If you’ve watched The Walking Dead TV show, then you probably know Michonne as the almost-immortal bad-ass with the samurai sword who chops off zombie heads as if her sole purpose is helping the poor creatures depart this world. The Michonne of the TV show has consistently been the most independent and strongest of the survivors, despite a few moments when her traumatic past rises to the surface. Those few moments aside, Michonne’s character stands as the glue that often holds the group together, and her sheer will, determination, and head-chopping skills have turned her into possibly the greatest symbol of strength in the face of adversity. Having this Michonne in mind, I was immediately surprised by the way she’s portrayed in the first episode of Telltale’s three-part miniseries, The Walking Dead: Michonne (Free) (sorry, spoilers from here onwards).
You see, the writers decided to chart a different course with their version of Michonne and instead of building her up as an almost-indestructible force of destruction, they humanized her by drawing a thread from her current predicaments all the way back to her pre-zombie existence. At the end of that thread, they placed Michonne’s two daughters as anchors that hold the character grounded in what is otherwise a grim, zombie infested world that thwarts any sense of a stable self. By making the character first and foremost human, The Walking Dead: Michonne writers manage to give us a fresh take on a very well-known character. At the same time, they’ve succeeded in making the game scarier than previous TWD games by introducing an element of psychological horror, which is far creepier than the usual sight of half-rotting, animated corpses walking around a devastated landscape.
The opening scene of the first episode, In Too Deep, cleverly works on two narrative layers as the writers blend a scene from Michonne’s past with a scene from her current post-apocalyptic existence. The first zombie scene is preceded by Michonne imagining her two children in the forest and following them through an imaginary door that leads to her house. The dead children, who we see repeatedly throughout the episode, offer a spookiness to In Too Deep that was quite welcome. Once through the door, Michonne kills several zombies in a fight that takes place in between the worlds of now and then, of the reality and of the mind.
The whole scene is pretty complex, and I could probably spend a thousand words just talking about how the door to the house could be seen as the door to Michonne’s inner demons and regrets, but that would make this review way too long. What’s important to note, though, is that the opening scene shifts from Michonne haunted by the thought of the two people she can never forget to the series’ heroine putting a gun to her own head. This scene sets the stakes for the rest of the miniseries since we have a heroine teetering on the edge of sanity, haunted by her past actions (which I’m sure we’ll hear more about as the miniseries unfolds), and striving to find a reason to put one foot in front of the other and keep on living.
This brief fight scene also gave me the opportunity to see Telltale’s improvement in handling fight scenes, often one of the company’s greatest weakness. The quicktime events were better designed than in other, earlier series, and I didn’t have to suffer through too many unnecessary taps or swipes. I still have some issues with the way the camera angles will often restrict your view in weird ways during these quicktime events, but overall I found the slicing and dicing of zombies quite well made. I haven’t decided yet if these quicktime events are even necessary in Telltale games, but I suppose players would complain about a lack of interactivity if the developers decided to get rid of them completely.
The series starts in earnest once Pete, one of the crew of The Companion, gives Michonne a hand when she’s at her lowest and offers her a place among his crew and, in extension, a semblance of normalcy. Aboard The Companion, Michonne continues her fight for survival while still haunted by visions of her children both in her waking and sleeping hours. As is usually the case in stories unfolding in the zombie apocalypse of TWD universe, the need to either fix something or scavenge a location (or both) becomes the impetus for moments of crisis that put the heroes in jeopardy and, consequently, force them to make difficult, and often life and death, decisions. Unsurprisingly, then, Pete and Michonne set out to scavenge a boat only to find themselves first stranded and then right in the middle of a clash between one group of survivors – represented by two teenagers – and another consisting of ruthless adults who don’t hesitate when it comes to protecting what’s theirs.
While the game’s writers could have gone with a clear good guys/bad guys dichotomy, they drew in shades of grey, a move appropriate for TWD universe and also one that makes Michonne’s choices less self-evident. The episode initially presents the inhabitants of the floating colony of Monroe as cold-blooded killers, but then their leader, Norma, makes some pretty good points about survival in a post-zombie world, points that even Michonne has to agree with (as long as you pick to play her as a realist). Norma’s character is actually very intriguing, and I’m curious to see how she’ll evolve in the rest of the episodes (since I expect her to be your arch-enemy). I have to say the choice of having two strong female characters dominate the episode was a welcome change since TWD universe has a tendency to be ruled by overbearing male characters like Rick, the Governor, and many more.
Once you hit the Monroe colony, the situation deteriorates quite rapidly with choices coming Michonne’s way fast and furious. Most of the episode takes place in the tight quarters of the colony with Michonne mostly restrained and under immense pressure from Norma and her crew. Even though the Monroe part feels a bit short, mostly because of how the game forces you to constantly make decision upon decision, the way you decide to play Michonne and the choices you make can really change the feel of the episode. While many of the decisions I made in Monroe were obviously setting up conflicts for the rest of the season, my decisions still felt immediate enough to keep me invested and interested. The episode builds to a pretty promising cliffhanger, and I was left quite invested in Michonne’s fate, always a good sign when it comes to a narrative-heavy, character-driven game.
In Too Deep is a promising start to Telltale’s new series, and Michonne is definitely a character worth exploring, not that I had a doubt about that. Bringing in the psychological horror created by the character’s momentous personal losses adds an intriguing sense of horror to a universe usually filled only with the jump-scares of the dead or the depravity of the living. Children can be quite creepy (see The Shining), so the use of Michonne’s long-dead children definitely added some enjoyably-creepy moments. Even though most of the male characters are a bit one-dimensional, the complex female characters definitely give the episode the appropriate depth. So, Telltale has another hit on its hands, and as long as you have even the slightest interest in the character of Michonne, you should definitely be playing this miniseries.
When I reviewed the first episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Michonne miniseries, I was excited about primarily two aspects of it: the Michonne-Norma clash, which set up an interesting conflict between two strong female characters, and the undercurrent of psychological horror in the form of Michonne’s (probably) dead children. While Episode 2, Give No Shelter, is still an entertaining episode with some challenging moments and consequential choices, I feel that it missed the opportunity to further expand the two features I’ve mentioned at the start of this review.
While I understand the choice to remove (most probably temporarily) Norma from the picture, I feel that Give No Shelter squandered all the psychological tension build in In Too Deep. Still, if you enjoyed the first episode, this one should entertain you as well despite its brevity (it runs just over an hour), some silly decisions by its characters, and some gameplay issues that will get you killed repeatedly. And, of course, spoilers abound from now on, so be warned.
The theme of no shelter runs throughout the episode, with Michonne trying to find shelter and save herself both from the Monroe colonists chasing her and her inner demons, the guilt of losing her two daughters. And, as the title spoils very conveniently, there is no shelter for Michonne in a world where the only thing that seems to give someone a few more days of life is constantly moving, constantly evading, constantly fighting. As is the case with The Walking Dead TV show, there’s no such thing as a safe space in Michonne’s world, and that is something the players discover as the episode unfolds.
In a way, then, the episode is one long chase scene with only a brief respite about two thirds in, which works for and against the episode in quite a few ways. If you remember the ending of the first episode, Michonne found herself with Samantha and Greg, two teenagers, locked in a room in the Monroe colony while Pete was tied and being interrogated by the colony’s leader, Norma. Give No Shelter starts with Michonne and Samantha – Greg having left this cruel world – making their escape along with Pete and heading inland. And the chase begins, with the group trying to evade capture or death, while simultaneously fighting off walkers that threaten to swarm them at any second.
The chase, and by extension the episode, takes place wholly at night, giving the whole episode a much more dreary feel than the first one. Wading through a death-filled forest towards Samantha’s house – and the brief safety that shelters provide in the world of TWD – Michonne gets to fight against numerous quick-time events, and the occasional walker, too, which works to keep the journey fraught with tension and keep the player on the edge of her seat.
Yet, and this part of the episode included one of my biggest issues with Give No Shelter. I encountered many instances when the game fails to inform you that you’re no longer watching a quick-time event or cut-scene but, actually, once more controlling Michonne. What’s the result of that? Well, there’s a scene where Michonne is dragging Samantha along while trying to outpace a walker, but there’s no cue that the cut-scene has ended and I’m supposed to start tapping to make Michonne move. The result? Well, a death screen as I became some walker’s midnight snack. I also found many quick-time events problematic since the arrows you need to swipe across were too thin and the game often wouldn’t register my swipes. There was a scene I replayed four times until I got the game to register a single downward swipe, the previous three attempts ending in untimely and totally preventable deaths.
Despite the game actively fighting against my attempts to drag Michonne and the rest to the safety of Samantha’s home, we made it. Yet, and here start the silly character decisions, Paige, Samantha’s friend, keeps the whole group at gunpoint outside the gates of the house despite walkers closing in, resulting in an unnecessary tense scene where Michonne needs to squirm through the house’s gate with a walker literally trying to give her a hand (or more like an arm). While Paige’s decision could be – perhaps – excused given the shattered world she lives in, the way the scene played out was not very believable and felt outright silly. And that wasn’t even the silliest decision of the episode, as you’ll see in a bit.
Once within Samantha’s house, Michonne gets to play doctor in an appropriately-gruesome scene that isn’t for the squeamish but is perfectly in line with TWD universe. This short lull is the first moment where the episode offers an opportunity for the characters to breathe and relate to each other, which for me is the part that makes any TWD game or TV show worthwhile. I don’t care that much about fights with walkers because once you’ve seen a dozen, you’ve seen them all; instead, what I enjoy is characters trying to negotiate with society’s collapse and with how off the world feels given the lack of social or familial structures that normally hold everything in place. Therefore, I enjoyed this short moment in Give No Shelter where Michonne and the rest had a moment to stop running and start talking, or at least try to talk.
This was also the moment where the episode takes the player back to the beginning of the apocalypse, and of the first episode, by offering us another glimpse of the fate of Michonne’s two girls, a fate that has obviously been haunting the game’s protagonist throughout the series so far. While in the first episode that fate gave us some genuinely creepy moments – that I personally enjoyed since I like horror – in the second episode Telltale decided to play out this flashback moment like every other moment in the game. Instead of giving us those confusing, creepy scenes of the first episode, in this one we get to play as the Michonne from the past, exploring her house and trying to figure out what is happening as the world, and her family, fall to pieces (literally) in front of her eyes.
I really feel Telltale missed an opportunity in the flashback scene by going with a typical gameplay sequence rather than playing it out as a surreal, confusing scene born in the mind of someone deeply traumatized by it. If there was a scene that should have been confusing, chaotic, and creepy, this one was it. Instead, you get to walk around a ransacked house and look at clues as if you were a detached detective rather than a panicked, grieving mother. This decision sucked any sense of trauma and horror out of this memory to the detriment of the episode’s emotional connection with its players.
And speaking of no emotional connection, the death of Samantha’s dad from a bullet from Randall’s gun brought nothing but laughter because, well, Samantha’s dad acted like a complete idiot. Here we are in a yard protected by tall metal sheets, and this guy decides it’s a great idea to pull the gate wide open to throw out a zombie arm rather than simply toss it over the top. And then he proceeds to have a whole conversation with Michonne while standing in front of the open gate like a man waiting to get into a fancy club. And, of course, he instead gets a bullet to the head. When writers resort to have their characters do such silly things, you know that they were lacking ideas about how to push the plot forward.
At least the moments that follow his silly demise were more entertaining and with more gravity as Michonne and the others capture Randall and promptly proceed to torture him (if you so choose). While I’m not the torturing type, I was glad the game allowed me to torture Randall if I wanted to because more often than not games try to keep decisions as disturbing as this one out of the players’ hands. More agency is always good, especially since Michonne’s decision of whether to torture and/or kill Randall was at the core of Michonne’s character evolution.
Where are we left now? Well, I wasn’t as impressed with Give No Shelter as I was with In Too Deep partly because the writers removed most of the horror-related themes and replaced them with the usual walker jump-scares (and even those were on the limited side). Add to that how we didn’t get much character development and, instead, had characters do silly things (sillier than usual), and you can understand how the episode didn’t have the gravity and complexity of In Too Deep. And it wasn’t long either, clocking almost under the hour mark, which certainly didn’t help my impression that all I played was one long chase scene with no character evolution. Hopefully the third and final episode will get closer to the feel and ambience of the first one.
When I reviewed the second episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead: Michonne miniseries, I compared it to one long chase scene that left the characters too breathless to talk to each other much and, as a result, left us with an episode devoid of character development. What We Deserve is, fortunately, the destination of that long chase scene. Having the characters spent the whole episode within the confines of Sam’s family house and allowing all the action to take place in that tight space grounded the story and left the characters with plenty of breathing space. This narrative decision offered players the opportunity to explore Michonne and the other characters.
At the same time, having Norma’s imminent approach act as the burning fuse threatening to blow everything up created a strong sense of momentum that didn’t allow the episode to get bogged down by too much character interaction at the expense of action. So, What We Deserve definitely redeemed the developers for the missteps of the second episode and gave the miniseries a strong ending filled with momentous, and touching, decisions.
The series’ second episode ended right after Michonne’s decision to take out Randall with a swift blow to the head (and a few bone-crunching turns of a vice). What We Deserve picks up before Randall even has time to turn zombie and lights the fuse for the central conflict of the episode and the series. In a smart move, though, the episode reminds us early on what’s at stake for Michonne when we get our first solid glimpse of Michonne’s children, the two girls whose memories have haunted Michonne throughout the series and, in the process, gave players some of the creepiest moments of any Telltale TWD game. And, to add even more weight to the decisions Michonne will have to make in the episode, we get a glimpse of her life aboard the boat before the whole Norma storyline started. Her relative ease and her warm conversations with the crew show players how Michonne was starting to find a place in the world again, an anchor to keep her grounded in the storm that is TWD universe.
And why is that flashback important you might ask? Well, because as soon as the episode starts, Norma offers a trade that sets the stage for what’s to come: her brother, Randall, for the life of Michonne’s crew. The fact that (in my playthrough) Randall is a zombie by this point ups the pressure of figuring out how to survive the exchange and makes the tension palpable. The brief lull between realizing Norma is on her way and her actual arrival was – for me at least – a rewarding time since I got to watch Michonne interact with all the other people currently at Sam’s house.
Watching Michonne trying to keep everyone ready for Norma’s arrival while also taking time to get to know the various characters gave the episode a personality that was missing from the previous one. As I’ve said in the past, what I enjoy most in TWD stories is seeing how characters interact within the context of a devastated world, and What We Deserve gave me plenty of opportunities to do just that. From trying to persuade Sam’s friend to stay and help defend the house to trying to convince a little child that his room was indeed a fortress, What We Deserve lets the player discover Michonne while at the same time making you care for all the others around her.
During this part of the episode I also got to see more of Michonne’s backstory, specifically the story of her children and their fate. Michonne’s flashbacks and encounters with her children’s fleeting visions become more frequent, which was a clever way of creating tension using all narrative strands, new ones and old. With Norma coming closer to the house with each passing minute and Michonne encountering her long-lost children all the more often, What We Deserve builds plenty of narrative pressure that makes the unavoidable clash feel all the more important.
It’s not long, then, before Norma is standing in front of Sam’s gates, seemingly lacking any desire for revenge but, simply, wanting to get her brother and move on. Yet, as anyone who’s watched TWD knows, these stand-offs never end well because nervous fingers resting on triggers always lead to disaster. The action sequence that follows the – expected – breakdown of the negotiations is swift and intense. I really enjoyed the way the episode took its time setting up this encounter and then unleashed it upon the player in a brief, brutal display of the violence that has become TWD‘s trademark.
And brutal it is indeed with Norma trying to drown Michonne and Michonne letting the walkers feast on Norma. TWD: Michonne doesn’t shy away from placing the protagonist in extremely brutal situations and forcing her to make horrible decisions. Between Randall’s death and Norma’s transformation into zombie dinner, you can really play Michonne as one of the most ruthless characters in TWD series, and that I felt was appropriate for the character.
Still, just as the episode builds Michonne up as a ruthless killer, it juxtaposes that ruthlessness with her role as a mother and reminds us that even the most cold killers of TWD universe were “normal" people before the zombie apocalypse. After running after their shadows for most of the series, Michonne finally sees her children as they were the last time she saw them, human. What We Deserve offers players one last terrible choice as Michonne’s children beckon her to stay with them, a moment that works as a repetition of Michonne’s suicide attempt at the beginning of the series; staying with them would mean ending all the pain of living in that world since in reality the house is burning down around her. I won’t tell you what happened next because I don’t want to spoil that very important moment, but let’s just say that Michonne finds an odd kind of closure at the end of What We Deserve, leaving the player to figure out exactly what Michonne deserves.
The last episode of the miniseries definitely redeemed the whole series for me as we finally got time to stop, breathe, and enjoy the complex characters populating TWD universe. I enjoyed TWD: Michonne both for its ruthlessness and for its humanizing moments. It was a delicate balance to keep, and I believe the developers managed to do so quite well. Yes, the second episode was not the greatest (other than its last few scenes), but Michonne’s journey through the world of the walking dead – both the dead ones and the still-alive ones – was intriguing and enjoyable, if such a word can be used for something so brutal.
And this episode raised the intriguing question I raised in the title of this review; can a person who’s dealt so much death and destruction, whose life revolves around violence and around acting with little or no compassion still retain her humanity? That I feel is one of the key questions Michonne’s character quietly struggles with throughout the series, and the answer really depends on how you see Michonne’s evolution. The ending does leave the door open for Michonne to get back with the rest of the group, and if that’s the case, I do hope my decisions in TWD: Michonne carry over. We’ll have to wait and see.