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The Walking Dead: Why Season 1 Wins Over Season 2
by Julius Kuschke on 05/19/14 02:39:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

So, I just played episode three of The Walking Dead’s second season. And well, don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad… I even think it was the best episode of this season, but in my opinion one thing is for sure: The second season is far from the excellence of the first. But why’s that? For me there are four main issues. But before reading on: be warned, there will be heavy spoilers!

Violence Has Become Daily Routine

Remember when you were forced to cut off a man's leg in the first season? It felt awful to press that button again and again until the leg was finally off. And do you remember the scene where Kenny smashed Larry's head to keep him from turning? Oh boy, was it hard to decide whether to help Kenny or not. And of course the scene in episode three, where Lee's arm had to be chopped off. You really could feel the pain, didn't you?

The first time I had to chop off somebody’s leg… that was painful to do!

But just as Clementine got tougher and now is rubbing in zombie entrails without hesitation, I as a player got used to scenes like this. In season one Clementine was the cute little girl that I wanted to protect from all the cruelness in the world. Whenever I was forced to use violence I hoped that Clem didn't have to see it or wouldn't think bad of me. But now it's no shock anymore when someone gets a part of his body chopped off. Cutting off Sarita's arm at the end of the latest episode? Well, it had to be done. Carver beating the shit out of Kenny? By now we know that there are a whole lot of crazy ruthless bastards in the world of The Walking Dead. Violence as element of surprise and horror simply lost its power. It has become daily routine.

Of course, that's exactly the story the developers want to tell. The story of a "realistic" zombie apocalypse, where violence becomes normality for the survivors. But I'm not sure if this topic alone can hold my interest for much longer. So, what to do to spice things up again? I'd say: Keep the violence, but try to combine the violent scenes more often with a real moral dilemma for the player. Use the true power of interactive storytelling.

No Clear Goal

A big difference between season one and two is the existence of an overarching goal. In season one there was the goal of reaching Savannah to probably find Clem's parents. Then there was still some hope to get away from all the mess by boat. And of course there was the overall goal of protecting Clementine. This story framework was present all the time and whenever one episode came to an end Telltale made sure to teaser a new storyline that would tie in with this.

Clementine became strong – Lee was obviously a good teacher.

In season two it's pure survival. There is no location I definitely want to reach. There are no characters anymore I feel responsible for. The strong motivation for the player to keep going in season one came from the relationship between Lee and Clem. But now Clementine seems to be strong enough to handle everything on her own and I - as a player - don't feel needed anymore.

Maybe it wouldn't be that much of a problem if we wouldn't be talking about an interactive experience, but games absolutely need goals. There must be something to achieve. And no, simply surviving doesn't work in a story-driven game like this. In a game like Day-Z survival alone is a great goal, because there's a very real chance of failure. But in the case of The Walking Dead I know that there's no chance Clementine could die before the season ends.

Choices Don't Matter

Which brings me directly to reason number three. By now, we all know the recipe Telltale is using to create fake choices, don't we? But in season one I still had the feeling that maybe at some point one of my decisions could actually make a difference. There were at least some moments where the composition of my group was influenced directly by my decisions. Sure, this mostly lasted for a short time, until everybody was brought back to the same track, but it highly increased the feeling of agency. And it doesn't have to be branching on a large scale. I was already happy when I managed to start a little romance between Lee and Carley.

In season one the NPCs memory seemed pretty much intact.

So, while this already wasn't the strongest part in season one, it became much worse in season two. I don't know how often I read the magic line "... will remember that." in this season, but I know for sure that I didn't have the feeling that any character is REALLY remembering. Did Sarah behave any different because I was nice to her? Nope. Did somebody survive or die just because of my decisions? Nope. Does it matter how good or bad I perform in the daily zombie slashing? Nope.

Of course, there was the beginning of the second episode where things branched out and you were at different locations depending on the last decision of the first episode. This made me hope Telltale would deliver more in this direction, but episode three was as linear as it could be. I honestly don't expect Telltale to branch out completely, leading me to different locations or completely different endings, but they could do a lot more on a smaller scale to make me feel my choices matter. For example I'm missing more links between the episodes. Why aren't there more moments when somebody brings up something I said/ did in the previous episode? This was clearly handled better in the first season.

The Characters

This is highly subjective, but I don't really like most characters of the second season. I think Carver was a pretty solid antagonist (even though quite cliché), but what I'm really missing are characters that I want to create a relationship with over a longer time. Just as the strong conflicts within the group that made many decisions in season one so interesting. The conflicts between Kenny and Lilly for example were build up over several episodes culminating in some pretty tough choices like helping Kenny to kill her father or taking sides when it comes to leaving Lilly behind after she killed Carley/ Doug. The same goes for the relationship between Kenny and Ben.

Sorry guys, but you’re pretty boring.

The new group in season two on the other hand has relatively weak conflicts (if any at all) within their ranks. They are united against Carver and so there's no need for me to take sides. With Kenny's return in the second episode things got at least a little bit more interesting and the decision at which table to sit was for me the most interesting in the second season so far.

Conclusion

While I think that there's a lot of room for improvement, The Walking Dead season two is still very entertaining. The character's facial expressions are absolutely convincing, the dialogue writing is on a par with television, the voice-acting is fantastic and the whole atmosphere of a zombie apocalypse is captured perfectly. But to me the second season feels a bit more like watching television. I am less involved and the feeling of agency isn't as strong as in the first season. That's mostly because I have no goal to aim for and the certainty that my choices will have no real consequences. I know that a lot of players are perfectly fine with just getting dragged along the story, but I think that a greater sense of agency and the possibility to build long-term relationships with the characters (just as in season one) would again raise the overall quality of the series.

 

This post was originally published on my blog: http://designing-games.com/


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Comments


James Margaris
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The "Choices Don't Matter" part is the key I think.

The strength of Walking Dead Season 1 is that players didn't know how it worked - once you do know how it works the illusion is broken. The choices don't matter, the "X will remember Y" stuff doesn't matter.

These systems were praised as brilliant at the time of release because they held a lot of promise - that X will remember Y implies some sort of system at play and hints at a world of possibilities. But now players know that the system is either under-baked or non-existent, and that the possibilities are extremely limited.

Once you know how the game works it stops being much of a game and becomes just a story.

Edit: This also has a lot to do with Adrian Chmielarz' recent piece about adventure games. TWD is another game that doesn't have strong underlying mechanics, but for a while it had the illusion of such.

Ian Richard
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The "choices don't matter" was what killed the first season for me. By the end of the second episode I realized that no matter what I did I was going to end up in the same position. From there on it was far less engaging.

I planned to pick up season 2 eventually, but after reading this I'll probably pass. The first one didn't win me over and the sequel sounds like more of the same.

Dane MacMahon
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Seems like a lot of games win industry praise and attention for something that, a few months down the line, isn't really as impressive as we thought it was. Perhaps people should be more slow and methodical about their initial evaluations, but then hey... deadlines, right?

Paul Furio
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1) Violence becoming the norm, and characters being unlikable may be a key part of the story that's being told. That people have to do despicable things to survive, and that others become more and more unlikable because they're forced to do the same... if you believe this is not at least a reflection of life, then either you're leading a very comfortable life, or you haven't lived long enough. Wait a few years.
2) Choices don't matter: Perhaps this is akin to Kentucky Route Zero, where the choices and dialog are more about defining what type of person Clem is, and less about affecting the outcome. How harsh is she? How "fast is she growing up"? How much does she care about others? That's as important an aspect as external events, especially if you want to combat (or at least hold off) my first point.

Julius Kuschke
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Sorry, but you completely misunderstood my point about the characters. It's not necessary that you "like" all the NPCs in the game. In fact that would be awfully boring! I would love the new characters, if I would have ANY kind of strong feelings for them. Larry in season one for example was such an asshole. And still I was trying to convince him that Lee was a good person, which created an interesting relationship between the characters.
But I don't care at all (neither in a positive nor negative way) about the new characters and that's the problem.

Concerning the choices: Yes, I want to be in the position to choose what kind of person Clem is. The problem is that the game doesn't really react to it. Interaction is defined as a two-way effect and that's what I'm missing here. I'm giving input to the game all the time, but the feedback is extremely weak. That's why I'm saying that it could work in TV or as a book, but as an interactive experience it simply doesn't deliver what it promises.

John Flush
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Good write up. I finished playing the most recent episode Tuesday and I would have to agree with just about every point you mentioned.

#1, yep I thought the same thing. It wasn't even a choice. They tried to make a big point of 'watching' the end of the latest episode. I think they were going for 'are you hardened or not?' I stuck around though for "I want to make sure he is dead so they can't twist this for later"

#2, yep. They started out with the premise you were trying to catch back up with "whatever her name was" at the first of the game. They haven't really came back around. Honestly, I don't really care though because I didn't like her from season one anyhow.

#3, Enough people mentioned this already, but there weren't any choices anyhow in the first. Yeah, it seemed like it would do something. It doesn't. The illusion is gone and now it becomes a story. It isn't very good as point #2 and #4 clearly shows.

#4, thank goodness it isn't just me. I swear this whole season I feel like Clem is with a bunch of losers. They have tried to make it seem like Luke is the person you are supposed to attach to, but if you don't (I didn't) there really isn't anyone in the group worth caring about. They all have back-story that never really happens or care about. Kenny showed up and yeah familiar face and that seemed to be fine and dandy but nothing really there.

I think the whole problem comes from the fact "you are Clem" instead of "you are helping Clem". You only get one perspective on the whole thing this season and your interactions are pointless. You don't get the dynamic of whether or not you try to maintain social 'norms' in front of anyone or not in case she is watching. There really isn't anything there that makes an impact except...

I had to start viewing it as if I was Clem now and how would I act, though everyone is bigger than me and can push me around (thus fitting seeming the game won't let me actually chose any thing long term anyhow). I find myself slowly getting to the point that if someone does something I don't like I hope they are next on the chopping block or try to set it up that way. And that is the most disappointing part, I don't even get to chose who dies first anymore. At least give me back that fake choice for an episode or so.

Julius Kuschke
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Thanks! I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one thinking this way. :)

Andreas Ahlborn
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When I started playing TWD after everyone praised it as the Return of the relevant adventure game, I rather quickly got the feeling that I was being tricked into accepting a series of branching quicktimeevents through the pseudo-existential nature of them (who lives/dies/gets bitten/eaten alive etc.).

The cartoonish execution was another bummer for me and so 2 hours into the first epsiode of the first season I quit and never returned under the assumption:that is simply not my kind of game.

I also cannot see how Telltales` style fits anywhere with the Game of Thrones Universe. So I am a great non-believer in the fact that Telltales is becoming the adult version of LEGOs attempt to make every franchise in the Universe LEGO compatible.

Inb4
Telltales-House of Cards
Telltales-True Detective

You heard it here first ;-)


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