The Walking Dead: Episode 2 – Starved for Help Review
A famous fellow once said “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Of course, Martin Luther King Jr. could never anticipate a “challenge” such as a zombie apocalypse; nevertheless, his statement rings true. No, I’m not going to wax philosophically about the ethical concessions made by individuals during times of extreme duress nor will I closely examine the moral ambiguities faced by the competing ideologies of the characters in the Walking Dead universe. Sure, it’d make for a great thesis but would simply bore you into submission. However, I will say that Telltale Games does an admiral job of exploring those incredibly dark corners of humanity reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s depressingly brilliant masterpiece, “The Road.” The aptly named episode two, “Starved for Help” explores these dark themes, and does so admirably, giving gamers and part-time existentialists a compelling reason to revisit the Walking Dead Universe. Sure, it’s been an egregiously lengthy two months since the release of episode one, but this latest entry in the five-part, The Walking Dead: The Game series was well worth the wait.
After dealing with some frustration regarding the game’s sudden ‘misplacement’ of my previous episode one saves, leading to a chain of displaced anger that would make Sigmund Freud proud, I finally completed “Starved for Help.” The episode does a fantastic job earning its “mature” rating and wastes little time in reintroducing us to the desperation and depravity of the Walking Dead universe. Episode two picks up three months after the group of survivors finds respite at the Motor Inn, the place where we last left them in the previous episode. Despite a few months of food (thanks to newcomer Mark) in the perceived safety of the Motor Inn, things are beginning to get desperate. Although they’ve established fortifications to deal with the zombie threat, food is running scarce and it’s starting to takes its toll on the group. When two brothers stumble upon their Motor Inn with the promise of food and safety at their nearby dairy farm, it seems that their luck’s about to change. Little did they know what was in store for them and how much the world around them has changed since the zombie outbreak.
If you’ve played the first episode, the gameplay mechanics remain exactly the same (for a refresher on the controls, see episode one’s review here) and it didn’t take very long before I put them to good use; the very first encounter had me wince with each successive button press. The first thing that came to mind in that moment was a certain scene in the movie “127 Hours” that was near unbearable to watch. It’s important that you absolve yourself of any feelings of empathy during your time with Episode two because you may lose your lunch. As in the previous episode, you’ll find subtle foreshadowing throughout the game, including a funny bit of hyperbole from Mark regarding Larry that takes literal form in the game. While zombies remain a persistent threat throughout the game, the survivors can at least take solace in their behavioral predictability. Humans, however, are quite the opposite, which the survivor’s soon discover during the episode.
Choice and consequence, once again, take center stage and the choices aren’t any easier. Choosing who in the group get the day’s rations, choosing between different ideologies, choosing loyalties, choosing who lives and who dies are some of the things Lee will have to deal with. More so than ever will the weight of his decisions affect the group and he’ll have to live with the consequences. A schism is looming and it’s up to you on which side of the divide he’ll stand. Again, this is not your typical zombie game. Sure, there are action bits and gory bits, but they are used to enhance your human interactions and give more weight to your decision making.
This time around, you’ll get to see some of the outcomes from the choices you’ve made in the previous episode. The relationships you’ve fostered or damaged in the past become more obvious this time around. Previous loyalties will be tested and you’ll no longer be able to appease everyone, which you’ll find out almost immediately. Certain smaller decisions carry over, some to humorous effect; in one particular interaction, Clementine mimics a vulgarity she heard from you in Hershel’s barn in the previous episode (had you chosen the dialogue option), effectively calling you out in front of the group. Other decisions, for instance, the choices in the first episode that had you choose the fate of two characters, are a little more significant, changing some of dialogue and modifying some of the more major events.
This is definitely an episode that warrants multiple replays (including replays of the first episode) as each can yield a variety of nuanced results, making for a unique experience depending on the player. For instance, the survivor you chose to save in a critical moment at the end of the previous episode will not only change how you specifically meet the two brothers from the dairy farm but some of the major events leading to the episode’s conclusion. However, despite the varying behaviors and outcomes in the parallel Walking Dead universes you craft, Telltale’s main narrative remains consistent and certain outcomes are unavoidable. For instance, I experimented with a second complete replay of both episodes siding with one character throughout the episodes with the exception of one critical decision late in the second episode. Regardless of my complete dedication to this character in every decision leading up to that point, that one critical decision would change that loyalty altogether. True, the decision is probably one of the hardest among the two episodes, but a more nuanced response tree to that difficult decision would better serve the game, as it makes my previous commitment to the character in the previous episode almost meaningless. However, I can foresee what Telltale is planning to do in the series so this is forgivable and most people who play through this episode will easily ignore this.
Telltale Games’ latest episode tells a good, albeit dark, narrative that tests both Lee and the group’s decency and humanity in a world that’s struggling to maintain both. Survival, it seems, is a much more complex than simply the preservation of one’s life; in many ways, it’s the preservation of those values that actually make us human. In a black and white world, it’s easy to find and choose the moral high ground. However, in a world that dabbles in only varying shades of grey, defining morality is a much more complicated affair. It’s a fascinating look at a zombie apocalypse, one most games avoid opting for more visceral action and gore in lieu of substance. While there are some technical interface issues (e.g. exploring the various stalls in the barn is a bit wonky) and few real gameplay challenges making this less a video game and more an interactive movie, this is a vastly unique zombie experience, one that deserves your full attention.