Man. Just man. I probably just finished the most emotionally intense three hours of video gaming that I’ve ever done (or at least since the final act of Metal Gear Solid 4). For anyone who hasn’t played the first (A New Day) or the second (Starved for Help) episode of Telltale Games The Walking Dead video game series, you should stop reading now because there be spoilers ahead. If you want an overview of the series, check out the link back to Episode 1. I’m going to just assume at this point that you know what I’m talking about. Episode 3, Long Road Ahead, finds the game doubling down on its commitment to story. Although this episode includes more action-oriented elements than in the past, they don’t necessarily play as well. That’s okay though because Long Road Ahead doesn’t pull any punches in its depiction of this post-apocalyptic world and how fragile our group’s lives have become.
After the disastrous visit to the dairy farm from Hell, where (in my story) Kenny smashed Larry’s head in with a salt lick as I tried to help resuscitate him, things are looking to get even worse back at the motel. Although I chose to take the supplies from the car at the end of Starved for Help, it turns out that one of the survivors in the group had been giving supplies to the bandits. As Lily starts to lose control of the group (and her senses after the death of her father), Lee finds himself forced to investigate where the supplies are going and then things go to Hell. I don’t really want to give away any more of the plot of the episode other than to say, nothing will ever remotely be the same.
If I thought that the storytelling in Starved for Help really increased the dramatic nature of The Walking Dead game, I was not prepared for the emotional tour-de-force that was Long Road Ahead. It’s really easy in a movie like Dawn of the Dead or The Walking Dead TV series to criticize characters for not being able to make tough decisions (like shooting someone who’s been infected). There’s a moment early in the episode where Kenny and Lee are on a supply run in Macon when a stranger to the group gets swarmed by Walkers. There’s no way to save her and you can shoot her and put her out of her misery (but, by doing so, draw attention to yourself) or you can let her be the bait that keeps the Walkers off you. In what was maybe a moment of weakness, I chose the latter. By the end of the episode, you will make a decision that is infinitely more difficult (but also more inevitable).
It’s very rare that a video game can make me physically disgusted at myself for a decision I’ve made. Most games with decision systems have a black and white morality system where you can do evil things but they always empower you in the universe. Hell, it can be more fun to play as a bad guy in Fallout 3 than to be strictly good. The Walking Dead does not work that way, and it’s a significantly more fulfilling system for it. There’s a moment in Heavy Rain where Ethan Mars, one of the four protagonists, has to choose whether or not to fatally poison himself in order to save the life of his son. There are two moments in Long Road Ahead that are tougher. One was the single most difficult thing I’ve ever done in a game. I knew it had to be done and that somebody had to do it (and that it should be Lee), but actually pushing the button to make Lee follow through with that action was physically painful. The other moment was more morally grey but I’m still questioning whether I did the right thing.
The episode fell into some old trappings of the franchise though (and created some new ones in the process). The action kicks up a little bit but the controls are so spotty that they didn’t play as well as they should have. I was concerned that something I did caused one of the bad things in the episode later because I couldn’t handle the action well enough, but I was glad to see it was just inevitable. The lip syncing was way off during certain sections of the episode, and at one point, I encountered a game-breaking bug which forced me to reset the game in a key moment. They were small complaints in an episode of what I can honestly call one of the few video games that has ever made me cry. If you aren’t emotionally wrecked by the end of Long Road Ahead, you might be a sociopath.
Final Score: A-