The Walking Dead is a rare creature in that it so surreptitiously crawls under your skin, for which you will only notice once your salty tears are stinging the wound it left behind while killing cherished characters. I’ve never felt emotions while playing other games quite the way I do during The Walking Dead, and the latest episode being no exception. Brutal and gut-wrenching, Amid The Ruins hits the ground running with your groups escape from the compound and into the zombie herd. The game doesn’t pull any punches and I honestly can’t tell if the choices I made were just really, really bad, or if Telltale Games actually wanted players to hate themselves by the time they were done playing.
As per usual, there are the odd action sequences scattered throughout, as though the tension somehow required adding to. Though, I’ve always considered these to be a major stick in the spokes of interactive narrative-driven games. Making your way through the undead herd at the beginning of the game, and trying to avoid their gibbering jaws as they swarm around you, is definitely an intense affair to be sure. It’s unfortunate, however, that a lot of it is due in no small part to irritating point-n-click-n-button-mashing quick time events. The biggest gripe that I have with them is there’s no way to tell the difference between the “whoops, you died” quick time events and the “whoops, one of your loved ones is dead now and they’re never coming back” quick time events.
After making your way out of the herd and into the relative clear, you’re left to rally everyone together and push on; as if the game wasn’t pulling punches before, then at this point it’s got you pinned while it pummels your face. Amid The Ruins finally brings reality crashing down around you, as all of the decisions you’ve made as Clementine throughout this season finally begin to hit home; what’s more, the consequences for choices made in this episode are swift. Loyalties are tested, as is your resolve, and every single decision feels like it could be significant with the end game looming in the distance. A big theme that runs throughout is lone survival-ism versus surviving as a group, and in true TWD fashion, the choice presented to you isn’t easy.
Much of the game is spent trying to convince you that your group is cracking and that you should get out while you can, “I’ve seen it before,” as one character says. In truth, though, so have we as players; whether it be our original group from the first season, the remnants of it from the beginning of this one, Carver’s compound, or even the 300 Days DLC, we should know better than anyone that groups simply don’t work in the zombie apocalypse. The games ability to tell a story that forces us to hearken back to our own experiences within this world, the instincts and prejudices formed from those experiences, isn’t just remarkable: it’s harrowing.
This is especially true when the deaths begin, because this is The Walking Dead and there are always deaths: there’s been at least one per episode so far, and episode four wasn’t about the buck the trend. The difference this time around, however, is the bizarre sense of guilt and responsibility it places on Clementine despite her being a little girl. I certainly felt that way, when things started to go pear-shaped on me throughout the episode, and suddenly I was wondering if it really was worth staying with the group. Things were going badly for me, seems like some of it might have been my fault; Clem, as young as she was, might be better off just running away. Except I couldn’t rid myself of a nagging thought, “but what would Lee think?” The Walking Dead is in my brain, it has direct access to my heart strings and it knows how to play me like a fiddle.
In that sense, Amid The Ruins actually did an excellent job of substituting yourself in as the villain in lieu of Carver, because as the situation becomes more desperate, you certainly do become your own worst enemy. I tried to keep my group together, to keep things going, and in the end everything went to crap on me; it’s rare that a game causes as much self-reflection as what TWD does, because, while I could rationally understand that it isn’t so simple, I truly felt like it was all my fault and that I could have done more. Or less. I think I would have felt better if I had murdered that dog from Episode 1 again. By the final moments of the game, I really felt like there should have been a “turn gun on self” option, especially after what I did right at the end.
What’s interesting to note is that things are still very far from being “wrapped up.” The episode ends as TWD episodes often do, on a cliff hanger, and for want of resolution to current events; without going into details or spoiler territory, the game still seems to be introducing new characters and concepts very late into the season. Things are clearly leading into season three, which means there will be a season three, and that is just so great; although, things don’t feel right this time around. I get the sense that, with the way things were left at the end of this episode, we won’t get the same kind of closure that we received at the end of Season One. I could be wrong, two hours can be a long time in the Walking Dead world, but I think Telltale are about to pull a Joss Whedon on us.
I put a lot of emphasis on the games emotional impact, because it’s probably the most important thing the game has done. Games don’t always have to be masterpieces, or grand works of art, and The Walking Dead certainly isn’t either, but it’s going a long way to prove that games can be much more than “pew pew lasers.” Amid the Ruins may not have been one of the most dramatic episodes to date, but it’s up there, and did a great job of progressing the collective stories of the group while balancing the fact that, at any moment, any one of them might die. I love a good zombie game that creates a sense of struggle and frustration through fantastic scripting and emotional manipulation, as opposed to what I call the “Dead Island: Riptide” method: sloppy movement, glitchy zombies, and invisible boats.
With Episode 4 over, Telltale have set us up a bomb of emotional fallout with the season finale on the somewhat fuzzy horizon (no official release date has been set for Episode 5: No Going Back.) Without giving too much away, at least for my money, I feel as though what’s coming next will make Carver look like a pacifist. Good hunting!