The Walking Dead: Episode 2 – Starved for Help
I’m fashionably late to the party. Finally getting to grips with the first episode, the narrative was enthralling in a way that wasn’t expected. It told the tale of the beginning of the end: A sudden outbreak of the rising dead that leaves our lead character Lee, on his way to jail, trying to survive against ever increasing odds. Finishing it in one sitting, I had to find out what happened next.
The Walking Dead: Starved for Help is a point’n'click adventure with basic free movement where every choice made shapes the attitudes and welfare of those trying to survive. The dead are rising to feed on the flesh of the living and the world has gone to shit. And so does the game engine at times which is prone to some bizarre bugs, including one that caused heads to twist round and speech to echo. A restart from the menu solved this issue. Unfortunately for our protagonist Lee, he can’t reset and start again in this world where things don’t ever pan out as planned.
It’s said that civilisation is three meals away from chaos, and the second part in this five chapter story examines this. The zombies – a creature ruined by pop culture – are fully understood in their purpose and meaning here. They represent us in our coldest form: biological machines that consume anything and everything, even when we’re not hungry. And the humans around our character Lee are driven to violence through lack of food. The undead don’t in-fight and kill each other, though, and it’s those breathing around you that present the biggest threat.
Set three months after the previous proceedings, the band of survivors has holed up at a motel car park. Food supplies are nearly out and tensions continue to rise. Each location can be walked around and highlighting people or points of interest displays the possible options; whether to examine, interact or approach. As you make your choices and advance through a series of basic puzzles and events, those around you are brought into question and some may even lose their lives through the decisions you make, which then continue to play a role in future episodes.
Previously, there was a decision that played on a standard concept (no spoilers here), and I took the opposite to what I was expected to. Guilty for it? Yes, I was, but that would have been the case either way I went. And that’s proof of the quality of writing. This is a story that shapes itself to make it a personal one. However, from spending time with the character here I was glad I made the choice I did. Deep down I always support the underdog.
These types of choices are in gay abandon throughout this episode and their impact is rarely obvious. The storytelling magic dances throughout each conversation. Each decision and judgement, none feeling trivial, sits on your shoulders like one more brick in an ever growing bridge of regret and self-blame. Going through the story in a single sitting is mentally tiring and utterly rewarding.
This is due to smart ideas that are well implemented. Every choice during a conversation or sudden action is timed, forcing you to make a gut reaction and then autosaving it. Additionally, Telltale mix up the decisions against the corresponding buttons. It’s not repeatedly picking blue for paragon to bed the big bosomed – or packaged – crew member. It forces attention and keeps the illusion of control consistent. As each interaction leads to further chaos you experience what’s left of the world slipping between Lee’s fingers. He’s not the leader of the group – a fresh change – and, like in life, trying to please everybody will only piss them all off in return.
Quick time events. They make my blood boil. Starved for help is littered with them. Thankfully, most are used as a means of keeping the audience on the edge of their seat as the unexpected plays havoc. Others fail when they’re made difficult or confusing, killing the protagonist and then restarting the moment. This is fake and a case of video game elements clashing with the storytelling. The industry hasn’t understood how to deal with the death of the lead yet, and for now it remains an inconvenient punishment left over in the DNA from ancestors such as Dragon’s Lair. Death should not happen here; failure should lead to other consequences or tiny alterations that fit and feed the story.
Following the conclusion which ended with a mature moral decision, we’re fed a preview of the next episode, filled with spoilers. There’s no need for it on the TV. There’s no need for it here. So as soon as it came on – learning from last time – I hit the mute button and went to get a drink whilst it played to itself in silence.
I’m pleased during this rather dull year to be surprised by Telltale’s take on not only a monster that has been diluted by pop culture and monopolised for quick cash grabs (irony alert), but also on a decision making system that is constructed with functionality and maturity. As long as they don’t botch the ending – I’m sticking by my guess of the final choice that came to me twenty minutes into the first episode, though I hope I’m wrong – this as one complete story will be the best of the year. Matt Sawrey was right, keep horror to the independents.