What to Expect When You're Expecting
Episode 4 of The Walking Dead, Around Every Corner, leaves our heroes at a bit of an impasse. I'm not speaking of Lee and Clementine exclusively, but rather the development team at Telltale. After three episodes I felt like I had a read on the series. I didn't know which way the plot was heading, but I expected an expertly told narrative with an exceptional handling of delicate themes on top of a constant sense of peril for the protagonists. That's what Telltale's The Walking Dead is, and they're really good at it, but any suspicion of surprise had been removed from the equation.
Around Every Corner demonstrates that, even as a known quantity, there are still plenty of surprises left in The Walking Dead.
Long Road Ahead concluded with the group finally heading into Savannah in desperate hope of finding a boat. Lee and Kenny also discovered that Clementine had been in touch with a nefarious (sounding) man on the other end of her apparently functioning walkie-talkie. Around Every Corner puts that startling revelation on the backburner, not necessarily out of intent but rather because Savannah happens to be a huge city with its own set of problems.
Savannah, really, is as much of a new character as any human. It feels like Lee covers far more physical space here than in any previous episode, and the pratfalls included along the way makes the city feel like another character working against him. Part of this is due to a narrative revelation I'd rather not spoil, but what remains is gleaned from a noticeably different approach to The Walking Dead's presentation.
It's quite simple, really; Telltale has perfected the art of doing more with less. Case in point, there are three or four shots in Around Every Corner that feature a character alone with their thoughts. It's a three second vignette, but it always follows a relatively horrific event. The rule of thirds is applied, deliberate lighting techniques are employed, and each scene is framed exceptionally well. In each case it's a still shot, but it might as well be a soliloquy. You can practically feel how hard some of this stuff is hitting the characters. I didn't recall the previous three episodes doing that and, hell, when I think about it I don't recall videogames doing that. It sounds like a little thing that most people probably wouldn't even think about, but, for me, these were Around Every Corner's signature moments.
I'm hesitant to reveal practically anything about the narrative, especially since so much of it is left up to choice (or at least the illusion of it). Any knock against it doubles back to what I referred to a bit earlier, specifically the lack of progress in the overall narrative. A certain character fails you, and fails you again, and again. Likewise, Clementine's actions bend and build toward a conclusion that you know is all but inevitable. Figuring out how Lee is supposed to handle that, at least in terms of whom he trusts, feels like the general theme of the episode. Can you trust your friends? Can you trust strangers? Both of these feel impossible to know for sure, which I suppose is the dilemma we're intended to figure out when trying to point Lee in the right direction.
Mechanically there's not much new in Around Every Corner. Shootouts and some light puzzle sections are still the main course. Of particular interest was an optional item/action that lead to a rather startling subplot regarding one of the new characters. I didn't recall such an explicit detail being optional in episode's past, and knowing how that shapes the corresponding character made me reconsider her/his entire motivation. That would be terrible to miss, but at the same thing I felt that going a little bit out of my way on a hunch paid off quite well.
Unfortunately all of the bugs still aren't ironed out. Abrupt loading screens still cut characters off seemingly before they're finished talking, and the noticeable load after a selecting a branching option makes the seams visible. There was also an incident where Lee was speaking to other characters despite being by himself in the room. Most of this stuff is sort of normal but, like in previous episodes, it really stands out in such a story-heavy game.