"Like the fictional beings we fixate on, Episode 1 is satisfying, though left me wanting more."
I have to wonder if the writers at Telltale sit around in swivel chairs at a big table, leaning back, tapping their lips with pencils, smirking. One glances to another, "So, how do we screw with them this season?" And, thus, The Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 1 is born. Those frothing for more TWD after Telltale's surprise hit (to some) this past year will be satisfied, though some changes (welcome and otherwise) have been made.
Unless you've been living under a bunch of dead zombies (for camouflage), you probably already know that Season 2 follows Clementine. "Follows" is the operative word here, as the style of storytelling isn't exactly from your perspective, though it kind of is. Over Clementine's shoulder, our choices are made through the lens of the little girl now turned young woman. At first glance, Clementine hasn't changed much, but when she opens her mouth and acts out of necessity, a few questions come to mind: Has Clementine grown up since last we saw her? Does one's environment create such stark changes in one's personality? Did Telltale's writers forget how to write Clementine's dialogue? Is the zombie apocalypse good for maturing young minds (I'm looking at you, Millennials)?
No matter how one feels about Clementine's character, past or present, one certainty remains: Kirkman and those caught in his net of creativity love to layer on a thick gravitas in which the audience is forced to reflect on the harsh reality presented to the fictional avatars they possess. If the conflict and horrific events weren't laced in a tasteful lead up, one might mistake Telltale's writing for sadism. Indeed, some events almost come across as torture porn, but the truth is that a young child in this reality would encounter similar situations – and probably worse. The key here is how Telltale presents the shocking events; in terms of the writing, "justified" comes to mind, but I was reminded of the dead child in the attic from Season 1 while I played this episode.
Regarding graphical style, Season 2 seems to go with what works. With such praise after Season 1, changing the art direction would be foolhardy. Instead, I focused on the camera during Episode 1. Telltale made good use of perspective, using angles wisely. Only on rare occasion did character presentation come into question. At one point in the episode, a character's mouth movement while he spoke appeared stiff and artificial, but this is nitpicking.
The voice actors in this episode complement the writing and understand their characters, no matter how brief their appearance, and in movies, theatre, and interactive storytelling, dialogue is only as good as the people in front of the camera, on stage, or behind the microphone. Truly, the script comes alive with Clementine and the other central characters. Music is still largely absent except for the opening and credits. The opening sets the stage ably while the credit sequence gives a tasteful closing to the first episode.
Telltale made considerable improvements to the gameplay, providing a more fast-paced experience with less frustration. Previously, the exploratory portions of the game included a great deal of Q&A with party members which offered the illusion of choice, though 99% of players just ran through all of the questions to hear all of the dialogue. Here, no dialogue menu pops up – characters say what they want to say and move on. Additionally, these formerly exploration-heavy moments have shortened. Though the formula remains the same, the game doesn't grind to a halt once Clementine can roam "freely."
That said, Clementine is slow. Granted, she has reasons for moving slowly, but that doesn't change the fact that getting from point A to B is arduous at best. Perhaps Telltale was trying to convey something about Clementine or the situation she's in, but the practical application shadowed this possibility. The "run" key is laughable – I don't expect Clementine to sprint across the screen, but the change in pace is negligible. Dialogue time limits infect their way back into the game design, a problem Telltale seemed to have fixed by the end of Season 1. Though rushed decision-making only happens on occasion during Episode 1, critical moments in the story are lost along with the immersion bubble that is so critical to experiences like The Walking Dead.
Difficult decisions rear their ugly (beautiful?) head again. While playing Episode 1, I tried to put myself in Clementine's shoes with her history while simultaneously answering and choosing how I might, which flowed seamlessly. That's right; I saw the world through the eyes of a pre-adolescent African-American female as a 29-year-old white male. All credit goes to Telltale. Clementine's changes during this season almost seem necessary by virtue of the difficult decisions laid before her. The Clementine we knew would have looked to Lee for guidance on these choices or, more likely, he would have made them for her. Now, we see what this world does to a child.
This is just Episode 1. Already, so much has happened in the hour-and-a-half I've played, which is considerably shorter than the two-and-a-half hours I squeezed out of every episode in Season 1. Those craving more TWD after devouring Season 1 needn't wander any longer. Like the fictional beings we fixate on, Episode 1 is satisfying, though left me wanting more.