After taking the grim death march that is season two of The Walking Dead to its moral nadir last time out with the option of gawking at every little detail of what a crowbar can do to a cranium, Telltale Games really goes all out with Amid the Ruins. This fourth and penultimate episode of the current season hit a sweet spot for me, sticking with the same doom-laden atmosphere but moving away from the pensive moments that made me feel somewhat like a spectator at times during its predecessors. Tighter plotting, constant zombie attacks, and the introduction of mysterious new human adversaries led to more action sequences and stark dialogue choices that put me right in the middle of this increasingly bleak apocalyptic world.
Glimmers of hope are as hard to find here as shafts of light in a coal mine. The story continues precisely where episode three, In Harm's Way, left off, with the increasingly mature Clementine and the surviving members of her band of buddies using zombie-guts camouflage to sneak through an undead herd besieging the box-store empire of villain Bill Carver. A brief, if brutal, moment of optimism at the end of the last episode turns horrific in short order, and that sets the tone for the rest of the unrelentingly depressing two hours or so needed to play through to (another) cliff-hanger conclusion.
Most of the plot plays out in a Civil War historical battle site (the fictional Parker's Run) cemetery and tourist visitor center where the survivors of the opening zombie race regroup. This setting is oddly apropos (even if the continued attention given to a statue of one soldier carrying another off the battlefield beats you over the head with the thesis that we all have to help one another in tough times), given the conflict developing between members of the group. Kenny is unfairly blaming Clementine. Luke gets slammed for taking part in an, um, entertaining interlude with Jane. Sarah is still a total mess who continues to aggravate everyone. And despite all of this, the group still has to work together to find a safe spot for the heavily pregnant Rebecca to deliver her baby.
The focus remains on Clem, largely due to a tremendous number of twitch action sequences where you have to dodge and kill zombies with button mashing. Zombies attack constantly, which is a refreshing change from prior episodes, where long stretches would go by without your having to do so much as respond to a question or shove a dresser in front of a door. In this episode, the whole gang is menaced, from the frenetic opening escape from Carver through to the zombie wave assault waged on the Civil War site gift shop just as Rebecca goes into labor.
Clementine also evolves as a person, but not in a particularly admirable way. Where the first three episodes in this season revealed more about how pragmatic--if not out and out cruel--the growing kid has to learn to be to survive in this new world, the story now moves well beyond the shocks of once-friendly dogs mauling you for a can of food and men being casually murdered for acts of kindness. Here, the brutal stuff becomes more prosaic. Before, these deaths were huge moments in the plot. Now, they're sort of just there, part of the everyday background noise that is a slice of everyone's life after the end of the world.
Some of this is because Clem is growing up. There is a brief but telling moment here when she gets stuck trying to sneak through a security gate and comments that she isn't as little as she used to be. Much of the casual acceptance of anything and everything nasty is also due to the influence of lone-wolf Jane. She can be a little too much of a one-note whiner, constantly harping about how helping other people just gets you killed. But as much as I came to sort of tune her out, Clementine didn't. The kid falls increasingly under the sway of Jane's Ayn Rand-ian tutorials, beginning with learning a sweep-the-leg zombie attack that would impress the guys from the Cobra Kai dojo.
What's more, Jane is proven right through the course of the game. No matter how much I chose the good-guy path in dialogue selections (which seem to have increased both in number and in the starkness of the choices they offer in comparison to the previous episodes), bad things kept on happening. Encouraging Jane to change her ways and start helping other people only succeeded in delaying the inevitable. Meaning that the person I was trying to save died anyway, but with the added benefit of putting other lives in jeopardy, too. This was finally hammered home toward the end of the episode. After I convinced Jane to take a huge chance on trying to save a helpless friend, I was given a prime seat at the table alongside a zombie buffet.
Reactions to these deaths (which are unavoidable no matter which dialogue choices you select, according to Telltale) are also becoming increasingly muted. The chowdown referred to above would have been a defining moment just last episode. Now it takes place and everyone moves on almost instantly. Granted, the gang is a little preoccupied with the birth of Rebecca's baby, and this death is one that has been telegraphed for a good long time now. But it's incredible how the group watches this horrifying scene and adopts a "Well, that happened" (a fitting line that Mike uses to describe an incident with a zombie earlier in the game) attitude, and then the next scene you see is Clementine and the others taking a nap.
With Amid the Ruins, there is no more room to be a spectator. While Clementine could often sit back and observe everything during the first episodes of this season as still something of a little kid, now she is an almost-grown-up soldier on the front lines of every zombie attack and every life-and-death situation determining the fates of her friends. Given a last-second surprise death and the fade-to-black gunfight, those fates are not likely to be good ones. Still, Telltale's masterful storytelling keeps us hoping for the best even as that optimism is continually shattered by what is proving to be one of the most memorable tragedies ever told in gaming.