It’s been three months since the grizzly events of A New Day, an affair that saw zombies do things what zombies do and human survivors make faces like this in retaliation. Things have taken a sharp turn for the worse in the meantime, not just in terms of team spirit and the wellbeing of our jolly band of Z-Day survivors, but also for Telltale’s promise to pen a tale that warps and tweaks depending on player behaviour; a game that adapts to the choices you make – claims the developer rather ill-advisedly brandishes before Episode 2 gets underway.
Like Episode 1, Starved for Help is thick with convincing violence and moral quandary and it cuts through the veneer to question you. Unlike something like Mass Effect, which may as well ask whether you’d like to be the goodie or the baddie before the game even begins, decisions in The Walking Dead have more fidelity with no sign of how scenarios will unfurl. It’s easy to look beyond the occasionally botched dialogue and frequent technical hiccups (no better here than last time out, unfortunately) because Telltale do such a first-rate job of slicing through the cladding to ask YOU, what would you do?
Again, the gruesome marriage of timed-responses and a dramatic score transforms the many delicate situations into the nightmarish. Given enough time you’d probably arrive at a rational conclusion, but caught square in the heart of the folderol it’s you’ll more likely make a silly one.
Except you won’t, really, because none of the choices you make in Starved for Help matter; the outcomes set in concrete regardless of how you approach each scenario. You may get spurned by certain characters later in the episode, but the same cast members remain at the end of the episode and the same events befall them.
That’s disappointing, but caught in the moment events are rousing enough that you can overlook the clunkiness and if you’re playing this through a second or third time you’re doing the game a disservice; reducing the shock-of-the-moment plights to the expected and in doing so affording yourself the time needed to make reasonable decisions. It’s this approach that makes Mass Effect 3 and its ilk so impotent and playing the episodes through time and again robs them of their potency.
This time round, the episode is geared toward what ought to be a shocking exposé. The troop – famished, bickering and on the verge of insurrection – leave behind their motel bulwark and join a family of farmers in their own little paradise and it’s here that the episode unfolds.
Trouble is, you’ll see the reveal coming from long before the midway point. The new environment – ravishing though it is – is swamped with dead giveaways, with so many teasing cameras honing in on wry smiles or telltale mise-en-scene that it’s in constant danger of becoming a pantomime. You’re prevented from making reasonable decisions because Lee hasn’t quite fathomed what you saw coming half an hour ago and the game takes an almost twisted glee in the fact that you’re suddenly stripped of the power to prevent the inevitable; instead choo-chooing you down the tracks toward a tragedy you could have surely wriggled away from. Were it a film you could write it off as dramatic irony, but by virtue of its interactivity The Walking Dead gets no such reprieve. The sudden divorce of player and character is immense and the whole thing comes tumbling down as a result. There’s nothing as face-meltingly dumb as last episode’s battery or TV remote fiascos, but Lee makes some daft decisions that creates a rift between player and character.
Tragic, because when that big drama comes racing into view you can’t be shocked (and you ought to be, considering the subject), more “told you so, chumps” than “holy fuckballs”.
It’s poor storytelling in a game anchored by its narrative; a real misstep, because Starved for Help has all the makings of something far greater than what’s on show here.