? Do you kill Tweedledum or not? In nearly all cases, the majority of players opt against optional violence (often strong majorities) The problem with this line of choices is that at no point in the game did I feel worried that taking the high road would derail my investigation or have serious consequences for Bigby or his associates. The Wolf Among Us tries to liven things up with a new mechanic where you often have to choose what location to investigate first, at the expense of getting less out of the second location investigated, but for me, this wasn’t particularly exciting. Your choice can save or doom the minor character Prince Lawrence early on, but most investigations didn’t seem interestingly different based on where you went first. They were different, yes…but not in ways that I cared that much about. The result was a game where the player-choice statistics displayed at the end of each episode revealed much less divisiveness than in Season One of The Walking Dead… more 70, 80, and even 90% majorities, and fewer majorities in the 50s and low 60s. This has to be at least partly because so many of these end-game choices for which statistics were provided weren’t even interesting choices: will I give a kid’s present to Snow White before he gets evicted from his home or not? Seriously? Who are the 2-3% of people who say no to this? Do you offer the boring, meaningless character Flycatcher a job or not? There’s another choice devoid of drama and another 97.2% majority.
The ending of The Wolf Among Us was a little better, but remained mired in the things that make Telltale’s games weak. There was an awkward recap of the main choices the player has made, this time in front of a crowd of Fables who were ridiculously easily swayed by the rhetoric of one character after another (yeah, the Crooked Man has been terrible to all of us…but now he’s talking pretty, so we’ve forgotten all that!). Character credibility gets strained in service of a plot bottleneck to get to the climactic choice the designers want. And ultimately, that choice is just another “how brutal are you” option. Sure, whatever.
There was one interesting twist at the end where character identities are called into question, which I give credit for, though it doesn’t make up for the fact that told narrative can’t be the most interesting thing in an interactive game story. The reveal had nothing to do with my choices, so it didn’t fix the core problem.
The Walking Dead: Season Two has many of the same problems. Do I mercy kill a dog that attacked me or not? 81.8% of players and I do. 87.5% of players and I accept Nick’s apology. 67.9% and I give water to a dying asshole. 77.1% and I help Sarah with her chores instead of sticking to ours. 92.8% and I hold a baby rather than refusing to. 86.8% and I try to crawl through a ticket booth to get supplies. And a similarly large majority and I probably started getting really bored with choices that have no stakes. What’s the worst that’s going to happen if I crawl through the ticket booth? They’re not going to kill Clem in Episode Three. The worst that happens is that a friend has to save her. Okay, whatever. Season Two felt like a game with very few consequences for taking risks.
Over the course of Season One, it became increasingly clear that there were choices that had major repercussions and choices that were more about fleshing out what kind of person your character is. In Season Two, as in The Wolf Among Us, there are far too few decisions that have severe consequences (or even feel like they do at the time). The choice of who to save at the end of S2:E1 is a pretty decent variation on the similar choice at the end of S1:E1. The standoff decision at the end of S2:E2 can get Alvin killed or keep him alive (for another episode or so), but how that plays out is based as much on Kenny’s baffling failure to reload mid-standoff (and Carver’s conveniently minor wound) as on player choice. The Sarita-gets-bitten choice at the end of S2:E3 is interesting in the moment but only ultimately (sort of) meaningful in terms of Kenny’s grief process. The choice to try to shake Sarah out of her torpor to save her in the trailer was dramatic at the time, but I quickly felt it was toothless when there were absolutely no consequences for risking us all to try to save her. Robbing Arvo or not is similarly meaningless (much like the annoying stealing-from-the-station-wagon bottleneck when the Stranger appears in S1:E5), as is shooting the zombified Rebecca or not. Maddeningly, when Telltale wants an exciting shootout at the end of Episode Four—to parallel the excitement and suspense of Lee getting bit at the end of S1:E4?—the shootout ludicrously results in exactly zero of Clem’s group getting seriously injured, let alone killed. Why would Telltale structure this as a close-range shootout where the bad guys have a shotgun (among other guns)? It creates tension between episodes at the expense of credibility when the narrative resumes. My choices through most of the game (until after the shootout in Episode Five, when things get much better) felt largely disconnected from the direction of the plot, which was disappointing and boring.
The other kind of choice—those that don’t affect plot much, but have emotional resonance as you develop your character and their relationships—also falls flat in TWAU and TWD: Season Two. Telltale failed to populate these games with minor dialogue choices that have the kind of emotional stakes that Lee’s do while he’s caring for Clementine. This is mainly because there are no relationships in either game that take on anything like the importance of Lee’s with Clementine. Bigby’s relationship with Snow White is okay, but kind of secondary. It’s interesting when they butt heads on policy and personal safety, but since the relationship doesn’t progress beyond business to either friendship or romance, it’s not particularly complex. (This is probably partly a structural issue, since, as I learned after finishing the game, The Wolf Among Us functions as a prequel to the Fables comic books and so has to leave the characters where the comics pick them up, preventing the game designers from making many bold or rewarding choices with key characters.)
Even more bafflingly, Telltale consistently shuffles Clem’s companions in and out of the narrative in Season Two of The Walking Dead so that it’s difficult to develop any of them or their relationships with Clem enough for us to care that much. Luke seems like he’ll be important, then he’s relegated to the background for a long time. Christa, Nick, Pete, Rebecca, Alvin, Carlos, Sarita, Walter, Bonnie, Mike, Jane…a lot of characters cycle through, but most are only featured for an episode or two, limiting their dramatic usefulness. Kenny, Luke, Arvo, Jane, and to some extent Bonnie are interesting, but none of them develop the kind of relationship with Clem to make her every choice in relation to them as deeply meaningful as Lee’s choices were with regard to Clementine. Until Episode Five, there’s just nothing as interesting about playing an eleven-year-old Clem as there is in looking out for an eight-and-nine-year-old Clem as Lee. Lee is trying to protect and raise Clementine. Clementine is being shuffled along as part of a large and constantly changing group of lightly developed secondary characters. The goal is not as urgent, the relationships not as compelling, the dangers not as convincing. Much of Season Two feels like an afterthought sequel, just as much of The Wolf Among Us feels like a prequel shackled by all the character choices it can’t make.
By the end of S2:E4, I was worried that I might have to give up on Telltale until I heard that they were turning things around. After losing many of the lead designers from Season One, and spreading their dev team around multiple games in the wake of that season’s success, I was worried that they had peaked. To my pleasant surprise, though, S2:E5 confirmed that they are still willing to make bold, dramatic storytelling choices (see my follow-up post or my review on that episode).
Hopefully S2:E5 is a sign that Telltale has learned from the lackluster arcs of TWAU and most of Season Two of The Walking Dead (though more likely they had E5 planned from the beginning and just didn’t expect E2-4 to be so dull a journey to get there). What do you think? Am I right about the relative mediocrity of The Wolf Among Us and most of The Walking Dead: Season Two? Am I forgetting any key disappointments or triumphs? Do you disagree with any major parts of my analysis?