The Guitar Hero franchise enjoyed widespread acclaim and healthy sales until Activision drove it into the ground. Content with near-nonexistent iteration, the series resigned itself to simply bombarding the rhythm-gaming public with a near-constant flow of new titles, a trend that peaked with a grand total of 7 releases in 2010. This continual influx not only bred dispassion amongst fans of the series, but surely limited the ability of the studios to develop games that felt like more than song packs.
Now I’m not saying Telltale Games have reached this point yet, or even that they’ll ever stoop to those lows. But if The Walking Dead: Michonne has highlighted anything for me, it’s the dangerous proximity of the Telltale formula to stagnation.
Other studios have taken cues from Telltale Games to actually progress the medium of choice-driven narrative games. Campo Santo, home to several Telltale alumni, wrote a beautiful playable essay on player agency and NPC interaction in Firewatch, while Supermassive Games crafted a deliciously engrossing horror story in Until Dawn, an ingenious use of the decision-driven mechanics popularised by Telltale. In other words: Telltale Games don’t have a monopoly on narrative games anymore.
The best recent release from Telltale Games is easily Tales From The Borderlands. Its success can primarily be attributed to its ingenious writing, but it also carried a worthwhile subversion to the Telltale formula in the form of unreliable narration. Most importantly, it was clear that the game was a labour of love and a clear effort to spice up the years-old core gameplay.
The Walking Dead: Michonne does not display such an attitude.
Michonne Episode 3 directly follows the preceding episode to conclude the miniseries. As Michonne approaches the final confrontation with her adversaries, she continues to deal with hallucinations and has to pull together her allies for the climax.
As far as the story goes, Episode 3 acquits itself well enough. The climax and conclusion to the story feels earned, and the scenarios that lead you there are engaging enough. There’s a smattering of touching interaction with some children you’re charged with protecting that’s particularly well done; the Walking Dead property continues to handle children quite well. These aren’t the disgustingly annoying gnats that most video game children are. The problem is that since the preceding episodes were so short, you’ve spent so little time with the cast that it feels like you’re being manipulated into instantly investing in these characters because of their obligatory innocence. Making a sizeable number of your allies children kind of feels like a cheap way of driving player sympathy.
Another disappointment is the game’s handling of Michonne’s hallucinations and guilt complex. Michonne is a woman forged in the fires of tragedy, true, but the way that her grief over losing her daughters is visualised in this game feels clichéd and forced. It’s a blunt-force stylistic choice that fits neither the thoughtful precedent set by the series’ writing, nor my understanding of Michonne as a character. It’s in the more quiet, conversational moments that the writing truly shines: where Michonne’s concealed inner flame flickers darkly behind her eyes and words. Not that she’s all anger- Michonne is a well fleshed-out character capable of softness, and it’s clear that her ruthless efficiency is fuelled by a complex of grief, wrath, and a determination to live. But slower scenes are never given enough room to breathe as the game barrels towards the end credits.
The length of all three episodes is certainly a factor impacting the value of the package. I’m a firm believer in case-by-case pricing, and I was originally pleased that this mini-series was accordingly priced for three Telltale Games episodes. However, with the three episodes coming in at a scarcely an hour each, the whole package clocks up only slightly more playtime than one of the longer episodes from The Walking Dead Season 1 or Tales From The Borderlands. That’s a fact that throws some doubt on the proportional pricing of Michonne, and it’s especially egregious when you account for the variation on show. More specifically, the lack thereof.
You only spend meaningful time in a couple of locations throughout Michonne. Most locations span multiple episodes; the house you’re at for the majority of Episode 3 was reached in the last third of Episode 2. The series was established on exploration of new environments, and while this is a miniseries there’s been far more diversity of location in any three sequential episodes of any other Telltale game. The places that you do visit in Michonne are drab, murky places devoid of any personality or life. The Walking Dead is not supposed to be home to exotic or vibrant settings, but that doesn’t mean you have to stare at what feels like a collection of brown smudges for three-to-four hours. It’s just an ugly production.
That’s an indictment of not just the visual design of Michonne, but the chugging game engine itself. Aside from some improvements on character models and animation, there’s not been much noticeable progression of the Telltale Tool engine over the past few years. The game stutters frequently on my decent gaming laptop, and camera transitions can feel awkwardly stilted even when it’s running as intended.
It all builds up to a whole that’s just not enough. The Walking Dead: Michonne lacks the variety and personalty of its peers, and even its moments of great potential are undercut by its stunted length and overall lack of originality. I can only hope that future Telltale games can learn from this and move on.