As we roll into the midpoint of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, it seems like a good time to take a step back and start looking at where the series is going, as a whole. Not just this season, but the entire Telltale franchise. Because, by this point, it should be clear to everyone that there are certain themes the writing staff are drawn to as a backbone to the overall experience. The decay of society, of course, has been the core tenet of zombie literature since George Romero first typified the genre as we know it today. But there are others, more subtle and more consistently prevalent, that are worth exploring too. So let’s dive in and have a look at some of them.
Let’s get the mechanical side of this episode out of the way first. It looks, plays, sounds and is written like a Telltale game. If you don’t know what they are like by now, you probably never will, because you’ve already hit them with the much coveted NAG (Not a Game) moniker long ago. Suffice it to say, if you like Telltale, you will like Above the Law. I would not peg it as their best episode to date, though I would rank it as above average, and is distinctly the best of the season so far. Though the ending was rather abrupt and a little jarring, making it feel like it was shorter than it was, despite being the longest of A New Frontier to date.
The story picks up immediately where episode 2 left off, kind of, with your group at the gates of Richmond standing face to face with David, brother of protagonist Javier. However, the episode itself starts off back at the beginning of the walker epidemic, around three months after the first deaths. Following Javier, Kate, Mariana and Gabe hunkered down in the family home, desperately hoping to see David again. There’s also a pretty obvious nod to 28 Days Later as Javier is attacked by a child whilst trying to recover a (empty) tank of propane.
It’s a scene that’s handled extremely well, turning what could have been a lazy shock/horror moment and giving it some emotional depth. The child is a friend of Gabe, who insists he can stay at the house, with help from his friends, when told they need to leave. Bringing us to our first, meaningful choice of the episode, in precisely how we tell him about what happened. This is followed up by a scene in which a note is left for David, on the off chance he returns after they leave, with you, as the player, being able to overtly influence what it says. This also feels like an important decision, right from the outset, and indeed is. Perhaps even more so than it seems even on reflection.
You see, during the tense confrontation outside of Richmond, David actually mentions the note. But in other conversations he insists he was unable to return not only to the family home, but to the city itself. Which begs the question, if it was so difficult for him, how did he know about the note? And after reading it, why didn’t he put more effort into trying to track down his family, who he claims to care so much about. It’s an interesting plot point that succinctly sums up the flow of the entire Telltale narrative.
People talk, they talk a lot, and they make a lot of assertions about what they can, cannot, will and will not do. Yet that’s all most of them, ever, really achieve. Hollow gestures of mouth noises that lead to nothing more than a temporary sense of doing the right thing. Meanwhile, the entire world is still crumbling, decayed and dead around them. Because yes, the world of The Walking Dead is not dying, its death throes are long behind it.
There are pockets, like Prescott from A New Frontier episodes 1 and 2, that still cling to the idea of civilisation. Defiantly holding their heads high in the face of reality and insisting they can make a better future. But invariably, inevitably, indomitably, each falls in turn. Some to the physically dead, but most to the hubris of the emotionally dead. The true, titular, walking dead. People who have resigned themselves to their fate and simply continue exist for the sake of existing. Sweeping down from on high to decimate the next, fruitless endeavour for the future not out of genuine hostility, but more because they have a vague sense of momentary reprieve from their miserable existence.
Think about it, doesn’t it seem rather tired and contrived, by this point that every time a safe haven turns up, everything almost immediately goes to shit once the protagonist, the player, arrives? Either because an outside force muscles in and destroys everything, or because it was all a thin veneer of Mister Sheen smeared across a turd the size of Tom Cruises ego. Id actually, but shh. And you’re damn right, it is a tired, clichéd moment of repeated plot convenience. But it’s a deliberate one. Driving home and reinforcing the point. This is a dead world, and it knows it, it just doesn’t want to lay down and accept it. Not yet. Just thrash around in impotent rage for a few more weeks, or months, or even seconds.
There’s no point to anything, nothing is going to change it, there’s no way for things to ever get better. The entire, Human, population of the world is already infected with whatever causes them to stand up after they die. Young, old and newborn alike. There are no cures, no Doctors with the resources to even attempt to formulate one, and too many assholes rolling around rolling over weaker groups just for kicks. Humanity is ignorantly, stubbornly, idiotically persisting for no other purpose than because it doesn’t know when to give up.
In a different setting, this would be seen as the great strength, the irresolute denial of defeat that would ultimately lead to everything, somehow, turning out all roses and cream. But here, in the “real” world of The Walking Dead, it’s all fucked up six ways from Sunday. And that’s never going to change. You can drag it out a while longer, maybe even a long while longer. But all anyone is achieving is to continue their own suffering. It’s a world that seems almost religious in its fervour for further punishment. An entire world flagellating itself for the joy of further suffering. And that’s really, really bloody deep.
And pretentious as all shit. But that’s why I love it.
Clocking in at about ninety minutes, without a single one of the animation bugs (though they’re still a bit stiff in places) of previous offerings, Above the Law is a solid entry into an increasingly eclectic catalogue of episodic, uhm, episodes. There’s a lot more symbolism to dig into, but there are two further episodes to come, so we have plenty of time left to dig into it.
Animation: Still a tiny bit stiff, but massively improved over previous games and lacking any of their depr moments.
Melissa Hutchison: Because she’s Melissa Hutchison.
Writing: As well as having strong, natural sounding dialogue, there’s a hell of lot of subtext to dig into.
Length: A little longer than the average for Telltale, but still a bit on the short side.
Trip: He’s trying, he’s really trying, to be a Kenny substitute, but he just can’t fill dem shoes.