‘The Walking Dead’ Season 2, Episode 2, ‘A House Divided,’ Corrects Course
I have to admit that, after the first episode of this season of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead video game, I was worried. It seemed like the game was becoming too dour, even by zombie fiction standards, and had abandoned the first season's tendency to throw some good-hearted humanity in with the misery.
I'm happy to report that the second episode of the season, titled "A House Divided," brings a big chunk of that humanity back, and even manages some levity. Of course, that doesn't mean that there's no tension. Indeed, this may be the most tense episode of the game yet, and most of it happens in scenes that are nothing but dialogue.
Part of what has made The Walking Dead game so appealing from the very beginning is that there's so much strategy that goes into what you choose to tell people, when you choose to hold back, and when you choose to lie. There's an extended sequence in this episode, pretty early on, where a character Clementine, the protagonist, knows very little about shows up at the door of the house where she and some other survivors have holed up. Almost everyone else is gone at the time, so it's up to the player to decide whether to play the whole thing cool, be combative, tell the guy the truth, or obfuscate. It's like a chess game (a point hammered home by a chess set being in the room at one point), and it's a astonishingly gripping scene that is, in total, a man talking to an 11-year-old girl.
In spite of the chess set, one of the things that makes this episode a marked improvement over the last one is a genuine sense of subtlety. A few clues scattered around give the player a pretty good indication of the answer to one mystery well before the reveal actually comes, which is one of those great "make the player feel smart" moments. One location that the protagonists go to totally has the feel of being too good to be true -- a staple of zombie stories -- but no one comes out and says so. In several instances, the writers and developers allow characters to say things with their expressions rather than words. There's more room for subtext, and that not only helps build tension, but also gives players more ways to read and interpret situations. More than any other episode of the game so far, "A House Divided" is about reading people, and the clues given are all beautifully placed.
Clementine is better served this time around, too. With more characters to play off of, and a greater sense of familiarity with those characters, she's less sullen and more self-assured this time around. That's great for her progression as a character, but it also simply makes her a more enjoyable character to play as. The first episode put the player at something of a remove from Clementine -- she often would say nothing when looking at an item. Here, she's more open. And Melissa Hutchison, the voice actress who portrays Clementine, does a great job once again of nailing the nuances. She leads a great cast.
There's a surprise about halfway through the game that I definitely don't want to spoil, but I'll go so far as to say a character from season one makes a return appearance, and it's an emotional gut punch. It strains credulity to the max, but it's executed so well, and does such a great job of offering a much-needed break from the tension, that it's more than welcome. It seems that the writing team has a much better handle on the tone this time out, and particularly in that one scene, they played me like a fiddle.
Speaking of play, saints be praised, the gameplay seems to be considerably smoother this episode. I didn't notice any crazily jerky camera moves and none of the quicktime events suffered from any lag. That may be the first time I have played a Telltale game on my Xbox 360 and that happened.
Plot-wise, my one concern is where the story seems to be headed. I won't give away how this episode ends, but I will say that it seems eerily similar to a couple of arcs from the comic that were later adapted into a big arc in the TV series. Maybe it won't turn out that way, but things certainly seem headed in that general direction, and I can't help but wonder if maybe there isn't as much of a wide universe of stories to tell in a zombie apocalypse as one might think.
I'll tell you this, though: "A House Divided" was good enough that I absolutely want to find out.