“I thought you were dead!”

It’s the constant refrain of survival horror survivors when confronted by a figure from their past: “I thought you were dead!” It’s a cliché that’s also lost its efficacy, since a genre-savvy audience knows instinctively that in the horror genre people are never dead unless you saw the body. And sometimes not even then.

But in the case of Clementine, it’s entirely believable that she should say it. After all, almost everybody she knew from the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, well, is. Her surrogate-father Lee died to save her. Her friend Duck died from an infection and his mother followed shortly thereafter. Even her most recent protector and surrogate-surrogate-father Omid died. From Clem’s perspective, everybody dies or is dying. As Rick said in the comics the game is based on, “we are the walking dead”. It’s only a matter of time.

The only practical difference is that zombies don’t change their clothes as often

So when, as teased in the preview for this episode (and as I desperately hoped for in this podcast), a character from her past is revealed to still be alive, it should have been a joyous moment. And initially, it was - I was literally bouncing in my chair with happiness. The decision to run and hug Kenny was the easiest I’ve ever had to make in the series.

But that joy turned to dread almost instantly. Because since they’re alive, it means they’re still going to die. And probably soon. And they know it. I honestly can’t think of a better way to sum up The Walking Dead - it’s a story about painfully staving off a finality that’s nevertheless something of a relief when it arrives, even if it’s only so the characters don’t have to suffer any more.

A House Divided

The title of this month’s episode is entirely appropriate on a number of levels. There’s tension within the group to which Clem now belongs, over whether Nick is too great a liability to remain with them. He’s so useless at times that a dialogue option allows you to compare him to Ben from Season One. Ouch. There’s also other simmering conflicts within the tribe which force you to pick a side one way or the other. It’s decisions like this which make The Walking Dead so gut-clenchingly terrifying to play at times - just like most real-life conflicts, there’s no way to placate everybody. Mediation doesn’t work all the time. Eventually you have to pick a side, even if it’s just your own as you stay apart from the conflict, and you have to live with the consequences.

This is compounded when the Season One character reappears. After an unexpected continuity cavalcade where Clementine adroitly recognises conflicts as similar to those that befell her previous group, here’s a living reminder of that time. Suddenly your loyalties are divided in a different, more meta way. I ended up taking refuge in role-playing, and did what I expected a (possibly)11-year old girl would do. It’s a form of cowardice, I know, especially because until that point I’d been making decisions as me, rather than as Clementine, but this game forces you to make such compromises.

Pictured: Sir-Not-Appearing-In-My-Game & Zombie

And, while last episode was very action-heavy, ‘A House Divided’ is almost entirely made of those choices. Other than a fantastic set-piece on a bridge and a later reprise of the disappointing point-and-click gunplay of Season One, you spend your time learning about these characters so you can feel particularly heartbroken later when they suffer or you betray them.

The journey North is eventually revealed to be a false hope, as the central antagonist of this season makes his appearance and reveals exactly why he’s chasing you. While it’s not particularly original, it and other events during the episode gradually bring a recurring motif into stark focus: Obsessive love is harmful to everyone its influence touches. In a situation where opportunities for love are rare and the fragility of life encourages this obsession, it can get you killed. I think the implicit goal of this season might be to find a way to subvert that rule.

The bleak, forested locations of ‘A House Divided’ allow Telltale to indulge their talent for creating beautiful backdrops to the appalling actions in the foreground. One scene in particular, where you glimpse… something… from atop a tower inspires a sense of encroaching danger that suffuses the rest of the episode (even if the cast aren’t quite so aware of it).

If there was any doubt remaining whether Telltale are masters of interactive storytelling, or that the medium is as effective at creating atmosphere as more traditional media, then this episode quells it: ’A House Divided’ and The Walking Dead as a whole stand as one of the most brutally heart-rending horror stories ever told.

 

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