If there's anything Telltale's The Walking Dead game has taught me about myself, it's that come the post-apocalypse, I'd be of no use to anyone.
We like to think that all our time spent scoring video game headshots in Left 4 Dead and Dead Rising, or yelling advice at the protagonists of 28 Days Later and Zombieland has prepared us for the rising of the dead. But when the time comes, I bet our skill-at-arms won't even be tested. It'll be our diplomacy and our snap decision-making that allow us to survive, as well as our ability to cope when everything goes wrong.
Unfortunately, as I learned from the astonishingly good third episode of The Walking Dead, I'm terrible at all of those things. Especially that last one.
Hey now: Spoilers follow for the first two episodes of The Walking Dead. I'll keep spoilers for the third episode very light, though I'll discuss some stuff that happens at the very beginning.
Upon reflection, I found that I preferred the first episode of The Walking Dead, "A New Day" to the second, "Starved for Help." It was more well-rounded, and though it didn't have anything to match the gross-out shocks of the second episode's cannibalism subplot, it was more measured, mature and interesting. The third episode, "Long Road Ahead", is very much in the vein of that first episode. In fact, it's meatier, longer, and more drenched in tension than anything to come before it.
The episode took about three and a half hours to play through, and man, what a three and a half hours it was. Put it this way—I had to get up at 6AM this morning to catch a flight to PAX, and I put off packing to play from 11PM until 2AM with nary a break or a thought of going to sleep. Good storytelling thrives on rhythm, on balancing peaks and valleys to keep you moving forward. I daresay "Long Road Ahead" has some of the best pacing of any video game story in recent memory.
Where "Starved For Help" started out with a bang—Quick! Will you chop this guy's leg off to help him survive, or leave him to die?— Long Road Ahead begins with a much more ghastly conundrum, and one that somehow feels more in tune with the energy in Robert Kirkman's graphic novels.
As Lee and his friend-turned-possible-frenemy Kenny make their way into a Macon pharmacy on a run for more medicine, a doomed woman comes screaming out of a shop, set upon by walkers. You have the choice to put her out of her misery from range (but alert the zombies to your presence) or allow her to occupy the walkers long enough for you to grab some extra medical supplies from the pharmacy you're looting. As with all choices in The Walking Dead, it's on a timer—a bar quickly drains at the bottom of the screen, pushing your brain into overdrive.
It's just the kind of hard choice that I (and, I suspect, you) would grimly, quickly make if it came down to it. I let her be chewed to death. Sorry, lady. Her screams provided the soundtrack for our drugstore run, right up until, well, until they stopped. And after that, the walkers came anyway. We'd bought just enough time to grab a few more supplies before they were at the door. Was it worth it? Probably, yeah.
A beleaguered, doomed air hangs over Lee and the surviving members of his party from the outset of "Long Road Ahead." Kenny and Lilly have finally buried any chance of trusting one another after he killed her father at the end of episode 2. Clementine is withdrawn and enigmatic as ever, trusting Lee but too young to be able to process or understand what's going on around her. Everyone in the party is wrapped up in their own miserable existence, and Lee feels more alone and helpless than ever. In my playthrough, Carley is still alive, and so she and Lee have forged something of an alliance, but it's a fragile comfort at best.
The gang has retreated back to their precarious motor inn sanctuary in the wake of the events on the dairy farm, and everything feels fractured, hopeless, and grim. It's a nice touch bringing us back to familiar ground—not only does it save the cost of building a whole new set, but it lets it sink in just how much of a toll "Starved for Help" took on the gang. You can't walk about the motor inn and not notice how empty it feels compared to the beginning of episode two. At this point, writer Sean Vanaman and his crew at Telltale have you right where they want you—stuck with no way out and no plan, desperately hoping nothing goes wrong.
Guess what? Things go wrong.
In fact, over the course of the ensuing exodus and adventure, just about everything goes wrong, oftentimes at the worst possible moment. No one behaves as you'd expect them to: it's amazing just how much more interesting these characters are than the vast majority of video game characters. They behave, to put it in simple "I can't believe our standards are so low" language, like real people—and when under duress, real people do stupid, crazy stuff.
Everything in The Walking Dead revolves around choice—every interaction Lee has, every choice he makes, is made by the player on a timer. If episode two gave you no "good" choices, episode three ups that ante considerably. There were times I was paralyzed by the crap choices in front of me, even if they weren't life-altering ones. What do I say to someone who can't see through to forgiving someone else? We've been through this so many times, and I don't want anyone to fight any longer. But what if I alienate someone I will need in the future?
In every dialogue interaction, The Walking Dead leaves players the option to say nothing. I'd never used that option until episode three, but several times over the course of Long Road Ahead I simply remained speechless. What was there to say?
I can't praise the rhythm of the writing and dialogue of this episode enough—the voiceover work is outstanding. Characters curse, moan, carry on, whimper, and interrupt one another as the camera deftly hops between them. A tense mid-episode sequence outside of a broken-down RV was so tight, well-directed and shocking that my jaw was on the floor—video game directors of the world, this is how you create interactive drama! For sheer poise, guts and bravado, that one scene outdid any dialogue sequence in BioWare's Mass Effect games. Color-coded "paragon" and "renegade" options, my ass.
The episode never falls into a predictable rhythm, and you'll never quite be able to guess what's coming next. The story hits so many different notes through the episode's run that I couldn't help but think about just how often other games skimp on real drama and pad their runtime. Here we've got action, tragedy, coping, more tragedy, betrayal, hope, denial, humor, paranoia, problem-solving, chase sequences, introspection, character development, mentoring, and unlikely triumph, all painstakingly arranged in a runtime that's a third the length of the shortest big-budget games. It's astonishing.
It must be said that all this great stuff serves to make the technical shortcomings of Long Road Home stand out all the more. Telltale has wisely put a lot of work into their facial animations, and as a result the characters look and react beautifully and convincingly… when they need to, anyway. The rest of the tech, particularly the bodily animations, are stilted, floaty and weird. In this episode more than the others, those shortcomings detracted just enough from the overall experience to frustrate me. When players take control of Lee and he runs up against the edge of the scene, he floats bizarrely in the air, his legs splayed wide, suspended above the asphalt. Characters turn their heads at bizarre angles and generally move around like puppets, and much of the action lacks any real feeling of kinesthetic punch. As good as the vocal rhythms are, the visual animations seem to be operating on a delay, as if the device "running" the characters operates a split-second behind the audio tracks.
Fortunately, director Eric Parsons has done an impressive job of working around these shortcomings, and the "camerawork" for the episode is never less than artful and considered. He makes consistently smart decisions about what to show, what not to show, and how to show (and not show) it.
Long Road Ahead also features a good deal of environmental puzzles, more than either of the first two episodes. The puzzles are almost all fine, though at times they feel a bit adventure-gamey and at odds with the naturalistic momentum of the other segments of the game. You know the drill: Gather an item to unlock another item, but the first item is broken so you'll need a third item to fix it, etc. A couple of other adventure game contrivances also stuck out to me. For example, in one scene, Lee can't reach an item that's just over another character's shoulder, but the character won't get out of the way unless Lee does something in another screen to get him to get up. A simple "Hey, no, seriously, I need to reach over you for two seconds and grab that thing," would have sufficed. It may seem like a small complaint, but in an episode that moves with such roaring force, those kinds of things are distracting.
But when I look back at the episode, it all comes back to that momentum, that force. It's appropriate that "Long Road Ahead" prominently features a train, as the episode itself steams forward with an irresistible, terrible momentum. There's nothing to do but hang on for dear life, choose as best you can, and hope you can live with the consequences.
Kudos to Vanaman, Parsons, and the rest of the team at Telltale for nailing this crucial middle episode and solidifying the Walking Dead series as one of the most galling, welcome surprises of the year. I am dreading how it all turns out, but I can't wait for the next episode. This train has left the station, and we are going to make it out the other end, come hell or high water. It's the end of the world, and there are no good options.