Telltale’s Walking Dead series has always stood proudly at the front of the endless horde of narrative-driven videogames, leading the way in resplendent style and setting new standards that very few of its compatriots could ever hope to emulate. However, this latest season has seen the once-worshiped overlord of narrative excellence stumble somewhat, maybe even to the point where it could become consumed by the shambling horde it once so gloriously commanded, leaving the series – and maybe even the studio as a whole – doomed to fester in the rank and file. Such a future could well be within the realms of possibility – that is if the latest episode, Above the Law, is anything to go by.
Right from the episode’s inception it is clear that the narrative has suffered from a severe case of zombification, corrupting what was a promising emotional tale into an experience riddled with clichés and blatant missteps. That’s not to say that the overall narrative of this episode is poorly written – far from it in fact: Telltale’s script is as eloquent and evocative as ever, easily condemning other recently released character/choice-driven titles that may or may not take place in galaxy of not so fantabulous wonderment to lonely nights of binge-drinking in faintly urine-soaked underpants. The issue lies in the fact that Above the Lack lacks the mystery and uniqueness that so epitomised seasons one and two.
The narrative feels stale and predictable throughout the entirety of this latest episode, pummelling flat the already well-trodden ground that is The Walking Dead cliché of safe and foreboding settlement that is obviously being led by a manic who’s hypnotised the population with their good looks and snappy catch-phrases into engaging in unspeakable acts in the name of “survival”. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and, frankly, I found it chore to force myself through yet another of these situations. The whole brotherly dynamic between the lead playable character Javier and his brother David – who miraculously re-appeared at the end of episode 2 – does add a new and intriguing spin on the whole situation, yet it’s not enough to free the narrative from its familiar path of drudgery.
Worse yet are awfully implemented player-driven decisions, which entirely negate the very essence of the concept. Branching, playing-driven storytelling in games has never reached the heights expected by many – something Telltale games have experienced in the past – yet, for the most part, these games manage to still allow the player to make decisions that, even if but incrementally, affect the general narrative structure. Above the Law, however fails to do even that. At one point, I found myself making a potentially life or death decision that could have drastically altered the motivations of a particular character. Carefully, I deliberated which path to take, before finally taking the plunge. At the time, it felt like the most important decision I had ever made in my life, yet as the game continued, it was soon revealed that it didn’t matter which path I took, for the resolution would always be the same. Such a revelation drastically undermines the very essence of Telltale’s design philosophy, putting in perspective just how played out their formula now is.
Such transgressions aren’t helped by the lack of narrative pacing, an issue that is fast becoming a reoccurring problem for the series. The whole episode wizzes by in record-breaking fashion, blitzing through the carefully planned narrative beats with all of the subtlety of a zombie bull in a china shop. It’s utterly relentless, leaving you little time to process the events that are unfolding before your eyes, and the result is one that diminishes the overall emotional impact of the narrative. One moment I was being introduced into a new settlement, the next I was fighting for my life against the very people whom had just welcomed me into their community. It felt like all breezed past in the blink of an eye, and it left me feeling utterly bewildered. The game spends so much time submerging you in exhilarating, adrenalin-pumping action that it forgets that, sometimes, you’ll need to come up for air.
The poor pacing is partly due to general lacking of control the player has over the events unravelling around them. Telltale games have never been the most gameplay-centric, preferring instead to focus purely upon narrative and character development, yet at least their previous endeavours still managed to preserve at least a sliver of intractability. The first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead was brilliant partly due to the fact that it allowed you to interact with the characters on your own terms, away from the confines of rapidly-decreasing timers and failstate-inducing quick time events. Taking time out to chat with the likes of Clementine, Kenny, Lilly and Carly in Season 1 allowed you for forge a strong, more meaningful connection with them. It felt personal, more meaningful; you had to take the time out to interact and engage with them. These moments cropped up again and again throughout Season 1: Hershel’s farm, the motel camp in episode 2, and the camper van just before poor Carly’s untimely death. Above the Law is sorely lacking in this department, and as a consequence I never felt as connected to the likes of Javier, Kate, or even Clementine, as I did in previous seasons with other characters.
That said, though, the characters in Above the Law are still some of the best written in gaming today, firmly cementing Telltale’s reputation as the industry leaders of evocative character design and development. From the leading lights of Clem and Javier to the minor minions of the New Frontier, each character is brought to light in ways that would make even Pixar pause for breath. The dialogue is believable yet engaging, an elusive combination that few can master, and not once did I find myself wincing in desperation due to cheese-riddled dialogue. This is helped by the extraordinary voice acting and direction that seamlessly compliments the enticing dialogue to create a sensual feast of narrative perfection. Javier, Clem, and Max are standout examples, though it must be said that the rest of the cast are equally as compelling to listen to. You’ll be mesmerised as their vocalisations massage ever creative synapse within your brain, making you wish that every fictional character could be as expressive as those encountered in Telltale’s impressive roster of titles.
Yet despite Clementine’s peerless performance, she’s criminally neglected with regards to her contribution to the overall narrative in Above the Law. As in previous chapters, you’ll spend most to the episode in the shoes of Javier, and while he’s certainly an interesting character to inhabit and control, he lacks that special little something that makes Clem so memorable. Aside from a brief flashback section midway through the episode’s woefully short runtime, you’ll never get a chance to play as Clementine. This is hardly surprising given the obvious intentions of the writers to establish Javier as the lead character, yet the absence of Clementine as a playable character throughout this episode makes me wonder whether or not she is actually needed in the story at all. Her narrative and gameplay footprints are so miniscule that you could easily remove her from the equation without endangering the game’s story intentions in the slightest.
This problem highlights the fundamental issue at the heart of The Walking Dead: Season 3 – it all seems so unnecessary. Season 2 ended on the perfect note, and by all accounts Telltale should have ended the series right there and then. This latest season feels all too played out and recognisable, a fact that is becoming increasingly apparent with each new episode. The quality of the writing and characters are as great as ever, yet it isn’t enough to elevate it beyond just above average when the story is so predicated and cliché-ridden. Above the Law is a low point for the entire series, and it’ll take an apocalyptic upheaval to salvage it.