Why The Walking Dead: The Final Season encapsulates the tragic fate of Telltale Games

Ever since I finished the complete run of Telltale’s The Walking Dead games around a month back, I’ve been constantly thinking about The Final Season… like A LOT. I was introduced to the series by a friend way back in 2012 when Season One was first released and I just adored it. The storytelling, the characters, the world and the difficult moral choices all had me completely enthralled. I didn’t have any prior knowledge of The Walking Dead franchise and even to this day I haven’t read any of the comic books or seen a single episode of the TV show.

I had always been meaning to follow-up on the series but going to university, getting a degree and then settling into my first full-time job kept me away from playing (and also buying) video games. The gradual critical decline of Telltale Games’ output over those years did not help encourage me to return to the series either, and the announcement of their ‘majority studio closure’ back in late 2018 really made me feel for the game’s fans and development staff (except the management, of course). But part of me at the time was glad I hadn’t invested in an unfinished story. But then the subsequent completion of The Final Season by Skybound Games, the release of a complete collection on PS4 and some whispers online about The Final Season being a return to form for the franchise finally got me to take the plunge.

Now normally when I see someone online reviewing a game they’ve played, they discuss what they did and didn’t like, what impressed them and frustrated them, etc. I’m going to try something a bit different here – I’m going to talk about my appreciation for The Walking Dead: The Final Season whilst also arguing why I think the story neatly encapsulates the tragic decline and fall of Telltale Games (2004-18). So buckle up kiddo, because here’s how it’s going down.

  • Part 1 looks at Clementine and AJ’s relationship, focusing on their opening scene together in Episode 1 (‘Done Running’).
  • Part 2 then looks at the narrative significance of Ericson’s Boarding School for Troubled Youths, the primary setting seen throughout The Final Season.
  • Part 3 looks at parallel choices – decisions that have echoes of those from previous seasons – throughout The Final Season, including the return of a ‘Season One’ character.
  • Part 4 then brings together all the three ideas in Parts 1-3 and looks at how they apply to the climactic scenes and epilogue of Episode 4 (‘Take Us Back’).

There WILL be plot spoilers from beyond this point, covering the entire range of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Part 4 will completely spoil the ending of the series. I would personally recommend that you avoid reading this in full if you have any interest in playing The Walking Dead games in future. You have been warned.

  1. Something Old, Something New

The opening of ‘Episode 1 – Done Running’ is, for me at least, the smartest piece of storytelling to come out of Telltale Games since The Walking Dead: Season One, for two reasons.

Firstly, it signals a return to the storytelling successes of Season One. The most important of these is the returned focus to the surrogate parent-child relationship, which grounds the importance of the game’s moral choices (Notice how your first action in the game is to adjust the rear-view mirror so Clementine can focus on AJ in the backseat?) It was actually incredible to learn in the developer’s commentary that this was a decision made fairly late into the game’s initial production stage – the writers were initially poised to sideline baby AJ from the narrative.

For me, this would have been a repeat of the same mistake made in the third season (A New Frontier) by once again treating AJ as an inconvenient narrative burden. But here they have taken the better and bolder decision to progress AJ from toddler to child, making him an intelligent and impressionable character in his own right. The opening visuals also communicate a return to Season 1 with the scene’s direction mirroring that of Season One’s opening of Lee inside a police car, but now with Clem driving along the dirt-ridden highway. The episode’s director claims this was a happy accident though I’m not convinced they didn’t at least draw some inspiration from the Season One opening. But it’s not identical as whilst Lee was a passenger in the back looking ahead, here Clem is the driver out front looking backwards, which brings me to my second reason.

Secondly, it doesn’t just repeat what Season One did but actually takes the time to compare and contrast the two in a pretty organic way. The clues are all there for the player to spot, but the game doesn’t bash you over the head with them. AJ is not 8-year-old Clementine; he was born and raised in the zombie apocalypse. Whilst Clementine liked to draw pictures and play in her treehouse, AJ struggles to read a book and cannot amuse himself with toys. Yet he is rather familiar with the small pistol he clasps onto, spinning the barrel over and over again, seemingly stuck in an endless cycle for survival. AJ’s entire psychology has been forged by the post-apocalyptic world and he will struggle to understand people who may remember a time before the initial outbreak.

Similarly, 16-year-old Clem is not Lee, she’s still learning and growing up in a world unrecognisable from that of her childhood, whilst also raising a child that that she never asked for. But she takes it all her stride and that’s probably why fans are so endeared to her; there has never been a character quite like Clementine. As a general aside, I cannot think of another major commercial video game (barring role-playing games with customisable protagonists) that centres on two non-white protagonists and I think this brings some hope to more diverse protagonists in future.

Returning to AJ and his ever-spinning pistol barrel, this image for me encapsulates the overarching narrative journey faced by Clem and AJ – will they continue to traverse the apocalypse wasteland, continuously fighting for their survival until they eventually succumb to the same awful fate as those before them, or will they find a place to settle down and call home, reclaiming some small semblance of humanity and breaking the traumatic and deep-rooted cycle of survival? AJ himself has never known anything but a brutal world of ‘kill or be killed’, but can he learn to see the shades of grey in between – to see when a person is or isn’t a threat to him? And whilst Clem has already changed a lot over the preceding three seasons in order to ensure her survival, does she have the strength of character to guide AJ through this change as well?

Taking all of the above into consideration, I can’t help but see a reflection of the state of Telltale Games at this point in time. After the triumphant success of The Walking Dead: Season One, Telltale managed to trap themselves in a traumatic and deep-rooted cycle, repeating the same storytelling model over and over again as they splashed more cash on expensive property licenses, subjecting themselves to an endless cycle of crunch. Tragically, this cycle became necessary to their survival in order to secure the next round of funding, to secure the company’s future and to secure their own jobs. The management were, frankly, extremely lucky to survive that long on such awful business practice, but the cycle was unsustainable and their luck ran out. Telltale could not break the cycle, and so it died before it could finish the story warning of this exact fate. How ironic.

  1. Proper Education

The primary location for The Final Season is Ericson’s Boarding School for Troubled Youth, a community of teenage kids left to fend for themselves within the school’s extensive grounds. It makes a considerable change of setting after seeing multiple versions of a fortified complex ruled by some power-crazed tyrant (Howe’s Hardware Store led by Carver in Season Two, Monroe led by Norma in Michonne, The New Frontier led by Joan in A New Frontier), but also subtly addresses the recurring issue of Season Two where a teenage Clem gains authority over a group of less competent adults, which is most likely an unwanted byproduct of wanting the player to have some story influence but also being locked into have a child protagonist. There’s a lot more I could say about the cast of children but I want to focus more on the setting here in particular.

I’ve seen some critics online remark that it’s highly unlikely that a group of children would have survived independently for seven or eight years, but I’d argue this isn’t too unreasonable. The school is shown to be a naturally well-fortified location with high walls, expansive grounds and only one main entrance, further enhanced by the weapons built and traps laid by the kids. They’ve also established hunting grounds, fishing areas, and a ‘safe zone’ to help them survive. They haven’t been without loss either, as we learn in Episode 3 that there precisely 34 children have died since the outbreak, with only Clem, AJ and seven kids still alive by this point of The Final Season. Also it’s fiction – suspend your disbelief once in a while.

Anyway, we finally get to see Clem and AJ interact with a group of her peers, and their contrasting life experiences really puts a cat amongst the pigeons. One character is shocked that Clem lets the five-year-old AJ carry a loaded weapon around, another has difficulty with sharing their toys and art materials with AJ whilst a third doesn’t understand why AJ bites them after sneaking up behind him. There’s even a dog that’s been trained to tear up walkers on sight that reminds Clem of a bad experience she had with a dog near the start of Season Two. Clem and AJ have experienced a harsher journey through the apocalypse and so naturally this has hardened them. AJ has never attended school and so has never had to deal with the ‘soft’ skills you develop there: sharing things, being polite to others and having good table manners. Nothing hit me more profoundly than when I had to beg AJ not to sleep on the floor underneath his perfectly decent bed, because he believed the floor would be safer. Ericson Boarding School thus continues to act as a place of learning and education for both Clementine and AJ, but it also provides them a community to belong to and a place that they can potentially call home.

Clem also manages to emerge as the de facto leader of the school by around the start of Episode 3. She replaces the original leader Marlon, who is revealed to have traded away two of the schoolkids to the raiders in a secret trade around a year ago. Marlon claimed he was doing this to help the remaining kids survive and that it was his intention to go and rescue them, but cowardly backed out from this. His ultimate reward was losing the trust of all the surviving kids, before promptly receiving a bullet to the head from AJ. Much like how Lee is bestowed with the quest to protect Clem in the absence of her parents right back in Season One, Clem here has been bestowed with the quest of defending the school and then subsequently accomplish a rescue mission against the adult raiders in the absence of Marlon, completing the job he had failed to do a year ago.

But if there’s one detail about Ericson’s Boarding School for Troubled Youth that really stuck with me, it was the casual revelation that all but one member of staff (the school nurse) immediately abandoned the school to locate their own families. Many of the walls are adorned with portraits of the headmaster and degree certificates of the staff to command respect from the pupils, only for them to duck out of responsibility at the first sign of crisis – so much for ‘in loco parentis’. Perhaps then it isn’t that surprising that the abandoned and ‘troubled’ boarding school children, already established into a ‘soft’ hierarchy by age group, have managed to band together far more successfully than some of the squabbling groups of adults seen previously in the series – a somewhat more hopeful and optimistic vision of today’s youth than the one on display in ‘Lord of the Flies’.

Whilst I’m not saying Telltale writing staff consulted a crystal ball at the time, it’s rather tragic to note that what happened to Ericson is fundamentally what also happened to Telltale Games. All you need to connect the two is to read the Ericson teaching staff as the upper management at Telltale and read the ‘troubled’ kids as the ground-level staff at Telltale. As soon as the management hit the point of financial crisis, they began a ‘majority studio closure’ and abandoned all professional responsibility to save their own skins, with a mere fraction of staff held on to fulfil their outstanding contractual obligations. The staff received no severance pay, and limited days of health insurance. At the time of writing, former Telltale employees have yet to be awarded any damages or compensation through their ongoing legal challenge. Likewise, the Ericson schoolkids received no further education and a finite amount of time left with the school nurse before she perished far too soon.

  1. Choices Do Matter

Whilst The Final Season works perfectly fine as a standalone story, it carries greater narrative and emotional weight for the players who have experienced the first three seasons featuring Clem. Not just simply because it’s the culmination of Clementine’s story, but because a significant number of the narrative choices within The Final Season have parallels with similar choices the player made in previous seasons. This is like presenting new variations of ‘The Trolley Problem’, where the choice is fundamentally the same but the framing of the choice is different, and so this can cause an individual to think about the problem differently, and ultimately make a different choice. This part isn’t going to be an exhaustive list of parallel choices, but rather picking out a few which really stood out for me.

Right off the bat, the first significant decision is when you try to get past a security door in an abandoned train station and you have to decide whether to send AJ through a gap in the ticket booth or take the keys from a tied-up Walker. There’s a virtually identical choice in Season Two’s ‘Episode 4 – Amid the Ruins’ at the Civil War Museum, but with one key difference: instead of deciding for yourself to crawl through the gap, you are now deciding for a child in your care. The player’s prior experience of this choice (whichever option they chose) coupled with the enforced change in perspective encourages the player to look at old decisions in a new way. You really get a sense that the writers are looking with a self-reflective lens and that, in my opinion, really enriches the storytelling for long-time fans.

Another one is the interrogation and (optional) torture of Abel at the start of Episode 3 (‘Broken Toys’). Clem has been in similar situations before, such as choosing to watch Kenny enact a violent revenge on Carver in Season Two or willing to assist in the suicide of Dr Lingard in exchange for information on AJ’s whereabouts in A New Frontier. Here you are given the option to torture Abel in a variety of ways and also the option to bargain with him for the information you require. But with the crucial addition of 5-year-old AJ watching and learning from your every move, you might think twice before rushing in with a gut reaction as he is going to follow your example. Perhaps The Final Season should have been subtitled ‘An Apocalyptic Parenting Simulator’?

However, the big callback of The Final Season is the return of Lily from Season One. After she kills a party member (Doug or Carley) in a state of paranoia, you got to choose whether to abandon her on the side of the road, or hold her prisoner inside the group’s camper van until she later steals it and escapes from the group. Here she returns, hardened and embittered, as part of a group of adult raiders looking to kidnap people to fight for them in an off-screen ‘war’. The story made me question why we didn’t even consider the option of killing Lily back in Season One after learning, and then witnessing, the suffering she had caused since. Could we have known she would have become such a threat to others? And are you willing to let a five-year-old pop a bullet in her head on your behalf to stop her?

It’s actually really positive to see the writers return to some of the more ‘philosophical’ choices presented in Season One compared to the subsequent seasons that were more focused on action, drama and pace. In fact, pace was something brought up repeatedly in the developer’s commentary. I was somewhat surprised to hear one of the game’s directors critiquing the slower pace on the opening episode of Season One whilst praising the faster pacing of the final episode of Season Two. Whilst I can see that Season Two is, in general, more tautly directed, it is somewhat lacking in the atmosphere and character work present in Season One. I would argue that good pacing is about striking a balance between the more frenetic action set-pieces and the quieter character moments, not just constantly stringing together scenes of the former whilst minimising scenes of the latter.

Through the lens of parallel choices, you can once again see that Telltale is working to break the cycle it has been stuck in for the past half-decade, actively avoiding to repeat the same decisions they have made before for familiarity’s sake and recognising that the characters within the story have moved on a lot since ‘Season One’, and so has the literal games industry moved on to. The choice to remain stuck in the cycle of survival or to break away from it and become something different comes to a head at the crucial climax of The Final Season – will it stick the landing?

  1. Oh My Darling, Clementine

When I saw the main promotional art for The Final Season and noticed how it closely mirrors that of Season One, I already thought I knew how the story would end: the same way Season One ended. Perhaps with a few subtle differences, but still fundamentally the same. Telltale was already signaling from a very early stage that this would be a return to the storytelling successes of Season One, and that might just encourage lapsed players with fond memories of the first game to return to the series.

But as I quickly discovered through playing Episode 1, this artwork (which is even present in the game’s Prologue) was actually a spectacular piece of wrongfooting. AJ is not the wide-eyed, innocent Clem we saw in Season One, just as the older teenage Clem in The Final Season is not the more experienced adult Lee. Suddenly, my expectations for the game were markedly different – I was now more hopeful that things would turn out differently this time. As it turned out, that was precisely the moment when Telltale/Skybound Games managed to hijack my emotions.

The ending to Episode 4 (‘Take Us Back’) has three distinct parts: the story’s climax at the barn, the flashback to McCarroll Ranch, and finally the epilogue at Ericson’s Boarding School. We’ll look at each of these in turn.

The Barn

As Clem and AJ stumble on towards the barn, the player’s emotions are already running high. Clem has had her left leg spliced open by an axe. That exposure has ultimately led to a small Walker bite on her leg as she tried to scale a cliff in order to escape the herd. She’s not just in incredible pain now, she’s dying. The barn you are journeying towards then will not only act as a place of sanctuary for Clem and AJ, but it seems destined to become the final resting place of Clem. Longtime fans may recall that right back at the start of Season One that it was a barn where Lee and Clem spent their first night after the outbreak. As Clem’s skin goes paler, her strength grows weaker and, slowly but gradually, she loses the ability to walk on her own two feet, the longtime player gets an awful sense of Déjà vu.  This is exactly what happened to Lee. We know Lee died. And now it’s happening again.

The gameplay design of the sequence inside the barn also has echoes of Clementine’s final moments with Lee. Unable to protect Clementine anymore, the final gameplay sequence of Season One has Lee guiding Clem to kill a Walker, learn some rules of survival and then say their goodbyes. This final gameplay sequence is a noticeably more quiet, even solemn moment – a final point-and-click-style puzzle in order to allow players to say their goodbyes before the baton gets handed over from Lee to Clementine. AJ then seems set to follow a similar path as Clementine slowly slips away within the barn. Whilst the story details have changed somewhat, the ending is all set to stay the same.

Yet it also feels different this time. The final gameplay sequence of The Final Season closes out the series in loud and action-packed fashion. As you hear the ominous cries of the chorus overlaying the frenetic background music, AJ has to close off doors, barricade entrances and take down Walkers all by himself. Unlike the 8-year-old Clem, AJ is prepared. He doesn’t just stop one Walker, but dozens. He doesn’t learn any rules of survival, he already knows them by heart. And he won’t accept Clementine’s final request to either kill her or leave her to turn, because he doesn’t want to live in a world without her; he would rather stay and die. This character doesn’t recognise the narrative that the player has come to expect, and he is fighting it all the way.

One last observation about the barn – Lee’s final moments in Season One take place at dusk, the point of day when the world goes dark. Indeed, Clementine later refers to that day as her ‘darkest’ moment as she not only has to handle the death of Lee but also her parents who are walking around nearby in a zombified state. Here in The Final Season, Clem sits lifelessly in the barn in a manner all too similar to that of Lee’s as he passed away. But this time there’s a new dawn breaking outside. Is this going to be the tragic ending that we’ve been dreading, or is the game quietly telling us that this is a new beginning for Clementine. Either way, AJ still raises the axe high above her head. Then he swings it down and the screen cuts to black. It feels like the worst possible thing has happened.

McCarroll Ranch

There isn’t another scene within Telltale’s The Walking Dead quite like this flashback to McCarroll Ranch. The sequence opens with Clementine on horseback, riding towards a burning ranch. Your sole purpose is to walk in, rescue AJ and to shoot down anyone who might get in your way. All you hear around you are crackling flames, distant gunshots and muffled cries. There’s only darkness surrounding the entire ranch, as if nothing else in the world exists. This whole surrealist sequence feels like something directed by David Lynch, which makes it stand in stark contrast to the typically grounded and gritty tone of the series. Clementine’s nightmare in Episode 2 (‘Suffer the Children’) has also already given us a glimpse of this scene, which helps establish the dreamlike quality of the sequence, and I felt the game was suggesting that this scene might be Clementine’s dying thoughts.

One of the game’s directors confirmed that this was a deliberate decision on the Developer’s Commentary, describing it as ‘very weird and artsy’ and ‘the most controversial scene in this season’. He neglects to clarify who considered it controversial (fans, critics or the development team itself?) or why it was considered so. I personally don’t consider the scene itself controversial – after all, it finally delivers on the previously established yet unseen events of what happened during Clem’s rescue of AJ before the start of The Final Season and delivers one of the most important character beats in their entire relationship. Nor do I consider the style of the scene controversial, as it was firmly established as a hellish nightmare in a prior episode and complements the mode of storytelling here. But if there’s one aspect about it that I do find controversial, it is its position within the episode.

Earlier on, I mentioned that the directors of Telltale’s The Walking Dead series had a particular bugbear with pacing, always wanting to propel the story forwards and improve upon that perceived lack of pace noted at times within Season One. But here at McCarroll Ranch, that philosophy has gone straight out the window. This flashback sequence slows the frantic pace of the barn sequence down to a crawl, heavily leaning in towards its atmospheric and moody setting. It doesn’t force you to progress forward at all. Honestly, we really should be in the subsequent epilogue at this point. But strangely, it just about gets away with it if you are willing to rely on one other aspect: character.

This entire flashback sequence is driven forward only by the player’s investment in Clementine’s relationship with AJ – her desire to find and protect AJ from the surrounding chaos, and to take him away from this awful hellscape. Not since Season One has there been such a conscious effort to (successfully) deliver on player-character relationships within Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. Through her effort to rescue AJ, Clementine inadvertently becomes part of the trauma that haunts AJ throughout The Final Season, his blood-splattered face laying witness to the bodies she killed to get to him. But this isn’t new information to the player as their traumatic memories of the ranch are discussed repeatedly in the previous episodes. This flashback is not a revelation, but merely a coda, and the counterintuitive sacrifice of the episode’s pacing for the sake of this poignant, but arguably inessential, character beat might just be the best example of Telltale breaking their own traumatic cycle of stagnant storytelling.

For the player that believes Clementine is dead, this scene also appears to act as her conclusion. Rather than leave the player with a parting image of how Clementine died, alone in a barn somewhere as the life slowly draining from them, instead they are left with an image of how she lived: fighting to save her beloved AJ. Clementine did always say that she wanted to go out fighting.

Epilogue

You are now playing as AJ. You see AJ is fishing alone. It’s the first time in the season that we see AJ without Clementine, and it just feels all sorts of wrong. You struggle to comprehend that she isn’t there anymore – like a form of grief, really. Giving you control of AJ’s dialogue and actions further cements the idea that Clementine has gone; she now survives only through AJ. The lack of any of the kids from Ericson’s boarding school also gives some ambiguity as to whether he is even in a group now. But eventually we see him pack away his fishing tools away and walk back to Ericson Boarding School. You see all the surviving kids are still there, but the one person you really want to see isn’t among them. It feels bittersweet in that moment. AJ has finally found a place to call home, but not with the one person he wanted to share it with. But just when you might have given up all hope…

“Whatcha doin’ there, goofball?”

She’s alive. Clementine is alive. We learn that AJ managed to cut off her left leg, fight off the Walkers and wheelbarrow her to safety. We probably should have known the writers wouldn’t have had it any other way. One writer even went as far as giving some further detail on how AJ managed to save her, apparently in response to vocal fans once again failing to suspend their disbelief at something unlikely but not impossible. But my main takeaway from this story beat is that AJ, when presented with the ‘choice’ of killing or leaving Clem, decided to make his own choice and break away from the previously established cycle. He no longer chose survival, he chose hope. Clementine losing her left leg symbolically represents the end of her ‘Always keep moving’ mentality. She has lost her mobility and can no longer survive on the road with AJ like she did at the beginning of The Final Season. This ultimately forces her to stay at the school and belong to a group. The final button press of the game even asks the player to finally hang up their (baseball) hat in order to bring the game to a conclusion. But the school provides not only a community but also a home to AJ and Clementine, a home they thought they’d never see.

Conclusion

An anthropologist called Margaret Mead once said that the first sign of civilisation was a thighbone that had been broken and healed. She argued this because an injured person cannot hunt for food, drink from a river or run away from predator; they just become fresh meat for other animals. Whilst I am very aware that Clementine’s missing leg will not magically heal over time, my point here is that AJ, for better or worse, has decided that Ericson Boarding School is their home now, their civilisation. AJ gets to stay with Clementine after all. From here, maybe the kids will survive only for a couple of weeks, or months, or several years if they’re lucky. But at the close of The Final Season, all that matters is that they lived, their shared future with Clementine and AJ appears bright and hopeful once more.

Sadly the same cannot be said for the original Telltale Games (2004-18), the studio that brought this series to life. Through the development and production of The Final Season, they came so close to fulfilling the same journey they had planned for Clementine and AJ, only for it to be cruelly snatched away months before the final episode was originally set to release. But perhaps there’s still hope in the form of the new iteration of Telltale Games (2018-) who are working hard to break away from the old traumatic development cycle for their debut title of The Wolf Among Us 2 – fittingly a sequel to the game that immediately followed the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead – and completing work on all five episodes before releasing them. Perhaps there’s still time to ‘Take Us Back’ after all.

2 thoughts on “Why The Walking Dead: The Final Season encapsulates the tragic fate of Telltale Games

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s