Back in 2012, The Walking Dead made Telltale Games a force to be reckoned with in the sphere of interactive stories. Everyone seemed to be talking about the journey of Lee and Clementine, an escaped convict and a young girl doing everything they can to survive a world in ruin – reckoning not only with the undead, but also the darkest depths of humanity. It was the first game to ever truly make me feel emotionally connected to its characters. I cared for them, thought about them when I wasn’t playing. I’ve cried watching films and reading books, but in a video game? Never. Until then.
The immense popularity of that first season inspired Telltale to release two more full seasons, a standalone episode and a shorter mini-season. Unfortunately, none really captured the spark of the original, instead showing increased signs that the post-apocalyptic zombie drama was wearing thin. Still, the story of Clementine was unfinished, and fans were pining for closure for a character they'd come to embrace throughout the years.
Enter The Walking Dead: The Final Season. To say it was a struggle for this four-part conclusion to get completed would be an understatement. Midway through development, Telltale suddenly closed shop, leaving the fate of Clementine and gang more up the air than ever. Happily, Skybound Games stepped in, recruiting a small batch of the original developers to see the season through to the end. It’s a remarkable achievement that it got done, let alone at such high quality. Of course we’ll never know what might have been, but play all four episodes together and you’re unlikely to notice any behind-the-scenes transition at all.
Jumping forward three or four years from the previous season, Clem is no longer the adorable little girl we met all those years ago in the treehouse. We’ve watched her grow in the various games, both physically and mentally. Having spent most of her life trying to survive, she’s become much stronger, but still manages to be sensible and caring. That is even more important now that she’s looking after a walking and talking AJ, who appeared hitherto only as a baby.
Indeed, “AJ is always listening.” Those words gave me pause when they appeared on-screen. While AJ doesn’t actually call Clementine his mother, that is essentially her role, and like any child he is learning from you, just as Clem once learned from Lee. She teaches the child mantras to live by – and when death is around every corner, these are even more meaningful. I wanted to make sure that every action I performed, every word I spoke, was geared towards making AJ the best he could be. Not only the best at staying alive, but also as a decent and friendly human being, like telling him not to swear. Those who do the same will find it can prove difficult, not least because AJ hasn’t had much of a chance to integrate with others.
It’s the relationship between Clem and AJ that provides the appealing core that kept me engaged, and it's both delightful and distressing to see how their relationship grows over the course of the season. Considering the hell that Clementine has been through, it’s a miracle that she’s as well-adjusted as she is. AJ, on the other hand, is struggling with a lot: violence, mortality, knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s the latter which proves contentious – in a world like this, what’s considered right anymore? Though at the beginning AJ is accepting of his guardian’s rules, like any child seeking to exert independence he soon begins challenging them. I wanted to keep him sheltered, but it’s just not possible. As is the raison d'être of these games, there are times when there’s no good outcome, and AJ will have to make tough decisions based upon everything he’s learnt.
As the game begins, we join the pair as they’re driving through the country, on the hunt for food. Clem is at the wheel, and AJ is fiddling with a loaded gun. While he says he’s too old for the nickname “goofball”, seconds later he’s complaining about having to practice his reading – still a kid at heart, despite the violence all around. They soon come across an abandoned railway hut, but things take a turn and they end up at a boarding school, occupied by children of various ages after the teachers abandoned ship. Marlon, an older boy with an awful haircut, is in charge and seems to have a good thing going with mapped safe zones and hunting grounds. I never feel completely safe when playing as Clem – disaster seems to follow her, or maybe it’s just inevitable for everyone – but it’s a nice change of pace to meet others that are all similar in age to our protagonist and aren’t completely jaded by the grimness of reality, each possessing various levels of childhood naivety.
There are ten kids in the school and you’ll get a chance to interact with all of them over the course of the season, albeit some more significantly than others. One early scene involves Clem leading AJ around the group to try to integrate him, which is serviceable as a device but a bit by-the-books in its execution. You’ll meet Louis, quippy and full of swagger; Violet, more hardened and sarcastic; and Brody the anxious dreamer. Some skirt close to archetypes, but time spent with them is never dull. As usual, it’s often the quieter moments that stand out. Early on, Louis is playing the piano while a hesitant AJ watches, convinced that it must be dangerous because it’s loud. But when he hears a rendition of “Oh My Darling, Clementine”, he gasps and his eyes light up. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and sad. In this universe, music has become a luxury and is perhaps even more powerful because of it.
Another friendly face is Tennessee, a younger boy near AJ’s age who has lost his sisters. The two bond over a different artistic exercise: drawing. Tennessee is one of the few who believe in the afterlife, or at least openly talk about it, and he reflects that in his artwork. When AJ picks up the pencils, he draws himself protecting Clem with a gun. It’s not lingered on, and I appreciated the subtlety as again I felt that mix of emotions. It’s great that this young boy can express himself through drawing, but that his inspiration is rooted in wielding a weapon is dismaying. But he’s a product of this world and hasn’t known anything before it, a fact clearly demonstrated by his jumpiness and possessiveness.
During the third episode, before a battle commences the kids gather together to plan a party within the school. You get to help choose the decorations and music selections, which is a cheerful departure from the usual bleak decision-making. They all sit around reminiscing, sharing stories both light and dark. This nicely fleshes out certain characters’ backstories, but also helps slow things down for a moment and remind you that these are still children, surviving not only the troubles of their present, but of their past as well.
The brief scene that directly follows is sure to get eyes welling up. Some may feel it lessens the impact of a pivotal event in Clementine’s past, and I would have been inclined to agree except that it’s written and portrayed so well that I couldn’t help but appreciate it. In a season that focusses on Clem caring for others, it’s great to hear her internal thoughts and get support from someone she loves. Plus, knowing that this is the final season of The Walking Dead, it only seems right to include such a welcome callback.Continued on the next page...