Like many people who played Telltale’s episodic game, The Walking Dead, I had read and enjoyed many of the comics beforehand. I appreciated that they took the subject seriously. I don’t mean that in the sense of a John Romero film, where the zombies themselves are rather silly but serve to illustrate serious social questions. Rather, like World War Z, The Walking Dead decides on a set of rules about zombies and a premise about people, and unflinchingly follows those principles into the abyss. At least, The Walking Dead did this for a while, but eventually it reached an inflection point (the arrival of Michonne, if you’d like to know) where it transformed into a kind of bizarro Star Trek, where the zombie apocalypse became an excuse for examining various kinds of deeply screwed-up social reconstruction as experienced through the voyages of a group of bereaved, PTSD-suffering murderers.
Having read that, you should not be surprised to learn that my least favorite episode of The Walking Dead game is the second one, “Starved for Help”. The story of a family farm that has descended into cannibalistic madness in response to the zombie apocalypse seems to embody the worst characteristics of the comics’ storytelling. It’s a campy, stupid concept – and one that’s a bit too on-the-nose about equating humans and zombies – jammed into a world that is built on taking its own premises completely seriously. Sharp writing that uses the characters well could have saved the situation, but “Starved for Help” doesn’t really have any of that.
“Starved for Help” starts off in trouble and never makes it out. In its first moments we are introduced to a new character, who exists to explain how Lee Everett’s group of survivors had food for the three months between the last episode and this one. This three month gap exists only to make the condition of the St. John farm remotely plausible (it still seems like too little time), and it sits uncomfortably against the fact that although Lee’s survivors have been hunting in the area for weeks, they have managed not to encounter the local bandits, a nearby camp full of band students (and lord knows how they survived this long), or a farm that is just a short walk away.
Aside from the new character, the three month gap is a null for Lee’s group of survivors – they are in roughly the same situation, and experiencing the same tensions, as at the end of the previous episode, as if they had spent the whole time in stasis. This episode does little to advance their story, either.
We are almost immediately introduced to three more characters, one of whom has his leg caught in a bear trap that can’t be opened. Through Lee, the player has to decide whether to cut David’s leg off, but without knowing this person the choice seems dry and weightless. Either way, two of these three newcomers die within moments, leaving the group with Ben, who will not develop a personality until the fourth episode.
During this time Lee is also asked to distribute the group’s rations for the evening. With four paltry bits of food (half an apple, two cheese-and-cracker packs, and a strip of jerky) to give out to ten people, tough choices follow. The challenge of distributing the rations is one of the few moments where the episode really works. Giving food to Clementine and Duck feels like an easy call, but after that the decision feels tough and weighty, even though it has little effect on the events that follow.
Soon enough, Andy and Danny St. John show up to take this episode off its rails completely. They want gas for a generator powering their electric fence, and though there is no real reason to suspect that the motel crew has much to trade, the St. John boys are willing to offer food in exchange for whatever fuel they can get. Eventually, through a series of bad decisions, almost everyone ends up at the farm.
The whole series of events at the farm is convoluted and makes little sense. Doubtless the St. Johns weren’t initially planning on cooking one of their guests for dinner to serve to the others — they could not have known that bandits would attack while Mark and Lee were out patrolling the fence. That the patrol ends with an open gate facing both bandits and walkers is curiously not mentioned, even though this would seem to be a pressing problem. Instead Mark goes upstairs for treatment while Lee and Danny go out for a bizarre confrontation with a woman named Jolene, who seems like a hook for a storyline that never happens. Again, a death occurs without any real context for the character. On returning, Kenny insists that Lee break into a room at the back of the barn. This turns into an extended quest that leads nowhere, as the room contains nothing incriminating and nobody seems to care that Lee broke into it.
Only after returning to the house can Lee discover that the St. Johns have cut off Mark’s legs to feed to the motel crew. Now, this is an incredibly stupid risk for them to take, especially since they presumably have some other human flesh on hand. Fortunately, even the paranoid members of Lee’s group don’t insist on talking to Mark, despite his suddenly being bedridden just from suffering a flesh wound. Additionally, it’s evident that the St. Johns didn’t even bother to use their abattoir in the barn, which would bring up the question of how they managed to dismember Mark without alerting everyone as to what’s going on or his screaming bloody murder. Moreover, and absurdly, it seems that they actually patched up his shoulder wound!
After going sideways for half the episode, things start to tighten up in the climax. A scene in the meatlocker that culminates in Larry’s death plays at least a little bit on the adversarial nature of his relationship with Lee, and the characters’ reactions in the following events play out from that moment in a natural way. Even this success is marred by a thunderstorm that lasts precisely long enough to cover the climax, the all-too-convenient loss of the electric fence, and the sudden appearance of a zombie horde that is for some reason completely uninterested in our protagonists and allows them to walk off into the forest unmolested.
This leaves us more or less where we started. This episode introduces eight new characters, twice as many as any subsequent episode, but seven of them die, leaving only the colorless Ben. The group even has the same lingering problem, since nobody thought to grab any food out of the farmhouse. Then the group finds a station wagon running in the middle of the forest with its lights on that has not attracted any walkers because it is a deus ex machina. Surprise! It is full of food, because a loud, unguarded, unlocked vehicle that’s lit up like a big zombie beacon is exactly where you should leave your precious supplies in a zombie apocalypse.
Ultimately, Lee’s group ends up almost exactly where they were at the end of the previous episode: fortified in the motel with enough food to last for a little while. This stasis, combined with the effervescence of the new characters, makes the episode feel out of place in the game. The rest of The Walking Dead plays out as a journey with a destination, but “Starved for Help” seems like a detour. Detours can be fun, of course, but the cannibal story in “Starved for Help” doesn’t take us to an interesting place. Worse, it forces the characters to be incredibly, pointlessly stupid on the way. There are isolated moments where it works, but “Starved for Help” is easily the weakest episode of The Walking Dead.