Telltale's take on The Walking Dead was always good in spite of its zombies, not because of them. Early in its first season we're given a none-too-subtle parable about how man is the real monster, a shrug-worthy observation that gets repeated umpteen times throughout the ongoing franchise. The titular walkers stopped being interesting ages ago: their purpose laid bare as a malleable plot device that could force our would be heroes into various uncompromising situations. With the gears of such a lazy, clichéd threat so readily transparent, it's a testament to Telltale that the developer manages to keep its human drama captivating among its resilient, war-torn leads.
This third season, subtitled A New Frontier, highlights the series' greatest assets and worst tendencies all in its opening scene. Offering a prologue to the undead plague, we watch new playable protagonist Javier squabble with his brother following the very recent passing of their father. Javier wasn't there there when it happened, and the tension of this mourning family drama is more intriguing than a thousand reanimated corpses shuffling through woods.
That's what makes it so dispiriting when (shocker!) their dad isn't dead after all. Sort of. Suddenly the end of times are upon us as decrepit clichés roam the earth. Rather than a rousing horror scene, this ludicrous sequence is an eye-rolling affair as the grieving family is forced into a situation we've seen countless times before. It's no stretch to say that the worst thing about The Walking Dead is the walking dead themselves.
And yet, Telltale's talent for crafting believably complex characters grounds us in this wellworn territory far better than it has any right to. As with seasons one and two, the ace up its sleeve is series stalwart Clementine. We've watched her grow from an innocent child into a resilient pre-teen and now she reappears as a severely damaged high school aged youth who's accepted the scavenger's life as a matter of being. I won't go into spoilers, suffice to say that the last few years have not been kind to Clementine, and watching her mental state deteriorate has been more grueling than any number of zombie sieges or bit-part cast members getting slaughtered.
It's a bleak world, as one expects from the genre, but not one devoid of warmth. Telltale frequently skirts the line of fetishising its misery as the earth's habitat grows increasingly hostile, but the writers wisely let moments of levity and humour shine through. Characters crack jokes, latch onto whimsical creature comforts, and make strides to forge bonds in a world where emotional attachment is a liability. The Walking Dead is never lighthearted, but it finds a level of acceptance in its nihilism. For much of its cast, the worst has already happened, but they're still here. So what now?
That's where The Walking Dead hits its stride. It's not about surviving the zombies; it's about living with loss. The fight to go on when everything you loved has been taken from you. It's not the endless onslaught of undead hoards chomping down on our scampering survivors that resonates most strongly, but rather the quiet moments of reflection where the series feels unlike anything else out there today (aside from The Last of Us anyway, which is good company to be in).
While the walkers themselves have become more of a nuisance than a compelling conflict, the various human oppositions remain a more interesting source of suspense. One of my favourite moments in A New Frontier involved negotiating a hostage crisis whereupon I had to choose between opening fire, continuing to talk, or offering to go outside my protective perimeter to speak with my oppressors in close proximity. As with all Telltale's recent games, silence is also an option for those feeling angsty or flustered. Indecisive and afraid, I stalled in hopes that someone else would shoot first, so if it all went pear-shaped I wouldn't be to blame. The threat of violence is old hat, but the threat of shame offers a more devious repercussion.
It's tense stuff as you never know where anyone's allegiance lies. Some supposed villains are good-hearted folks bearing the weight of rational suspicion. Others are just desperate. And some, well, some have allowed their rage to boil over into blind bloodlust. As with the excellent punks versus nazis suspense film Green Room, the scariest horror is that which comes from fellow humans that can't be reasoned with.
As much as I enjoyed the first two seasons of The Walking Dead, a two-plus year wait and a limp spinoff mini-series left me weary of where Telltale could take this series, but A New Frontier finds its footing with its latest makeshift family of vagabonds. It's well paced, acted and written, with plenty of unexpected twists as we catch up with Clementine. This third season premiere of The Walking Dead doesn't do anything drastically different, yet it continues to wring fresh drama out of its trite premise. Now if only it had the freedom to shuffle the zombies even further to the sidelines. That would truly be a new frontier.