Helplessness isn’t a sensation that’s commonly experienced when playing video games. It’s a medium that’s largely involved with the task of problem-solving, and problems can usually be solved by the tried-and-true combination of taking aim and firing. It could be argued that if a player feels helpless in a game then the game designer has failed. After all, what’s the point of a game that you can’t win?
One of the things that sets Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead apart as one of the boldest titles around is this startling feeling of helplessness, which feels even more stark when embedded in a game whose central mechanics are choice and consequence. Over the course of the first season and the start of the second, however, the overriding message has been that we can’t always change the way that events play out – we can only decide how to react to them.
That’s not to say that the second episode of season two, ‘A House Divided,’ doesn’t force Clementine to make some important decisions in impossible situations. In the scant few seconds that the player is given to make choices about what to say and do, they had better become absolutely sure about the path that they elect to go down, because something as simple as ill-phrased words to the wrong person can have terrible repercussions.
One of the trademarks of The Walking Dead franchise is that no safe haven lasts for too long, and sure enough ‘A House Divided’ soon finds Clementine and her group abandoning the house (though not before an excruciatingly tense scene in which Carver stops by for a visit) and moving on in the hope of finding greener pastures. What they find instead is a whole heap of fresh trouble on top of the threat already following them.
There are also some walkers along the way, which means more quick-time combat sequences. These don’t just feel like they’re there to fill a minimum quota of zombie action, however; the fights act as an important reminder that the player is in control of Clementine, who might have the heart of the lion but unfortunately only has the muscle mass of an eleven year-old girl. Compared to being in Lee’s shoes – or the shoes of any other fit, healthy, fully-grown video game protagonist – it’s quite jarring to not be able to kill a walker with a single blow to the head, or to struggle with the task of tugging a hammer out of a shattered skull.
If ‘A House Divided’ was all doom and gloom then it would not be as effective as it is, but the episode’s story features some real emotional highs. There’s a tangible feeling of relief and joy when something good happens – and there’s a face from the past in this episode that a lot of fans will surely be happy to see – but it only serves to make other events all the more devastating.
‘A House Divided’ is a master class in suspense and pacing, continuing to set a new standard for writing in video games. Every character, including the new ones introduced in this episode, feels extremely complex and human, and as such it’s easy to become closely attached to them. Nick (much like Ben) screws up often and seriously, yet it’s difficult to hate him for even his most dreadful actions. Luke, meanwhile, is easily the most likable character in the group and therefore the threat of losing him is a constant terror. Managing Clementine’s relationships with all of the different characters becomes so crucial that one of the hardest choices in the episode is where to have Clementine sit down for an evening meal.
While some critics have bemoaned the limited interactivity in The Walking Dead, Telltale should be applauded for creating a story that simply would not work as well as it does in any medium other than a video game. It’s only once you’re handed control of a character that you can fully appreciate just how little control they have.
The Walking Dead Season Two, Episode Two: ‘A House Divided’ is available now on PC, Mac and PS3, with the Xbox 360 & iOS releases set for March 5 and March 6, respectively. This review is based on the PC version.