Written by Andrew Dunaway // Edited by Andrew Busch // Image courtesy of True Achievements
The first season of Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead Series received Spike’s “Best Game of the Year” award back in 2012. More impressive is the fact that the first season faced series such as Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed for that award. Notably, the first season of this series is often credited with reviving the adventure genre.
So why is it that with the latest season being released a little more than a month ago, fans are on the brink of abandoning the series altogether?
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier had potential. I think most fans can at least (begrudgingly) admit that. But in many ways, the game was doomed from the start. The biggest miscalculation was the shift of Clementine’s role from main character to supporting character. Clementine, who players have been attached to since the very first season, is written into the story of A New Frontier in spite of having little to do with the familial-oriented drama of the actual main character, Javier García. Yet, Clementine remains a consistent presence. I have no clue what Telltale was trying to do here. Clementine being in the game, and yet not being the main playable character didn’t draw veteran fans in so much as it taunted them. The studio should know by now that Clementine is the face of the series, and that if given the choice between playing as Clem or having Clem be a deuterogamist, fans are always going to choose the former. Simply put, if Clementine isn’t the main character, then she shouldn’t be in the game at all.
But then again, can you really blame Telltale? What would happen from a sales standpoint if Clementine was absent from the game altogether? Apparently Telltale did not want to take that risk, but it nevertheless perfectly illustrates the bind that the studio has found itself in with this series. Fans want Clementine, and they will not settle for even half-baked measures.
Much of the blame for the dismal representation of both old and new characters is credited to the drastically shortened episodes in A New Frontier. For example, Javier and Clementine travel to a small settlement named Prescott in episode 1. Prescott’s leader is Tripp. However, Tripp as a leader is never discussed. How other people feel he runs Prescott is never investigated. Additionally, the leader of the antagonist faction of this season, Joan, had potential as a nuanced and complex villain with sympathetic motives when she is introduced in episode 3. This, however, is all dropped in the fourth episode as she devolves into a stereotypically power-hungry antagonist that this series has seen dozens of times. What’s frustrating about the examples above is the fact that these secondary characters do have potential. However, all potential complex and nuanced characterization is absent in the presence of the significantly shorter episodes.
Even more frustrating was the inconsistent narrative and character interactions. Regardless of your choices, Clementine and Javier immediately develop a positive and mutually-respectful relationship regardless of your chosen introduction to her. And let’s face it, Clementine was never in danger of dying in this season, so every negative decision you make in regards to her (such as leaving her behind in a shootout or selling her out to Conrad in episode 2) are ultimately negated. Laughably, the narrative seems to periodically forget itself. Clementine characterizes Prescott as a bad and unfriendly settlement specifically because of the people living there. However, to Javier and the player, Prescott is home to some of the friendliest characters in the season such as Tripp, Eleanor, and Conrad. It is almost like the episodes are rewriting themselves as they progress which leaves players baffled or frustrated.
A New Frontier is an experiment with some shoddy results. I think the dysfunctional drama of the García family was captivating, but the missteps (some of them foundational) plagued the episodes from the start and produced the weakest of the three seasons. Hopefully as Telltale moves forward they can address these weaknesses and go back to producing episodes that won them “Game of the Year” awards.