What We Deserve:
As Telltale’s first stab at a shortform version of their wildly successful adventure games, is the third and final episode of Michonne what we deserve?
Michonne is, front and center, a story about mental illness. It’s a brave subject to tackle, especially in the medium of videogames that often finds its emotional impact lacking and true player empathy hard to achieve, but Telltale have made a valiant effort to explore such subjects in this three episode miniseries.
Telltale’s attempts to explore Michonne’s demons are occasionally well executed and appropriately hard hitting, but these flashes are aggressively omnipresent. During every scene – whether you’re checking on your friends, in the middle of a fight or making tough calls, Michonne’s PTSD manifests itself visually and, more often than not, for a cheap scare.
It occasionally comes off as crass and always feels intrusive – the latter arguably how a mental illness should feel – but it wore on me throughout and not in a good or interesting way. The well of traumatic visions was truly dried up by the time I reached What We Deserve’s final moments (which came far sooner than expected: the episode lasts less than an hour).
It’s in the episode’s choices that Telltale stumble most with this awkward representation. By its very nature mental illness is impossibly hard to truly empathise with by a sane minded player. Asking us to choose whether Michonne talks to ghosts or ignores them, or – more criminally – puts living people’s lives in jeopardy for the sake of what we know are only visions, these are redundant choices to ask us to make. We can never truly inhabit Michonne and understand her irrational thought process or the pull of her long-gone past; this isn’t a failing on the team’s ability to write a convincing portrayal of mental illness, or a lack of empathy on the player’s part. It’s a limitation of an interactive medium, but one the developers should have understood before attempting to tackle it. It leads to a lot of frustrating moments as a player, as I felt I was failing to portray my protagonist accurately through my actions as a sane person.
I’m not sure these issues can be ‘ironed out’ in future instalments. In Telltale’s Walking Dead series, PTSD and its ilk have a very real and permanent place in the world: you expect the people you run into to be damaged individuals. Telltale have always portrayed fascinating characters and explored mental illness from afar with characters such as the incredibly written Kenny during his extended character arc across previous seasons of the game. It’s only when the game asks us to ‘act crazy’ that it fails to understand a vital part of the sickness they’re trying to represent.
Elsewhere the title plays exactly how you’d expect it to. Its short runtime is fairly full of things to do, and there’s a satisfying end for those with the stomach to seek it out. As a finale it’s tied up neatly enough, arguably overly so. Having to set up Michonne’s return to the television show explains this necessary evil, however, and for once it’s nice for a Telltale game to have a lick of hope or happiness to go out on.
I’ve talked about how slick Michonne feels, and how happy I am that Telltale have managed to stabilize their engine for a smoother ride. What I haven’t mentioned however is just how graphic these three parts get. The violence in Michonne – especially in this latest and last part – is particularly gruesome. It’s a conflicting focus. I grew up watching slasher films so I’m always pleased to see inventive and unique uses of gore and body horror, which Telltale are getting better and better at, but the hipster film critic inside of me thinks that sometimes less is more, and that too much claret can spoil otherwise powerful storytelling.
In a world such as The Walking Dead, however, I think its fine to lean into the B-Movie gore, and Telltale deftly handle a respectful balance. I’m thrilled to report we finally see someone’s intestines get pulled out of their stomach – truly a zombie movie visual staple that we’ve been waiting for far too long.
Elsewhere the episode has some great action scenes, excellent character models and animation and a really killer score. The music is underplayed but very effective here, and it was some of the sound team’s most impactful work in the series.
Michonne feels fitting as a three part miniseries. To me it was a narrative experiment that was, ultimately, a bit of a swing and a miss, but I’m really glad Telltale swung regardless. Their first-person representation of mental illness is awkward and difficult, but that’s not entirely a failure. It’s too difficult to try and act damaged, but the fact that these episodes left me frustrated is an accidental success, and they represent the first Telltale episodes I want to revisit and experience how the other half lived.
The story and characters underpinning this strange odyssey are well worth getting to know, however, and Michonne’s super slick action and viscera-smeared serving of gore are horribly satisfying throughout. Telltale fans should definitely check it out.