Light-hearted moments don’t come easily to the Walking Dead franchise (the zombie apocalypse kind of dampens the mood), but after nearly two full seasons of death, misery, hardship and more death, Telltale Games breaks the tension a little in The Walking Dead‘s penultimate season 2 episode, ‘Amid the Ruins,’ by including a scene in which Clementine and friends chasing a raccoon around a Civil War museum.
In fact, quite a lot of ‘Amid the Ruins’ feels like a breather from the series’ relentless onslaught of unhappiness. After escaping from Carver – although not without casualties – the group reconvenes at Parker’s Run, a Civil War memorial that provides a poignant backdrop for the growing fissures in the group’s leadership. Luke and Kenny continue to verbally duke it out in order to decide who should be in charge, though since one of them is hopelessly irresponsible and the other is mentally unstable it could be argued that neither of them is leadership material.
Despite the loud arguing, Kenny and Luke are not the focus of this episode. Instead, Telltale’s rare talent for drawing together a diverse cast of characters results in ‘Amid the Ruins’ being very much centered on Clementine and the other female characters in the group, who actually now outnumber the men in the group. When placed within the larger context of video games, playing as a female character who has a conversation with another female character about other female characters (plural!) felt positively surreal. Emphasis on “positive.”
Whereas the previous episode, ‘In Harm’s Way,’ had a narrative that felt very railroaded and linear, ‘Amid the Ruins’ brings back the sense of making decisions that really have weight, not only in further defining Clementine as a character but also in deciding the direction that the plot will take in the future. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the decisions made in ‘Amid the Runs’ will heavily influence the outcome of the game (there are only so many variations that Telltale can create), but the player’s words and actions feel like they matter.
Much of the episode is spent in the company of Jane, the lone wolf who joined in the escape from Carver and is wavering between her tried-and-tested self-centered approach and Clementine’s offer of a permanent place within the group. It’s not a one-way street: Jane also espouses the benefits of self-reliance to Clementine, creating an interesting dynamic between the two characters’ worldviews.
Jane’s insistence that other people are a burden is also cleverly woven into Clementine’ interactions with other characters, as even the more likeable members of the group work seem to be making themselves as burdensome as possible. Bonnie pressures Clementine into doing something that nearly gets her killed, Kenny is an angry wreck, Sarah is a traumatized mess and Luke abandons his lookout post and leaves the group wide open to a walker attack. In fact, Clementine is probably the strongest member of the entire group, despite only being a kid.
The episode isn’t all talk, of course. ‘Amid the Ruins’ has its fair share of action as Jane and Clementine head out on a rescue mission to find Luke and Sarah, who are holed up in a trailer park. This includes a bit of puzzle solving (although it’s the kind of puzzle that kind be solved by just clicking on half a dozen items until you find the right one) and Telltale’s trademark QTE-based combat. Said combat was a little buggy in this episode, with mouse clicks sometimes failing to register and some framerate issues that had deadly results.
The unspoken fate of Christa’s baby hangs heavily over ‘Amid the Ruins’ as Rebecca goes into labor; both the game and the comics have shown, the zombie apocalypse doesn’t show much mercy to babies, and carrying a helpless, screaming bundle around isn’t exactly conducive to survival. It very much ties in with the aforementioned theme of other people as burdens, something that has recurred throughout the series. Who is pulling their weight and who is dragging everyone else down? More importantly, should people who represent a burden be cut loose or picked up and carried?
The crystallization of that theme succeeds in giving ‘Amid the Ruins’ a lot of focus, making it easily the most solid episode of this season so far, if not the best. It also ends with yet another decision designed to leave players regretting their choice, no matter what it was. Don’t be surprised if the season finale gets very messy.
The Walking Dead season two, episode four, ‘Amid the Ruins’ is available now for PC, Mac, PS3, Xbox 360 and iOS.