One of the key differences between video games and television is many games’ reliance on players being desensitized to violence, while television will often try to shock viewers with moments of brutality. In episodic fashion, Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: The Game has now given us nine installments of what has often delivered truly engrossing storytelling, and rather than merely forcing its main character to kill and kill and kill, the game asks players to embrace the psychological side of survival horror with its decision-based branching narrative. There are some truly horrifying decisions to be made during the latest episode, “In Harm’s Way,” and one in particular that will test just how far gone players have gone in terms of bloodlust, as seen through the eyes of the hardened young Clementine.
Yet, even as this decision must be made — and just so you know, I made the most damning choice possible — I questioned if that was perhaps why the episode itself felt like a doubling up of the gameplay’s already formulaic nature. I wasn’t feeling whatever emotions the Telltale team wants me to be feeling, and I’m mostly numbed to main characters biting the dust and zombies entering the frame when I should least expect it. I also found myself predicting the kinds of conversations I was going to have with characters — particularly the mousy and helpless Sarah, whose tear-stained death can’t come fast enough — and this episode felt like it was 90% conversations with only 10% walking around a quasi-prison camp and a rooftop.
Yet…I loved every broken, screaming, child-battering, backstabbing thing about it, because it’s still a one-of-a-kind experience.
I’ll try to be as spoiler-free as possible here. The action picks up just as the seemingly merciless Carver and his gun-toting crew are taking Clementine, Kenny, and the rest of the group back to their mini-mall living situation. The gang is put into a makeshift prison cell, er, sleeping quarters, where they meet generic Mike, the quiet Jane, and Reggie, the one-armed klutz voiced by stand-up comic and Silicon Valley star Kumail Nanjiani. (Side note: Regardless of how out of place Nanjiani’s fluid conversational style fit in with the familiar style of overacting, he was my favorite part of this episode, if not this entire season so far.) Carver has a staunch no-nonsense policy within these walls, and he isn’t afraid to prove it in some truly despicable ways. Almost every minute of the game is spent in pure loathing, as Carver stands tall with The Walking Dead franchise’s more nefarious foes, even though he’s only been around for two episodes.
“In Harm’s Way” at first appears as if this will set these characters up with Carver’s group, as shown by side characters reconnecting with others, and backstories about who helped who escape the compound and why. But it’s really all about escaping Carver’s harsh society, and doing whatever is necessary to reach that goal. The actual plotting and scheming is where this episode falls flat, as Clementine is mostly used for a pair of Legend of Zelda side quests where she has to retrieve something and then go and do something. Luckily, there are enough people involved in this narrative to color even the most plodding action with interesting dialogue.
When it comes to non-Clementine drama — and really, she never has any, unless the player chooses to make her a dick — we have the pregnant Rebecca and her husband Alvin, who is immediately taken away by Carver for one reason or another. There’s the loud and overbearing Kenny, who is basically used as the loud and overbearing character here, but one who finds his own forms of redemption. We have Bonnie, one of Carver’s underlings who may be interested in defecting, and Carlos, the wishy-washy father of damaged goods Sarah, the girl incapable of doing anything but worrying about doing anything.
Despite the flaws I’ve mentioned, this episode definitely speeds up as it heads toward the end, and this may be the most perfect final seconds of a video game I’ve ever played. (Even better than winning it all at Super Tecmo Bowl.) It makes me hope the next episode picks up immediately where this one left off.
If I could have one hope for the rest of the season, it would be that Telltale stars slowing things down for the main story arc while retaining the healthy pace in the actual events of the episodes. While AMC’s The Walking Dead takes a year to do anything, this game tends to offer up one-and-done scenarios with each entry, which adds to its repetitive nature.
All in all, it’s hard to think of two zombie-related hours that are better spent than playing The Walking Dead: The Game. If “In Harm’s Way” teaches us anything, it’s that revenge is a dish best served with a crowbar. Play it, before it plays you.