Starved for Help, the second episode of Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead, almost opens quietly. Lee Everett and a new guy named Mark are taking in the autumn foliage and presumably foraging for food. Not five minutes go by before you’re running from zombies and making a decision either to leave a trapped man behind or chop off one of his appendages with an ax. In case you may have thought Lee and his new acquaintances settled into a comfortable existence at the Motor Inn at the end of the previous episode, Starved for Help is quick to remind you that, three months later, Lee’s world remains desolate and depraved.
After Lee and Mark make it back to the Motor Inn we learn that supposed leader of the bunch is an ongoing matter of debate. Kenny despises Lilly’s authority because of how stingy she is with the dwindling food supply, and when my Lee tried to defend Kenny’s interests Lilly suggested Lee try handing out food for a change. With more mouths to feed than food to hand out, I had to force Lee into making some tough decisions regarding who got to eat something that day.
This is also where my personal baggage came into play. I didn’t want to give any food to Duck because he inadvertently insulted Clementine’s drawing, which made me think Duck was an idiot and didn’t probably deserve it. I actually gave some to Larry, the callous imbecile who left Lee for dead at the end of the last episode, in an effort to appeal to his daughter Lilly. The new guy Mark seemed to trust fully trust Lee so he probably deserved some. My point is I had stopped thinking about The Walking Dead like a game and more like an experience, allowing my personal biases toward carefully written characters to factor into Lee’s decisions. In most other game worlds I would discard self interest in pursuit of “winning,” but with no genuinely respectable options available I had to trust my gut and stick to my mission which ultimately was to protect Clementine at any cost.
Honestly I was a bit shocked by how much I cared about the characters. When Clementine told me she lost her cherished hat I freaked out in real life and canvassed the entire Motor Inn trying to find it. She needed to have that hat and I was the only one who could find it for her. Later, when I was unscrewing some bolts to break into a door, I was considerably upset that Lee just let the screws drop on the floor rather than keep track of them in case he needed to cover his ass. At that point I was Lee Everett, and anything that could compromise his or Clementine’s survival was of my utmost concern.
Like the previous episode, Starved for Help is quick to cement any decision you might make. It will tell you when someone will remember something you did, and it’s instant save feature assures requires you to live with your decisions. So when two guys came by the camp and wanted to trade some of their food for our gas, I immediately didn’t trust them. If I could barely confide in the people I’m with what are the odds that these bozos would have Lee and Clementine’s best interests in mind? Starved for Help eventually takes the group to the St. John’s Dairy Farm in the hope of carving out a better chance for survival, and even when I knew what was probably going to happen the back end of Starved for Help still managed to raise my eyebrows and drop my jaw on more than one occasion. It gets intense, to say the least, and when the credits rolled I was still questioning whether the group was better or worse off for their efforts.
In its second episode The Walking Dead still isn’t the greatest at being a game. It’s got a few new tricks, like staying behind moving cover and carefully trying to approach a hostage situation, but the majority of the action sequences still revolve around contextual button input or desperate mashing in frantic situations. Normally that would be a knock against it but in the case of The Walking Dead I’m completely fine with its relative lack of traditional interaction. I was hooked by the premise (and promise) of the narrative and the desire to find out what happens next supersedes any interactive shortcomings. In this regard choice, not direct action, remains The Walking Dead’s primary means of player agency and it still performs this feat in extremely satisfying ways.
To be fair, in some ways Starved for Help felt a bit weaker than the previous episode. I had problems with Kenny bringing up the fact that I didn’t try and rescue his son (after all of my loyalty, aren’t we past this?) and Lilly’s excuse for her father’s boundless anger seemed hastily constructed. With a few hard locks and countless instances of stuttering (particularly where I could tell it was trying to load one of multiple scenarios), Starved for Help’s technical chops didn’t seem quite as sound. Lastly, while my game experience wasn’t affected, a friend of mine (playing on my couch as I am writing this review) wound up stuck in some level geometry and, thanks to the instant-save system, was forced to restart the entire episode. Needless to say, her experience was broken and a distressing adventure was forced to be relived as a routine play.
The Walking Dead’s greatest strength remains the moral ambiguity of a post-society world. I haven’t read the comics (apologies) but in this regard Telltale’s game evokes this sentiment more subtlety and effectively than AMC’s ongoing television series. There is a narrow margin between right and wrong, and forcing the player to genuinely question what to do or how to act in virtual environment is a remarkable accomplishment. I don’t know the degree to which Lee’s actions and decisions factor into the overall narrative, but it feels like everything I do matters and it keeps me accountable and my character consistent. How many other games do that? Here’s to hoping Episode 3 is just as good as the previous two.