It's hard to imagine learning to trust anyone in the world of The Walking Dead. It's not just the question of whether or not people are basically decent. It's the reality that if you put too much pressure on even well-meaning people, sooner or later, most of them are going to break. And the world of The Walking Dead is a constant pressure cooker. But Clementine, the young survivor of the series' first season, can't hope to make it in this world on her own, and so she has little choice but to cast her lot in with a new group of people struggling just to live day to day in a land crawling with zombies and ruthless scavengers.
The first episode of the new season, All That Remains, has a few harrowing moments and a gameplay sequence that will make you squirm as you uncomfortably empathize with a suffering character, but the element that made the first season of The Walking Dead so powerful--those quiet, heavy choices in moments of human interaction--is largely absent here. The episode's focus is clearly on setting up the characters and conflicts that might pay off in later chapters; it serves a narrative purpose, but isn't especially effective on its own terms.
Almost immediately, All That Remains reminds us of just how fragile life is after the decline of society. It also reminds us of just how restrictively linear The Walking Dead can sometimes be, for a series that places so much focus on choice. As Clementine, you're required to make a colossal (if understandable) error in judgment in an early section that ends up having tremendous consequences. Throughout the game, this sense of tension between choice and rigid plot structure surfaces multiple times.
Yes, you make choices in conversations about what to tell characters, how much to reveal or to conceal about your past. But when you're locked in a garage and told by other characters to wait there until morning, you can't choose to stay put. Morning will never come unless you bust out of the garage, break into the nearby house, and go dangerously sneaking around. In moments like these, you feel the heavy hand of plot structure making many of Clementine's decisions for you. The episode also seems confused about just how capable Clementine is. At one point, a character chastises her for not working hard enough to develop some basic survival skills, which makes Clementine seem more vulnerable and imperiled. But later, she seems tremendously self-sufficient, tending to a serious wound on her own.
Much of All That Remains' time is spent bringing Clementine into contact with a new group of survivors and giving you an opportunity to learn a little bit about these people. Clementine's arrival sows seeds of tension in the group as some feel a responsibility to help the tough little cookie out while others don't want the group burdened with another member (who may, some argue, be a spy for another group that threatens their survival). There's the older guy Pete, who knows how to use a gun and can be gruff and guarded but quickly opens up to Clementine. A bit too quickly to be believed, I thought--the series doesn't have much time to establish its characters before all hell starts breaking loose, but Pete's candor felt like it was in the service of plot rather than serving the authentic needs and desires of the character.
Then there's Carlos, a doctor and fiercely overprotective father, who says that his daughter Sarah is different in some way, and that she can't handle the harsh realities of the world they live in. Sarah's a strange one, to be sure. She's clearly older than Clementine, but she acts much younger; she asks Clementine to seal their friendship with a "pinky swear," which the world-weary Clementine finds mighty strange. To me, it was almost impossible to believe that the clearly intelligent Sarah would have such an immature disposition at her age, but perhaps more will be revealed in coming episodes to support this characterization.
And it's this dilemma that makes evaluating this episode quite difficult. It's clearly not intended to stand on its own in the long term, and the characterizations it establishes may work better when more pieces fall into place. But All That Remains tries to cover a lot of expository ground, and characterization suffers as a result. Still, subtle voice work and facial details--a glance, a quickly passing frown--give us insight into Clementine's mindset, and because we have the benefit of an entire season spent getting to know her already, her emotions are accessible to us. I've grown to care enough about her that I'm more than willing to endure this episode's shortcomings to see what Telltale has planned down the road.