The Walking Dead: Season One: 400 Days

I didn’t expect much from The Walking Dead: Season One’s Bonus Episode, “400 Days.” It struck me as a gimmick release, cynical even, a quick cash-in on a fanbase salivating for the release of a “second season” after the breakaway success of the “first season” which still hadn’t even been retroactively rebranded as such. I purchased it on a Steam Sale but never got around to playing it, so wary was I of its content. Getting it free through Games With Gold and packed in with the PlayStation 4 re-release of Season One still didn’t do the job—I replayed the core episodes with enthusiasm, but never touched “400 Days.” Wanting to give the entire videogame a thorough licking for Play Critically, I finally sat down tonight to play it. I came away from it equal parts impressed and deflated.

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The Walking Dead: Season One: Fatherhood

A number of years ago, I participated in “Pitch Jam,” a program that connects aspiring videogame freelancers with editors of various publications to get feedback on their pitching skills. I got a lot of useful feedback from my mock pitch, but one comment in particular has stuck with me: “Why are you pitching this story? Why are you the one who should be writing it, what perspectives and experiences do you bring to it that makes it ‘yours?’” That feedback is what set me on the course that has led to Play Critically and its particular focus on videogame stories and characters; that’s my wheelhouse, where my perspectives and experiences take a piece of writing and make it mine, unique and indivisible. And so it is with self-aware irony that I find this update to Play Critically tackling the very issue I did back in that Pitch Jam several years ago: Fathers and their daughters.

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The Walking Dead: Season One: Ben

One of the reasons that Zombie media has become such a significant phenomenon in the past decade may well be the escapist fantasy it provides: In a situation where everything else has become an unrecognizable monster, you are able to hold your own, surviving on your own brutal terms. Questions can be raised about the effectiveness of the audience’s ability to identify with these protagonists—who are almost uniformly white, middle-aged, heterosexual, and male—but I will leave these for another time and for better analysts. In broadest terms there is something satisfying about watching an individual succeed and survive in these situations, a suggestion that yes, even I could survive something as world-shaking as a zombie outbreak. This is what gives these stories their power, popularity, and endurance, a suggestion that with a certain measure of luck and skill, something which we all believe ourselves to possess, that we too can be a zombie-killing badass, a master survivor.

These are thoughts of idle fantasy, and in a real zombie outbreak, mere statistics would state that I am who writing this and all of you who are reading this would become either an infectee, food, or both. It is only through some extraordinary intervention that any of us would survive long enough to comprehend what is happening. If some happenstance were to occur, each of us would be Ben.

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The Walking Dead: Season One: Survival

If the second episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Season One is its tightest and most cohesive, then the third episode, “Long Road Ahead,” is its least. By this, I do not mean that it is bad; its furious pace and desperate events are essential to driving the characters to the finale in Savannah. Things kick off because of the outcome of “Starved For Help;” after Kenny kills Larry (maybe in self defense, maybe not), Lilly has become paranoid. But her paranoia turns out to be justified, as a member of the group has been stealing supplies and sneaking it out to the local bandits, who are no longer placated with bribes from the St. Johns. When the plot is uncovered, the motel is overtaken, Duck is bitten by a Walker during the escape, Carley is murdered by Lilly (or Doug is . . . but nobody picks Doug), and Lilly disappears from the story. When it becomes clear that Duck will die from his infected wound, Katjaa takes it upon herself to put her son out of his misery—but cannot do it, taking her own life and forcing Kenny to to finish the job. Oh, and all of this is only the first half of the episode. It’s a conga line of death and misery, a result of hubris and resentment, exactly the kind of nihilism that has begun to drive fans away from the AMC TV series.

But here, it all happens for a purpose, and that purpose is Clementine.

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The Walking Dead: Season One: Magnum Opus

I have struggled to begin tonight’s update for Play Critically, in part because it will require something I struggle with: effusive gushing. But I cannot deny my feeling that if the first season of Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead is their finest work as a whole, then the season’s second episode “Starved For Help” is their finest individual effort. Telltale’s particular brand of releasing a single “game” composed of multiple “episodes” as a packaged “season” evokes television, and “Starved For Help” best captures that ethos. A strong episode of a contemporary, serialized television show should tell a complete, individual story, but also contribute to the developing narrative of that season. Episodes that are inessential to the arc can be well-regarded, but prove superfluous to the series as a whole, while shows that sacrifice the individual story to develop the broader narrative can be read as unfriendly—if not outright hostile—to a viewer’s limited time. The sweet spot lies in the middle, and “Starved For Help,” perhaps better than any other episode produced for a Telltale game, finds that sweet spot and exploits it.

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The Walking Dead: Season One: Fathers

It is not new or original to say that Telltale’s first season of The Walking Dead is about the developing father-daughter relationship between Lee Everett and Clementine; this is what binds the entire experience together, and indeed, this complicated relationship is what elevates the series above a series of rote zombie clichés and gives the tragic season finale all of its power. This combination proves so successful that it inspired, or else presaged, the wave of “Dad Simulator” videogames which followed in its wake.

I have returned to The Walking Dead: Season One on several occasions—I have no qualms admitting it has made more of an impact on me as a videogames scholar, critic, and analyst than perhaps any other—but somehow I am only just now noticing how the themes of fatherhood echo and reverberate around the plot almost from its very outset. The first episode is a testament to this theme, as Lee and Clementine unite and immediately find themselves surrounded by a multitude of people, more than half of whom can be defined by the relationship between a father and their child. Episode One is called “A New Day,” and that title alone is fraught with nuance and subtext, but it could also accurately be titled “Fathers.”

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