I did not need this a week before Christmas, Telltale. (MAJOR SPOILERS, duh!)
So, I just spent an hour and a half yesterday afternoon getting my heart ripped out by All That Remains, The opening episode of The Walking Dead Season 2. If anyone thought that what made The Walking Dead an incredible experience last year would be neutered by either the departure of project leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, or the fact that you are now playing as Clementine, think again - All That Remains is a fine indicator that there are still no punches being pulled in this series.
In fact, it's a series of punches again and again that leads to one of the most emotionally exhaustive games ever to be put before an audience. By the end of the episode, I honestly felt knackered - the pent up tension that steadily built up, the tears, the anxiety. All That Remains stands up there with some of the best moments from Season 1 as a masterclass in, well... working those feels. Let's start with feels moment one:
All That Remains is an exercise in instilling the player with hope, before ruthlessly tearing it away. Within moments of feeling secure - Clementine is with people she knows, they have supplies, Omid and Christa have hopes for their future child - a close encounter with another survivor leads to the swift, shocking death of not just a character the player has been familiar with over the course of several months, but yet another part of Clementine's innocence. After losing Lee at the end of Season 1, Clementine finds another guardian figure - but they're taken from her within a heartbeat. Perhaps most gutwrenchingly is that it's not even a walker that does Omid in, but another survivor of the apocalypse, driving home that whilst the dead may be walking, they're by no means the biggest threat in this new world.
And it's Clementine's fault. For the slightest of moments after he's shot, Omid looks directly ahead, through the Camera, and out to the audience. And that one moment he's looking at you, at Clementine, and you know: It's your fault. If Clementine hadn't left her gun at the sink, Michelle would've been unarmed. If she hadn't been careless cleaning herself, she might've had the advantage when Michelle snuck into the Bathroom stalls. It's never held against the player or Clementine over the course of the episode, but it's there in that one fleeting moment - this is on you. And it's completely harrowing for both Clementine as your avatar, and yourself as the player, hanging in your mind for the rest of the episode.
The rest of the episode is on a similar line - a moment of peace and hope, irrevocably destroyed moments after. You meet a dog, Sam, who then a few minutes later turns on you over some food, ending in you having fight him, impale him on some wreckage in the melee, and then choose whether or not to leave him whimpering or put him out of his misery (animal lovers or those who've lost a pet recently - you will become an emotional wreck). You find a group of survivors who rescue the ailing Clementine from walkers, only for them to freak out upon seeing her dog bite and lock her up in a shed on the brink of death. You find some supplies to bandage Clem up, but that leads to a horribly long suturing sequence that is punctuated by her own screams of desperate agony. At some point it almost feels like torture porn, the player's agency being used against them in a moment that makes you feel as if it is yourself causing Clementine this pain, but the biggest moment of each of these is almost the aftershock - the realisation that this stuff was horrific enough when you were playing as Lee, but now you're playing as an 11 year old girl. It's the final kick to the gut in the sustained beating that is All That Remains, and no matter how many things Clementine is put through, it's always that realisation that will get you.
There's also the realisation that the time passed between Season 1 and 2 has changed Clementine. Unlike the other shock moments of the episode, this one is a slow burn that permeates the entire piece, but is by no means is its impact any less powerful. It's there when you have the choice to use her picture of Kenny, Duck and Katja as kindling for the fire. It's there when she picks up a discarded doll and simply places it back, as it's useless to her. It's there in her cathartic conversation about her past to Luke, and her final, heartbreaking realisation that it is she who gets her loved ones killed - she's not that innocent little girl hiding in her treehouse any more. Her experiences have changed her from being the little girl that she should be, if not for this awful, apocalyptic world. Her loss of innocence is tangible throughout the whole episode, and is tragic - but then so is the realisation that without that loss, she would've been dead a long time ago.
Trust is a major theme of All That Remains, and not just in terms of the characters - can Christa trust Clementine after losing Omid (and possibly her child)? Can this new group of survivors trust Clementine with her bite, as well as her decision to steal medicine from them to save her life? - and their relationship to the young girl, but an implicit trust between the player, Clementine as your avatar, and Telltale's writers. For every moment of horror we experience through Clementine, there's the unsaid faith that she will get through it, no matter how bad it gets. And yet, we've already had that faith shaken with the loss of Lee in Season 1 - can we learn to trust again? This trust, thematically mirrored in Clementine's growing acceptance amongst a new group of survivors, is slowly rebuilt across the first episode - not without a few bumps along the way - and feels like it will play a major part in this second season. Whatever happens to Clementine, we'll be right there every step of the way.
And it's trust that's once again an implicit part of the final choice of whether you aid Nick or aid Pete. There stands a good chance Pete's injury was from a zombie rather than lost footing, but he trusted Clementine about her own wound - do you return your own trust in kind? Nick's heart is in the right place, and is still fit, on top of the fact you may have already accepted his apology for his earlier mistrust. Do you ignore that and help him?
Whatever you do, knowing Telltale, it'll be a while before we find out the full ramifications.