Telltale’s 2012 tie-in adventure game for The Walking Dead took the world by storm. It received widespread online attention for its characters and tone, and was the recipient of over eighty Game of the Year awards. There’re varying arguments to be made on its wider impact on gaming, but at the very least that commitment to the writing reinvigorated the adventure game genre, and spawned not only a rapid boom and bust for Telltale but influenced other companies, such as Dontnod Entertainment with the seminal Life is Strange. Choice-based episodic games became a format within their own right, and it’s fair to say that the focus of many video games today took inspiration from The Walking Dead on some level.
There’s a lot to be said about the first season, and the attempts later seasons (and creative teams) made to live up to that standard. But, as someone who has attempted to enjoy the subsequent releases, not only of Telltale’s series, but of numerous other Walking Dead shows, there’s a much more interesting point to be made about the franchise as a whole. The way I see it, every series – whether video game or TV show – that has been spawned from Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore’s original comics is doomed to live in the shadow of their initial attempts to draw people into the world and story.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season One has you play as Lee (Dave Fennoy), an ex-college professor on his way to jail for the murder of a man sleeping with his wife. Together, you find Clementine (Melissa Hutchinson), an eight-year-old girl who’s made it through the first days of the zombie apocalypse alone. You meet a range of characters, such as libertarian family man Kenny and US Air Force desk jockey Lilly, whose worldviews collide as these disparate people are forced to take survival into their own hands. But your mission remains the same across five episodes – protect Clem, at all costs. What that means for you and how you choose to play that varies from person to person, which was much of the game’s initial appeal back in 2012. For some players, Kenny becomes a ride-or-die friend, and in other playthroughs he’ll absolutely despise the player. How Lee and Kenny react to each other is informed by how the player reacts to Kenny. But he’s a great character regardless, with a clear motivation and worldview, and emotive voice acting from Gavin Hammon. Kenny’s charismatic as soon as you meet him, but how far you’re willing to go for your friend is tested as he slowly goes off the rails.
This is The Walking Dead, after all. Characters will die or go missing, but now at your hand. Tough choices will have to be made, except you’re the one in control. With such a clear goal in mind for players and their varying experiences, the first season is concise and focused. The affective writing from Sean Vanaman and Mark Darin, and a memorable score from Jared Emerson-Johnson, allowed the game to quickly ascend to a level of godhood.
Season Two struggles to live up to that. Lee’s slow death at the end of Season One is one of the most evocative pieces of gaming from the decade, and you’re now in control of Clementine. Without a clear goal in mind for the next five episodes, the series slows down considerably in terms of its tension and quality. A pregnant Christa and her partner Omid, survivors whom Lee can burden with Clem’s survival, appear very briefly in Episode One, but they’re both killed off in quick succession with little focus. You meet a new cast of characters, such as Rebecca, who’s in the late stages of pregnancy. By the end of Season Two, Clem is caring for her son, AJ, and this dynamic is the focus of Seasons Three and Four, a clever development on Season One. Why would Rebecca need to be included though, if Christa is already pregnant? It’s fair that the new writers wanted their own characters and to take the series in their own direction. But if Season Two Episode One starts with a pregnancy, especially with a character from the much-beloved Season One, what’s the point in killing her (and her unborn baby) off and replacing her with a new character to fulfil what’s ostensibly the same role?
This is where my problem with The Walking Dead franchise sits. You would expect a post-apocalyptic series, regardless of format or the finer points of storytelling philosophy, to craft a handful of affective and enjoyable characters – people who you can recognise and root for. Telltale’s first season does this expertly, as does AMC’s adaptation and the later spin-off, Fear the Walking Dead. These three shows have opening seasons that are short and concise, with clear creative and story goals in mind. For Telltale, that’s making sure Clem is alive and ready for this new world. In The Walking Dead, it’s Rick’s goal to find his wife and child, and eventually get his group to the CDC in the hopes of finding a cure. For Fear the Walking Dead, it’s Madison’s quest to get her broken family out of LA and into the desert.
Lee, Rick, and Madison all have clear goals in mind. All three of their respective first seasons have a cast of primary and secondary characters, each with their own viewpoints, experiences, fears and goals. Beyond that, both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead have a first season comprised of six episodes. You have a clear starting point, a clear end goal, and between five and six episodes in which to make that story happen – alongside, and in spite of, the carnage, death, misery, and heartbreak.
Season two of The Walking Dead is thirteen episodes, and by season eleven that’s been bumped up to twenty-four. By season seven of Fear the Walking Dead, the episode count is sixteen. Frank Darabont (The Fly, The Shawshank Redemption) was developer and showrunner for The Walking Dead in its first season, but his critique of AMC for reducing the budget while upping the episode count for season two led to him being fired from the role. A new lead writer was brought in, Glen Mazzara. The blame for the show’s quick downturn isn’t particularly his fault – he inherited AMC’s bizarre decision, after all. Anyone who’s had to sit through season two, as these characters talk at each other on a farm for thirteen weeks, can see the impact these restraints would have on any production team.
Fear the Walking Dead suffers a similar, ongoing fate – from six episodes to fifteen, season two shambles along aimlessly. Characters get separated in a clear attempt at playing for time, and the only overarching narrative the show has is this vague hope that they’ll run into each other again. These characters should be developed in spite of the chaos and death, as people suddenly in a dangerous world, not as functions destined to survive or die in the zombie apocalypse. They begin getting killed off unceremoniously and in quick succession. Whether this is a creative choice or down to the actors is unclear, but it’s most likely a mix of both. New characters, without nearly as much development or care put into them, are introduced – only to be killed off later on.
On and on these shows go. Sometimes there’s a hint at a slowing of pace, taking some time to get to know these people – but it’s never for long, and they’ll be killed off in a few episodes time anyway to distract you away from the damning realisation that you don’t have a reason to care anymore. These shows always end up performing more like a soap opera – a revolving cast of similar characters who appear and disappear on a semi-regular basis, moving through similar plots and events yet reacting the same ways each time.
For honesty’s sake, I haven’t read the comics. I don’t see how that really matters. These series are different formats, and they should naturally have different goals. Vanaman and Darabont knew what these goals should be, and therefore were able to craft their stories to be succinct and engaging. Vanaman left Telltale after Season One, and went on to co-direct and co-write Firewatch for Campo Santo, meaning Telltale were forced to source new writers. Executive fiddling is a much wider issue that writers tend to have little power over, but they need to be flexible. They should have clever ways to get around executives, because the alternative is farting around in a prison for two seasons.
Now, you’d expect Telltale’s game series to avoid this, considering the episode count for each season never flies above five. But somehow this is just the standardised approach to storytelling that this franchise has. In Season Two of Telltale’s game, there’s the character of Luke. Initially, it seems that he’ll replace Lee as a guiding figure for the young Clementine. And now that Clem has matured, having become a snarky pre-teen, that should offer up a new type of parent-child dynamic, right? But Luke never really fulfils that role, and Clem doesn’t react to that failure at all. He dies, unceremoniously as always, in the middle of Episode Five. He falls through the ice of a frozen lake, and no-one is able to save him. There’s no reaction to this from anyone, not even Clem. It’s tough as the player to react to this too, because even when he was alive, he didn’t make much of an impact on the story.
Perhaps there was an awareness of this, however. Season Three focuses on the deadbeat Javier, and his niece, nephew, and sister-in-law. It’s a very commendable attempt at a soft reboot for the series, and their stories are predominantly much better executed than Clem’s side of the plot, which is dragged down by the mystery box of what happened to AJ. Javier is forgotten by Season Four, and all the original characters from Seasons Two and Three are either dead or missing. Kenny reappears in Season Two to continue his story, and it is very well done for the most part – and Lilly, oddly enough, turns up in Season Four, to conclude the question of her fate that didn’t really need answering.
Telltale went bust during the production and release of Season Four, and there’s a bigger and more important issue of how developers are treated in the games industry at play there. It’d be crass to suggest that the company failed because I didn’t particularly like many of their games. But, as someone who adored their creative vision at its core, I didn’t mourn the loss of their distinctive output. I forced myself through five-and-a-half seasons of The Walking Dead before admitting to myself that it was never going to be as good as Season One. A similar story happened with Fear, which has now made Morgan Jones – a character from the first season of the mother show – its protagonist, in an obvious attempt to reinvigorate interest in this zombie of a franchise.