SPOILER ALERT! Before you read any further, be aware that this post covers spoilers for Season 2, Episode 3 of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead game series, "In Harm's Way." If you've played to this point, then read on. Otherwise, go download them now (they're all awesome!) and come back when you're done.
To call The Walking Dead universe a "zombie story" is really a disservice. Whether in the comics, the TV show, or the game, this is a story about survivors and the terrible decisions they're forced to make in a world where every moment can be a life-or-death, kill-or-be-killed situation. Episode 3, "In Harm's Way" reminds us of that in a lot of big ways.
There simply aren't many scenes with walkers in this episode; rather, we are treated to Bill Carver's "shining beacon of hope"--his vision of a utopian society as a glorified prison camp. Given the choice between this madmen and a horde of walkers, it's no wonder that our protagonists chose the walkers at the end.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
All season, we've been getting hints of Carver and the place from which these new characters had escaped. We knew they feared Carver, we knew they had left (clearly not on great terms), but we didn't know much of what had spurred the original rift.
The answers presented in Episode 3 aren't crystal clear, but it seems that Carver has managed to create a successful, but kind of awful, survivor's camp out of an old hardware store. For every positive, like starting a greenhouse to grow fresh vegetables, we get a much worse negative, like killing Reggie over improperly-picked berries. I mean, Really!? (with Seth and Amy). Carver just seems like a complete nutcase, so it's safe enough to assume that their reasons for leaving were as obvious as they seem.
However, I don't think we've seen the whole story yet. Episode 2 gave us a 400 Days cameo from Bonnie, and Episode 3 reveals that she is not the only character from the mid-season "bridge" episode who's joined up with Carver's crew. Tavia plays a big role in the episode (obviously, since she recruited everyone to join the group), but then other characters might show up in your game, depending on your personal ending in 400 Days. I encountered, Becca, Shel, Vince, and Wyatt during my stay in Carver's camp. Since the episode makes it pretty clear that gaining the group's trust is no easy task, I really hope we get a little more backstory about the initial integration of the 400 Days crew. Maybe another mid-season DLC?
But the central idea presented in this episode hinges on the what-if of power falling into the hands of the worst guy with the most guns. Carver may be keeping his community safe and well-fed, but he's hardly an inspiring leader. He rules with the iron fist of a dictator, and keeps enough armed guards around to really sell the part. His manipulative mind games with Clementine, Kenny, and the rest of the group communicate that he is neither stable nor trustworthy.
Last season, we got to visit a farm of kooky cannibals, which was scary and disturbing, but Carver's group is easily more awful because it's so much more believable. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see the potential for an overly-confident, egomaniacal control freak to gain some credibility as a leader when most of the legitimate authority figures have been zombified. He rules with martial law and seems obsessed with giving people "chances" and making otherwise intelligent people (Bonnie, Reggie, etc.) pine for his approval even in the face of some seriously questionable decisions, aggressive behavior, and downright psychotic tantrums.
The biggest atrocity in this episode (and there are many) comes in the multiple scenes in which Clementine and Sarah, the two young girls with our party, are struck by adult men. If there was any ambiguity about Carver's intention from Episode 2, the writers seemed intent on making sure no one was on the side of Carver or his "society." I suspect that some dialogue options might minimize the beatings, but I enjoyed letting Clementine stand up for herself a few times during the course of the episode, even if I knew it might be harder path. These scenes were a risky choice, and they show that Telltale has no intentions of steering the series down easy or clichéd paths.
Probably the hardest scene in the episode for me to experience was Carver forcing Carlos to strike his own daughter, Sarah, simply for whispering to Clem. You know that Carlos isn't the type of father to abuse his daughter, and it's already been established that Sarah has been quite a bit more sheltered than Clementine, so the scene leaves you squirming with a palpable discomfort. However, the fact that Carlos hit Sarah so hard (Troy the henchman even comments on this) makes me wonder if this a thread the writers will pick up later; sure, he wanted to give Carver a convincing enough show of "discipline," but it seems like he could have eased up a little. With Carlos not surviving the final scene, though, any follow-up to this would need to be in dialogue or flashback; still, I'd like to see them address the "why." Perhaps it will just become another cross for the increasingly worn-down Sarah to bear.
In terms of raw gameplay, there are some great stealthy exploration scenes in this episode. Clementine really gets to break out on her own and prove her worth to the group as she infiltrates the storeroom to steal walkie-talkies, schedules secret meetings with Luke, and breaks into Carver's office to fire up the PA system to facilitate the big breakout. I really enjoy some of the new interaction mechanics this season, like when you have to hold a button and move a thumbstick to carefully pickup the walkie-talkies while avoiding Tavia's gaze. The input mechanisms remind me of Heavy Rain: using a traditional controller to emulate some real world motions in a satisfyingly 1:1 way.
We also get a few other new characters and character developments this week.
While Reggie is short-lived, his function within the story was hard to pin down at first. Ultimately, he seems to serve as a cautionary tale of the danger inherent in crossing Carver. Through Reggie, we learn that Carver uses an inside/outside circle dichotomy to punish or reward the members of his group. As with Bonnie, Reggie yearns for Carver's acceptance back into the group after having helped the renegade group's escape, showing just how much mental sway Carver holds. It's a classic abusive relationship scenario played out across a whole mini-society with Carver acting as both protector and aggressor, and the love-hate attitude is painful to watch for the outsider characters (Sarita, Kenny, and Clementine) and as the player.
Mike, another worker in the yard, has an even less-clear role in the story. We primarily learn that he's a cranky sleeper and wants to aid the group in breaking out of the camp. He has a scar on his face that will likely be fodder for a future backstory, but we'll have to wait to learn more about this newcomer.
Jane, however (quite literally) emerges from the shadows as a new mystery figure in whom Clementine sees a potential future version of herself. She, too, has used the zombie guts "disguise" tactic that Lee and Clem used in Season 1. She, too, has had to survive on her own as an independent woman. She, too, has had to decide whom to trust. Jane represents a possible end result for Clementine, should she choose a darker, less-innocent path. Whether or not she will become a positive or negative role model in Clem's life remains to be seen, but she certainly adds some brute force and cunning to the group's dynamic as well as a potentially significant influence for Clementine.
Much as we saw in the first two episodes of this new season, you can further shape Clementine's personality as either compassionate and hopeful or realistic and cutthroat. I found myself walking both sides of this line, depending on the moment, which cuts straight to the heart of The Walking Dead's apparent desire to function wholly within the greyest shades of the moral palette. Sarah continues to provide a foil for Clem in the opposite direction of innocence and hopefulness, while other characters like Kenny or Luke offer even more chances for our heroine to explore her (and, in turn, your) boundaries for what is or is not acceptable in a survival situation.
And that's ultimately why this episode succeeds so well: the zombie apocalypse takes a backseat to the drama and merely provides a vehicle for telling fascinating tales of human empathy, manipulation, loss, and revenge.
The implications of some key deaths (Carver, Alvin, and Carlos) will certainly be coming in the final two episodes of this season, particularly with the survivors of each group (Carver's former community and Clementine's renegade band of survivors), but there is also the lingering question of what shape Clementine's future will take after this season. Some late-episode decisions, like whether or not to watch Kenny kill Carver (I watched) or whether or not to chop Sarita's bitten arm off (I did), may play significant roles in Clem's development.
With the amount of chances players have been given this season to mold her personality, I expect (or, at least, hope) that the next batch of episodes will be greatly influenced by her choices during these very formative experiences. There's also the question of the protagonist for the inevitable third season. While we had a character switch between the first two season following Lee's demise, I'm not sure the writers will play the same card twice. I'd personally like to see at least one more season with Clem as the playable character.
Telltale Games keeps delivering fantastic content with this series, and "In Harm's Way" is no exception. David Cage may be the poster boy for "interactive drama," but this studio is fine-tuning the genre with far more mass-market appeal and success, and my only complaint is not getting the next installment fast enough. Consider this episode highly recommended.
Remember to share your experiences with the episode in the comments section below!