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For Telltale: a compendium of cross, constructive criticisms on this season's protagonist

posted by Conviva Ebrius on - last edited - Viewed by 3.8K users

(NB Due to the character limit, the criticisms in question can be found below in the first posted reply to this thread. They are a collection in one place of replies that have been posted in other threads, so before anyone should think me mad, I am certainly not expecting people to trudge through that swamp of text and read everything; you might glean some points here and there if you browse; you might find something interesting in the original threads these came from; you could carry on with and bring over the same discussions from parallel threads that are discussing these same topics; but the bulk of material posted following this introduction cannot be taken in all at once and is certainly not something meant for the sake of casual reading. If you want a summary of where I'm coming from, I recommend following the link in this introduction. It summarises things much better than I could.)

This has to count as the lengthiest opening post here in the forums' history, and no less the case with the individual critiques that come after it. Seeing that one of the main purposes of the forums is to provide the Telltale staff with feedback from players, then the dreary, tedious thoroughness provided in those critiques should more than satisfy that purpose. When you consider my place as somebody from the earliest wave of Telltale gamers, the old guard that is the minority, Gen-X, adventure-gamer demographic that has followed them from their start, it's not surprising that back at the time, a 'zombie game' had been the last thing I was expecting this company to try its hand at and the last sort of game I had any craving for or wish to play (the genre had never appealed to me and I wasn't from amongst the TWD franchise's fanbase), but something I nonetheless took a gamble on, having followed the company as far as I had. Despite the words 'distaste' and 'sheer apathy' being appropriate ones to describe my attitudes towards zombie universes, tropes, and themes, the game went far beyond my expectations to becoming my favourite from Telltale's game catalogue, and the same can be said of many others who have played it. Not a small feat, which explains why some players would value this game franchise enough to start viewing its progression with a protective eye. I had high expectations for the second season and although already had found certain flaws at the start of the prologue, had still allowed that prologue to lead me on with a general sense of optimism. What followed after that prologue up until now had been entirely unexpected and disappointing. The way things seem to stand now, I have little hope I'll find myself able to derive some sense of enjoyment or gratification playing this second-season game, owing to some very fundamental problems that relate to the protagonist in her character and story, flaws so distinctly, strongly, plainly and palpably felt and significant enough to have me willing to flesh them out here at considerable length.

The issues have been discussed haphazardly in several threads and likely with little chance for too much depth, given how multiple threads on the same rehashed opinions have a habit of sinking quickly so it wouldn't be bad to see made of this thread a primary hub for other naysayers to express their ideas with more clarity and a place where other forum members can discuss points of contention relating to the way Clementine's personality, story arc, and role vis a vis protagonist vs NPC have been treated as well as points relating to the strongly related topic of player motivation and drive in the game.

I leave the tsunami to follow as food for thought for everyone, but most importantly, I'm putting up this thread as one meant primarily for the eyes of Telltale staff who might find a critical view useful, if sometimes hyperbolically scathing in its venting. I should add that despite my long membership history, I have posted little and rarely participated on the forums--I don't draw much enjoyment out of forum banter or spending the time drawn into a whirlpool of endless memes and gif posts--and I would not normally be taking the time to write so much (I expect I'll be giving the forums a rest after this post) were I not sincere in my attachment to the game and its two primary characters and seriously miffed with the direction this second season has irreversibly taken (no, a third season in the form of a prequel will not mend this). I'll even add a small nugget of personal information to explain why I have enjoyed this game so much: I hail from a Syrian background, and here in this part of the world in the course of the many decades that have passed, we've grown up accustomed to the sight of suffering and dead and murdered children from an early age, whether through the news or having witnessed it in person. A story of a young suffering innocent convincingly portrayed thrown into an unforgiving world and forced to adapt resonates very cathartically with us and in a region like this. Unfortunately, those who do play games over here in the Middle East are normally too busy salivating over some FPS sniper game on their consoles than catching wind of titles like this.

Before anything from my end, I'd like to draw some serious attention to the posts of a fellow forum member, Maxwell Horse, who was at the time this season's first episode was released actively discussing points here regarding the topics mentioned and whom I found to be an outspoken and articulate fellow who could make his points more clearly and succinctly than I in my convoluted fashion, or most others on these topics. He's been inactive since December, which is unfortunate, because I've very much wanted to hear his views in regards to the second episode. Fortunately, though, that means his profile page still shows his comments from back in December under his latest 25 posts. The man's insightful writing cuts straight to the point and is ultimately easier on the eyes.

http://www.telltalegames.com/profile/1450869/maxwell-horse

What follows from this point on is a collection of my own posts, that like too many others coping with this forum design, have sunk and got buried underneath endless layers of endlessly branching lines of discussion. Except for the first, each begins with a link to each post's original place if context is needed. The context for the first post is that it was intended as a response to the increasingly ubiquitous idea in the forums that Clementine in the first Season was something of a proto-Sarah. It eventually grew into a monster of a general critique. It is also a bit more rhetorical, hyperbolic, and spleen-venting than the others--I had to indulge the need to let off some steam. What comes after it has far less of that tone.

If you'll need someone standing by with a toilet plunger to fish you out in case you sink past this point, you should probably go call for him now.

53 Comments
  • Your argument and this entire thread would gold more validity (or at least be worthwhile and grab the attention of the reader) if you would shorten it. You can make completely understandable, bullet proof arguments without all the debris. Just a little tip.

  • I have never TL;DR something on these forums before. But there's a first time for everything. However, since you thought that Maxwell's posts captured at least some of your points, I'll respond to his post here and let's see if we can't get a dialogue going. (Please do try to be somewhat concise in your replies.)

    Season one did not hinge on the completely binary issue of whether Lee lived or died; the eggs weren't all in that basket. Unlike season one, however, season two does seem to be set up in that binary way.

    Clementine's survival is a key issue of this season, there's no doubt about that. But the season does not hinge on this and I would argue that it's not even the primary source of tension. The Walking Dead is known for exploring the conflict between two motivations: survival and humanity. Clem's survival may be guaranteed for the time being but that's no guarantee that her humanity will remain intact when this is all over.

    Clem has become much more grim and stoic over the time skip. She's lost almost all of the optimism she had when she was younger. She's willing to do and say things that would have never even occurred to her before. Now the only person she has left in the world is missing and a manipulative villain seems to be trying to take her under his wing. What's foreboding about these thing isn't that they're suggestive of a threat to Clem's survival, but that they're suggestive of a threat to her humanity. Because despite her stoicism, she still cares about people. Despite her pessimism, she still keeps on trying. And despite what she has to do to survive, she still has a sense of what's right and wrong.

    ...For now. That "good spirit" that she had before is still there. But it's weak and you get the sense that even the slightest disturbance could extinguish it forever. That's the tension I feel when I play Season 2. Not "Will Clem survive this?" but rather "What will surviving this do to her?" And I'm not alone. Look at the amount of people freaking out in this thread because they think the Clem rubbing blood on her face is a sign of her character taking a dark turn. Look at the posts in this thread absolutely dreading what might become of Clem at the end of the season. For these people, as well as for me, Clem's survival is far from the only thing that matters.

    • Well said. Also, what is TL:DR?

    • Most of what I've written directly addresses the matter of character development, and given that Clementine's protagonist role shields her from direct harm, whilst ironically exposing her to it even more until enough death scenes and pats on the back from Luke will have whittled away at whatever of that concern for her safety is left in us, I've stressed that the most crucial driving force for playing that the game has to keep alive within us is fear for her emotional and mental state, meaning that you and I agree. That in turn forces even greater demands on the writers to put solid work into her character (and her relationships to other characters) and emotional drives such that I can relate to her.

      My contention is that the game fails in its execution of that, for many reasons. For one, the ability to relate to her or to an evolution of her character arc carries with it a strong dependency on referential context and continuity with the past, especially considering that that past has a long line of variables in Lee and intermediate events that have the potential to shape her in many different ways. As Maxwell says, the issue seems set up in a binary way vis a vis survival because the time skip has rendered her character arc seemingly complete. It's just a matter of whether inevitable plot events lead her to snap, with both her actions and her thinking during the course leading up to that being dictated to her by our direct intervention, not as responsive reactions, but as applications of whatever we have decided to craft of her as our avatar.

      There is no genuine evolution. There is no introspective journey or inner conflict of the calibre and subtlety required (or interesting characters with strong motives, depth, caring, intelligence, or consistency as Maxwell sees it) to engage the audience with the theme of her character growth, especially since we are ultimately playing what amounts to a clunky Clem simulation (one rife with inconsistencies) where we not only project a personality of our own choosing but also directly define her mindset for her. These things ought to be dependent variables to which we as players respond emotionally and regard with anticipation and suspense, trying to influence them as in the last season, not independent ones that we artificially replicate as we choose. How can one hold a sense of concern for something that he to a good degree directly controls?

      All I'm left with is the inevitable main plot direction that takes me to whether she finally snaps, something over which I've no influence (and if full control, what's the point?). I am not interested in just seeing whether she ultimately loses it. I am interested in walking up the road leading to such a point, a path rife with engaging, convincing inner struggles and challenges to my attempts at influencing her character. I am not interested in the boredom of simply watching season events run their course with Clementine whilst I artificially fill in the blanks in her mind and act fully on her behalf, further diluting her individuality.

      By the way, there is more to what Maxwell is saying on the concern for her survival. You might be equipped with the knowledge that she will survive the course of the season, but that doesn't mean the game still cannot excite your fear when she is in peril, particularly through the emotions of other characters, and I gave an example of that in the prologue scene, where both the convincing display of dread and grief by Clementine and Omid's look of horror projecting his fear for her onto us gave that situation tension and gravity, whereas much of what followed after that generally left me with little more than a 'ho hum, are we at round 4 now?'.

      But in getting back to the matter of her sanity and her humanity, as well as her desensitised state, do indulge me and let me insist if you should have the time and patience just to read the third critique. It's not incoherent and rambling as you might think and it tells exactly using concrete examples what sort of character-arc progression and dynamics of character growth I felt the game could have capitalised on, especially in carrying over from the first season.

      • As Maxwell says, the issue seems set up in a binary way vis a vis survival because the time skip has rendered her character arc seemingly complete.

        How has the time skip rendered her character arc complete? It seems to me like she's still continuing on the same trajectory she was headed in at the end of Season 1. I mean yeah, she's certainly more capable now, but it's not like she’s a fully matured adult, ready to take on anything and everything the apocalypse throws at her. She still has plenty of growing left to do.

        It's just a matter of whether inevitable plot events lead her to snap, with both her actions and her thinking during the course leading up to that being dictated to her by our direct intervention, not as responsive reactions, but as applications of whatever we have decided to craft of her as our avatar.

        Why is it so crucial that her thoughts and actions leading up to a mental breakdown fall outside of our intervention? To me, it would be far more tragic and meaningful if despite everything we do, despite how we prepare her, despite what values and attitudes we try to instill in her, something eventually comes along that breaks her.

        How can one hold a sense of concern for something that one to a good degree directly controls?

        We can control (to some extent) how Clem deals with her circumstance but we have no agency over which circumstances she's forced to deal with. And eventually, she might be forced to deal with a situation that causes her to just shut down. That's where the concern lies. It’s the same kind of concern as in Season 1. As Lee, we had control over how we reacted to threats to Clementine's safety and, for the first couple episodes, we were able to neutralize every threat that came her way. But there was always the creeping fear in the back of our minds that there might eventually come a threat that we will be powerless to protect her against. Giving us control over something only makes it that much more harrowing when that sense of control is snatched away.

        I gave an example of that in the prologue scene, where both the convincing display of dread and grief by Clementine and Omid's look of horror projecting our fear gave that situation tension and gravity, whereas much of what followed after that generally left me with little more than a 'ho hum, are we at round 4 now?'.

        Well, I suppose that's just matter of subjectivity. Personally, I thought that some of the scenes in a House Divided were among the best in the series. For instance, when talking to Walter about the knife, Clem's apprehension juxtaposed with the eerie calm in Walter's voice produced feelings of actual stress and guilt in me. Moreso than when I helped kill Larry.

        But in getting back to the matter of her sanity and her humanity, as well as her desensitised state, do indulge me and let me insist if you should have the time and patience just to read the third critique.

        Do you mean the art that starts with "Your point there is fundamentally crucial" and ends with "or anything in between those two extremes?" or do you mean the entire third comment?

        • Yes, it's the section you mentioned, not the full third post.

          The same trajectory? That's much the point in what's written there. I argue that she hasn't exited the first game on the same trajectory with every player because her lessons and experiences have been unique in every playthrough, presenting different possibilites as to how she might next evolve and into what. Also, the loss of her surrogate father marks a critical point of transition for her where the time and set of experiences immediately following will test her considerably for the first time and have her develop and relatively solidify her views and personality and advance her arc to a noticeable degree until it plateaus by the time she's 11, which is where we've now taken up her story once more. I simply do not recognise who the girl is anymore save in the way I define her for myself.

          Because the circumstances and possible results of change are many, and because those changes are expected to accelerate after she loses Lee, that intermediate stage is a crucial, shaping one that leaves me unable to start off or identify where we are now as if she has just emerged from a logical, pre-set path from Season I. The game tries to accommodate by having you plug in for yourself the character you think she has become, with the game unable to have Clementine explain this in the context of a past of which we barely know (or in the context of Lee's influence), and the result to me is rather abruptly forced and unengaging.

          Why is it crucial her thoughts and actions (those that convey a certain conviction at any rate) should be independent of our direct dictation? Simply because it shatters her individuality and renders her evolution frustratingly artificial and unsatisfying. Riadon I think said it best in a few sentences:

          http://www.telltalegames.com/community/discussion/comment/1032641#Comment_1032641

          I'll add to those reasons and say that despite his death, I still see my role in this game as that of Lee, and not Clementine's. In fact, my motivation of concern for Clementine largely exists because Lee vicariously bound me to his own motives. (Notice, incidentally, how even my relatively blank-slate protagonist Lee whom I approached with the full intention of making my avatar was able to draw me in to his own goals, cares, and purpose, whereas Clem, a protagonist in whom I was hoping to realise a strong, cohesive NPC component as I played her, cannot even do what that fully protagonist Lee could; I have to define her emotional drives for her, such as any interest to locate Christa.)

          My motive for following through with Clementine's story is that I see her story as in fact still being Lee's, which has a post-mortem continuation of its own that will reach its conclusion once his pedagogical role is either vindicated or condemned in the course of Clementine's story. After all, when she reminisces about him, I am meant to feel she is talking about me. I wish to see the role my mark on her plays in how she independently acts and thinks and copes as well as how she comes to respond to and ultimately regard what I have taught her, and that goes beyond seeing her able to shoot a gun. Clementine may be the protagonist, but I would like to approach her as I play not as somebody with whom I mind-meld, but as somebody to whom as a player I can still react and towards whom I can direct my feelings as if she were her own person. If that is even possible in the context of her being assigned a protagonist role is an issue of discussion on its own, and a difficult one pertaining to game design and mechanics as well as writing I would think.

          That being said, I agree with your point about the fear of losing control and the tension it presents. The control I've in mind however is not direct control. It is the exertion of influence, what we exercised in Season I in respect to Clementine's mind, and influence is a two-party affair where the person I work to influence reacts accordingly, with her reaction in turn being a source of anticipation and suspense for me. Direct control wrests me of the independent object of my focus and implies reacting to one's own behaviour and can at best have me indulge in a forced satisfaction akin to one engaging his own fan fiction. That's the issue for me, but I'm with you that having my influence ultimately fail could prove to be quite satisfyingly tragic and cathartic. Aside from Lee's imprint, I would like to exercise an influence, no doubt, even manipulate the course of events to have her tested in various ways, but the right mechanics for that are tricky to figure out if the aim is both to preserve Clementine's individuality and grant us agency in the game. It's a tricky son of a bitch, that one, I'll grant you.

          • Okay, I think I get what you mean. The game is trying to get you to fill in the blanks of Clem's recent past yourself based on what your Lee has taught her and what you imagine her going through. But having to craft even a rough outline of a 16-month period of character development puts a lot of demand on the player, especially since that crafting has to be done while the game progresses. The approach doesn't work for everyone and the result can be fairly jarring.

            However, there was a similar sort of thing going on with Lee, wasn't there? The game gave you a basic description of his character as a starting point but left much of his recent past ambiguous, including the motives and details behind the crime he committed. To turn him from a foreign entity into a coherent character with whom you could identify, you had to fill in different aspects of his history and personality as you went along.

            The difference here, I suppose, is that for the Season 1 protagonist to "work," players had to define Lee in such a way as to be able to identify with or at least empathize with him. In Season 2, players had to do this while also bridging the gap between Clementine's S1 and S2 personalities. This requires a lot more finesse from both the game and the player and it may simply take more time for things to click into place this time around.

            You say that Clem’s evolution is "artificial" and I would agree in the sense that it is something that we as players build for ourselves. But to me, the change from S1 Clem to S2 Clem doesn't feel forced or feel as though it were completely manufactured from nothing. So far, I think the game has done a fairly good job of providing us with choices that reflect a natural progression from different versions S1 Clementine to different versions of S2 Clementine. For every exchange I've encountered so far, I could point to at least one of the options and say "That's what my Clem would have done/said." That's enough for me.

            All of this isn't to say that I don't have my own gripes and concerns about Clementine's progression as the protagonist, of course. The game's primary shortcoming, I think, is in Clem's lack of a clearly defined, long-term external goal, something you alluded to in your post. With Lee, even if you couldn't identify with any other aspect of his personality, so long as you could could share in his drive to protect Clementine, you could empathize with him.

            The equivalent motivation for Clem this season, I think, is supposed to be a desire to find a group of people whom she can trust. But this is a fairly abstract goal compared to Lee's "I have to protect Clementine" because there isn't any particular person who seems essential to that goal. The game gives us the freedom to say "I need to find Christa" or "I'm sticking with Luke and the Cabin group" or "I want to stay with Kenny" but none of those people feel absolutely essential to Clem's goal the way that Clementine felt absolutely essential to Lee's goal. As a result, her character seems lost and unmotivated. While that may be an intentional design choice to reflect her psychology at the current time, it does cause the player to be less engaged in her story this season.

            • A good post, and I appreciate the effort in trying to summarise the positions of another.

              Jarring? Yes. How jarring I think depends on the level to which a player places value on continuity especially.

              There was a similar thing going on with Lee, yes, but Lee was a newly introduced character with no past we could relate to by way of our own direct experience as players, whereas Clem is a pre-established character newly re-introduced whose character traits, lessons, and story the player had acquainted himself with intimately well, and whose place the player would find himself trying to understand in reference to the line connecting to and leading up from that point of origin.

              In each case, my approach or stance towards ambiguous backstories would be coloured differently because I approach playing the two as protagonists entirely differently. Ambiguity in the first case attracts and has an allure to it. It is intriguing, but not so in the second case where it becomes a chore, a fracture in the flow of narrative and evolution to be repaired. Not just a chore, but an opportunity cost. I could be doing something else, exercising an agency of a different kind in the space it takes me to try to discover and assemble and input my character.

              I understand that other players have warmed up to the idea of seeing Clem as their avatar and that they are satisfied enough with being able themselves to project through dialogue how they believe Clem would have now become in the context of their playthroughs last season, and if they've made their peace with that, then I'm happy for them.

              The thing is even without the objections to plugging in a personality manually, I can't say like you 'that's how my Clem would ultimately behave, speak, or think' because, for one thing, Lee's influence and Clem's personality are separate--it's a two-dimensional affair. What I want her to be and what she is are distinct things. Initially, she might have a stronger chance at leaning towards the orientation I've impressed on her, but I do not see my Lee as having re-programmed Clementine's personality outright, such that in this game I can simply bring myself to choose behaviour and dialogue that comports to his ethics and outlook and christen the result Clem Version 2 (especially if we assume that my Lee taught her things utterly contrary to her original personality). That is far too one-dimensional for me.

              As she faces challenges and reflects further, she can ultimately regard or disregard, embrace or become disillusioned with those lessons, if you recall the concrete examples given in that third critique. There is a wealth of nuance to be explored in those. That is why I've stressed on distinguishing between influence and control. The first adds another layer and dimension to the dynamics involved in character building that I'd like to see. I cannot fully anticipate, and therefore recreate, the form in which she should emerge from a time gap of that magnitude that sets in very soon after Lee's death severs the umbilical cord.

              Yes to your last two paragraphs. Goals, motives, and relationship depth are general story issues that will concern all players irrespective of their different approaches to her as a player character, and the pace of plot events has given less time to devote to these, and I notice as well that it's even endowed the game with a certain cavalier attitude in how it will treat scenes of danger.

              I'll let it wind down here for now. I think it would be good for others to carry on their own exchange of ideas more often about these particular topics because they are worth the discussion. Domewing, a cordial, sincere 'thank you' for being an overall good sport, for offering the benefit of the doubt in starting a discussion and helping by way of that to have ideas put forward more clearly in more summary form. It has at least salvaged this thread somewhat rather than having it remain a piss-pot for blinkered twats on this forum (leaving out those who offered respectful criticisms).

            • By the way, Domewing, I've taken a look at your videos. 'Scream instead of holler': you should have placed Ben in there somewhere as that line played. :-)

              The opening notes to the second reminded me of Monkey Island on the spot.

              If you're interested, try these re-scorings of mine of last season's final scene. They have good emotional payoffs towards the end.

              http://www.telltalegames.com/community/discussion/comment/921516#Comment_921516

  • This is too complex for me to feel like reading it. Whatever point you're trying to make, remember to write it in sentences that don't take 2 damn hours to read.

  • I though you were writing a novel !

  • I'm so sorry but I would like to add to the whirlpool...

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  • Yeah, I liked having Clem be the protagonist as well…

    Cries in the corner because knows critique will never be good enough

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    CathalOHara Moderator

    Well it's taken some time, but I've read through all of it. Yes, all of it.

    And I'm not going to place a huge wall of text but I'll sum it up a few words. Don't take it such a big deal, it's only a video game. Don't think to yourself that the series can't work because simply you can't assume the role of Clem, I'm pretty sure you've seen it by now but many, many people disagree with you. And not simply because Clementine is such an adoring character, but because people actually enjoy playing as her. I'm more invested than ever before in the series thanks to taking over as her. And I can't wait to see where Telltale take her next.

    Only thing I'm afraid of, is if Telltale listens to people like you and change the protagonist. And no, I don't mean to sound rude by saying that, but it's blatantly obvious that the Telltale TWD was always intended to be Clementine's story. Even back in Season One when you were Lee. Changing the protagonist would just be silly now that we're 2 episodes in too.

  • Are you trying to do a filibuster on this forum?

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    Mate, that's heavy Stuff. How long have you sat on this? Normally i appreciate Users who can made up their Mind way off from the average Post's but this seems to be a giant personal Ranting about lack of Things. I'm sure you know that most of it leads to nowhere. That's how it is in the Internet. But hey maybe Telltale noticing some of it.

  • (Clayton takes a strong hit from the bong) I can't be the only mofo in here that didn't read this.
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