Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dead At The Gates Redux: The Walking Dead: Season 2

Imagine, if you will, that you're trapped in a dungeon somewhere.  Sand covers the floor, strange liquid drips from various areas, and you're never able to get a decent night's sleep.  Every now and again a figure shows up with bread crusts for food.  He drops them on the ground and waits for you to crawl forward to cram them into your mouth, but the moment your fingers get close, he brings his boot heel down and crushes them into the sand, breaking them apart into mere dust.  And if you try to be aggressive when you grab the bread, you just wind up with broken fingers.

Then, each time, the figure kneels down and lifts your chin up.  He looks you over, observes the bloodshot eyes, the sunken cheeks, and the cracked lips you have.  He smiles kindly for a moment, and asks, "I'm sorry...have I upset you?  Here, let me go get you some bread."

The cycle continues.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the experience playing The Walking Dead: Season 2.

The only thing more emotionally draining than that experience is the fact that behind you in the cell is an open door that leads to freedom.  All you have to do is take it.  But you won't.  Because, somehow, you've convinced yourself that it's not as bleak as it appears, and that if you can just last a bit longer, that one piece of bread you get will be worth it in the end.

People who have read my blog for a while might remember that I did a live-consciousness typing as I played through the original game.  It was either a ground-breaking social experiment, or a really lame way to get out of typing a whole bunch of spoilers while still trying to express my mental state without going "I got upset.  A lot."

I don't think I can get away with that this time, but there are a few major thoughts that I had during the game play that I think are worth expressing in this review.

Picking up from the end of Season One, you take control of Clementine, now just a bit into her double digit years and trying to survive.  A few familiar faces accompany you, but it doesn't take long for you to get separated and trying to survive at first on your own and then with a new group of people you stumble upon.  Sure enough, however, the zombie menace can't be avoided forever and it turns out that, just like in every game that takes place in an apocalypse, other humans are the greatest danger you could ever face.

Clementine: Then and now.

Just once would it be too much to ask for a huge disaster to happen and everybody's response isn't "I'm going to kill everybody else to make sure I survive" but instead be "you know, we might not all get along on some serious issues, but I think we can all agree that the volcano/werelocusts/horde of sentient trees that want revenge for centuries of paper mills might be a more serious issue to address right now?"

Oh, and small disasters like flipped over cruise liners or skyscrapers on fire don't count, I'm talking global threat.

Where was I?  Oh, right.  Just as in Season One, the game makes you pick sides in arguments as well as make difficult decisions.  Do you express your loyalties towards certain individuals who mean well but are making a decision that can harm people, or do you side with the people who are jerks but seem determined to save more lives?    Do you accompany one person instead of another?  When someone is in danger, do you risk your own life to save them or do you leave them?

There are no simple decisions in the game, and there are decisions I regretted making the moment I made them.  However, I found myself thinking back to the first game quite often, and instead of making a decision that might save me trouble in the long run, I made multiple decisions based on being the kind of person that I wanted Clementine to see me as.  In this game, instead of making decisions that I, a fan of the zombie apocalypse and reader of The Zombie Survival Guide, would make I went with the decisions I thought Clementine (or how I pictured Clementine, considering her behavior in the first game) would make.  This meant forgiving people who hadn't earned it, doing my best to keep everybody happy, and constantly throwing myself in danger when the sensible thing would be to run.

Once again, the game does a good job making you connect to the other characters you meet, which is cruel in of itself because it's a survival horror series, and everybody knows that very few people ever make it to the end of a survival horror anything.  Men, women, and children are all presented to you as your teammates and allies against a harsh world full of cruel people, and the game almost seems to take delight each time it reaches out and plucks one away from you.

Eventually you realize that in a way the game is a massive exercise in futility.  You might think your decisions will have long, lasting impacts, but (spoiler, maybe?) I can tell you that there's only a few very important decisions that matter by the time the final credits roll.  People who you fought to save wind up dead days, hours, or even just moments after you save them.  Conversation cues appear, but are immediately taken away from you by something dramatic interrupting you because the world doesn't always wait for you to pick the right thing to say.

The game has also convinced me that in case of a zombie apocalypse, I'm a goner.  I don't have the ability to simply shut down my emotions when necessary, and the coldness you need to feel towards your fellow man would leave me an emotional wreck within a week.

That's right, I'm less equipped to face disaster on an emotional level than a pre-teen girl.
And they're Justin Bieber's target audience.
Finishing the game didn't feel like a victory, it felt like an obligation.  By starting this game, I made a promise to further Clementine's story and get her through the next chapter of her life.  It wasn't always fun, it wasn't always pleasant (point of order, it was almost NEVER pleasant), and there were times towards the end when I was making important decisions that I felt tears well in the corners of my eyes as people I had grown attached to through this experience were taken from me by a cold, unfeeling program code, but I got through it.  Maybe I'm different for having now played it.  Time will tell.

All I can tell you is that there's a moment in the very first chapter that as intense and mentally draining as anything I've ever played in any video game.  Ever.  I had to put down my controller and take a few deep breaths as I played, and I may have been silently going "Nonononononononoooooo" a few times.  Oh, and it's a slow scene, no big combat or anything.

With an emotional impact just as heavy as the first game and a story that had me hugging my knees and silently pleading with the console to cut me a break and let me have one moment of success, I can almost guarantee that this will be on my "Best Of" list this year.

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