The first chapter of Walking Dead: Season 2 ('All That Remains') contained a fundamental problem: since you were now playing as Clem, the high stakes anxiety of looking after a vulnerable child was gone. In fact, Clem was now effectively indestructible, or at least infinitely resurrectable, until the final seconds of chapter five.
The second chapter, 'A House Divided', didn't fix this problem, but it made it irrelevant by introducing a new and under-explored dilemma: whether to cling to childhood or embrace the challenges of being a grown-up.
It wasn't quite the nerve-jangling ordeal of being an adult trying to keep a child alive during a zombie apocalypse, but it was powerful and resonant in a different way.
While chapter three, 'In Harm's Way', deals with much of the same material, the dilemma is effectively resolved. Clem is a grown-up now, whether you like it or not, and this leads the story back into disappointingly shallow waters.
Black and blue is the new black
At the end of the last chapter Clem and her cohort of survivors were captured by the mysterious Carver – voiced by Michael Madsen - after a bloody confrontation at the lodge where they were sheltering. This chapter chronicles their incarceration at a militaristic fortress community run by Carver in a former strip mall.
Here Clem is faced by many of the choices she has already had to make – most notably, how far to indulge the cosseted Sarah's pathetic naivety, and which of the factions within her own traumatised and shrinking cohort she feels the greatest loyalty towards (the comfortingly familiar or the unnervingly new).
But now that everybody is incarcerated together the division between the groups isn't quite as stark as it was in chapter two, and a handful of entirely new characters blur the lines further, depriving Clem of an obvious pair of arms to run into even if she wanted to. Everybody is in it together, and Clem is just another prisoner.
Except she isn't. In the previous chapter there was a cleverly wrought impression that Clem was on the outside, still being held at arms' length because she was too young to be taken seriously.
Now, suddenly, she's the centre of everything, carrying out dangerous manoeuvres on behalf of her fellow prisoners (only the ones who don't know her try to object) and even being drawn into the confidence of her captors.
Prisoner cell block Z
In case the events of the previous chapter had failed to leave an impression, Carver establishes his credentials as a lunatic despot to be feared early on in this one by backhanding Clem in the face and then forcing Carlos to do the same to his daughter Sarah in a scene that will be familiar to anybody who has seen or read 12 Years A Slave.
So when he summons Clem up to his office and tries to flatter her into joining sides with him the threat is palpable, and while it's not very tempting to entertain his Darwinian rationalisations the prospect of openly confronting him is equally unappealing.
And, well, when it comes to Sarah he does seem to have a point. She represents the last vestige of childhood in the story, and crushing that wide-eyed innocence becomes an increasingly inevitable rite of passage for Clem. I was left wondering at the end of chapter three whether if I had been less indulgent earlier I might have averted the significant death that comes just before the credits.
Many of Clem's choices involve either keeping her head down or making a fuss – two extremes personified by the snivelling (and, significantly, one-armed) Reggie and the irrepressible Kenny.
Faced with this dichotomy I often found myself choosing not to say anything at all, identifying me with the majority of my fellow inmates, who understandably kept their heads down, like prisoners in a concentration camp.
In a mark of the quality of the game's writing, it's even possible to sympathise with the rifle-wielding guards. At one point you overhear two of them fretting about the approaching zombie herd and it becomes clear that they're just another couple of scared survivors.
Bonnie, the gaunt and hapless addict introduced in 400 Days, epitomises the fluidity of the distinction between inmate and guard.
Clem the warrior princess
The paralysing effect of threatened violence is the phenomenon being explored in 'In Harm's Way', but it doesn't entirely work because you know that Clem can't really suffer, and at this stage in the saga you're frankly so inured to loss that no one's character's death would be especially traumatic – even Kenny's, whom Carver takes to the very edge of oblivion.
In the end, while conversational exchanges can be tense and the basic dilemma of the story stays mostly intact, it's not difficult to be brave when it really matters, taking responsibility for infractions so that Clem (by definition invincible) takes the heat rather than another character (who might actually die.)
Likewise, when offered the choice to leave the room when Carver receives his dues or stay and watch there really isn't much of a choice to make – no little girl to keep sheltered. The post-game statistics showed that most people felt the same as me: bring it on.
Like Arya Stark from the Game of Thrones saga, Clem, having been vulnerable for a whole season and in an uncertain state for two chapters, is finally becoming a traditional protagonist, largely at the centre of events and in command of her own destiny.
But the result in this case is a story that has partially forfeited its most intriguing dimension. 'In Harm's Way' doesn't have the interpersonal and emotional weight of many previous chapters, and while the dilemmas that it explores are far more sophisticated than you're likely to find in most mainstream games, we're also veering now into traditional territory.
There's some clever writing and direction in 'In Harm's Way', and you're unlikely to play another mainstream game quite like it this year, but this isn't a vintage episode. Thankfully, experience tells us that there's no reason why the next one won't be better.(Screenshots taken from PC version).
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