(The following contains spoilers for the first episode of The Walking Dead: The Final Season, “Done Running”.)
It’s very rare that a game comes along and popularizes an entire genre – yet that’s exactly what Telltale did in 2012 with the launch of the first season of The Walking Dead. Revitalizing the concept of the point-and-click adventure, the series spawned a new wave of interactive, choice-driven narratives, thanks in large part to the popularity of its leads: Lee Everett, a convicted felon given a second chance at life in the zombie apocalypse, and Clementine, a young girl orphaned amidst the rise of the undead. For six years, Telltale has told the story of Clementine’s coming-of-age throughout fifteen episodes interspersed across three “seasons”. Now, with the launch of The Final Season, the studio aims to bring Clementine’s story to a satisfying end, closing out the narrative that transformed Telltale into one of the most recognizable studios in the gaming industry. It’s a task that carries with it tremendous pressure, as Telltale must confront the unenviable responsibility of wrapping up the story of one of the most beloved characters in modern video game canon.
The good news is that they appear to be pulling it off. If the first episode of The Final Season, “Done Running”, is any indication, Telltale intends to close out the story of its flagship character in style, delivering a masterclass in rising tension while also granting The Walking Dead enough breathing room to reflect upon its own history.
This reflective tone is struck from the moment one boots up the game, as the decision regarding whether or not to import one’s save file is immediately followed by a (heavily abridged) recap of the series thus far. It comes as no surprise that The Final Season can’t be expected to pull every single detail from six years’ worth of decision-based storytelling. Some moments are clearly prioritized over others; the game can tell whether or not you saved Carley or Doug back in Season One based solely upon your save file, but the exact words Lee told Clementine as he died? You need to fill in those gaps yourself. What the recap chooses to ignore is also telling when it comes to Telltale’s approach to The Final Season – large portions of Season Two and almost the entirety of A New Frontier seem to hold little relevance to the series’ final chapter so far. It’s clear that as Clementine’s story winds down, Telltale is most interested in evoking players’ memories of The Walking Dead’s hallmark debut season: Lee Everett’s ghost hangs heavy over this opening chapter, and that’s unlikely to change as the series winds up.
These callbacks aren’t just limited to the recap: AJ’s now assumed the role that Clementine played back in Season One, serving as a utility player who can climb through tight spaces, opening doors and obtaining resources that Clementine herself is unable to reach. The game never hesitates to remind you that every action that you perform in front of AJ is shaping his moral character, molding him into a member of the next generation of survivors – every time that the game’s UI would intervene to tell me that AJ had “noticed” a decision I had made, I immediately felt a visceral fear that I had made the wrong choice in a way I haven’t since the series’ debut title. However, the callback that proved most powerful for me was a subtle one that technically has nothing to do with the narrative: when paused, the backing track that accompanies the pause menu is the main theme from Season One, a design choice that sent me emotionally reeling from the very first note.
As much as I appreciate these little nods to episodes past, no game can coast solely on nostalgia, and fortunately, Telltale brings enough new to the table that “Done Running” feels like an exciting rebirth for the series. As a long-time fan of the Walking Dead franchise, I was immediately drawn in by the manner in which the season premiere approaches the state of its apocalyptic world. At the start of the episode, it’s been an indeterminate number of years since A New Frontier; AJ is now simultaneously old enough to hold a gun, yet he hasn’t necessarily mastered the art of reading. Time has always been a fleeting construct in the Walking Dead universe, and the game smartly relies upon atmosphere, character development, and subtle hints dropped via dialogue to ground players in The Final Season’s reality: when AJ responds to Clementine’s declaration that a train station is empty by pointing out that “no one’s ever anywhere”, it tells you as much about the state of the human race as it does about his and Clementine’s current circumstances.
After existing primarily as a plot device throughout Season Two and A New Frontier, AJ finally completes his ascension into the role of a full-fledged character in “Done Running”. This pays off in spades, as he quickly becomes the most likable – and interesting – member of the game’s cast to be introduced since Season One. He’s practically a toddler, almost certainly younger than Clementine was when the zombie apocalypse began, but he’s grown into his own fairly quickly thanks to the many lessons that his guardian has passed down from Lee. He’s nowhere near invincible, though – AJ might be equipped to defend himself, but he’s still a child, and so as much as he fails to flinch at the sight of a zombie, he risks being overcome by emotional impulses and personal fears.
AJ brings a unique perspective to the Walking Dead universe; he’s not the first child to be born after the fall of “society”, but he might be one of the first to actually possess agency and the ability to articulate his thoughts – and those thoughts can be awfully worrisome sometimes. Upon encountering the now-undead visage of a couple that chose to die together rather than live in such dire conditions, AJ demonstrates an inability to show empathy for their situation, delineating a clear difference between “monsters” and “people”. Later in the episode, when confronted with the tales of long-gone heroes such as policemen and firefighters and the fact that they ceased to exist when the apocalypse began, AJ immediately responds with the assertion that they died solely because they were “weak”. He then attempts to steal a new friend’s toy and claim it as his own, with no underlying logic save for that the toy is in his hands.
For all that Telltale accomplishes in regard to the way that they succeed in building tension throughout this episode, I was never more terrified than I was during the moments in which AJ’s stunted worldview shone through. Here, I realized, was the true dilemma that Clementine would be forced to confront throughout the season: molding AJ not just into a survivor, but a kind, empathetic person. Clementine might have been merely a child when the apocalypse started, but she at the very least had the opportunity to experience a world in which the tenet of kindness and human decency was held in equal standing with the tenet of survival. AJ, in contrast, has only ever known a world in which his guardian has been forced to train him to perceive every person as a possible threat, every sanctuary as a potential safety hazard. Clementine doesn’t need to teach the boy how to survive; she needs to teach him how to live.
I was surprised by the ways in which this desire to instill kindness and empathy in AJ affected my decision-making. Early in the game, Clementine has a decision to make: she can either put down the aforementioned undead couple, take their keys, and open the door to a train station’s ticket booth in hope of recovering supplies, or she can send AJ in alone through a tight grate and have him search for a way to open the door from the other side. The couple had left a note requesting that they be left to themselves, insisting that being together in undead perpetuity was what they had wanted. So I sent AJ in alone, potentially putting him at risk, solely because I wanted to teach him to respect the wishes of the dead via an act of kindness.
Was it the smartest move from a survival standpoint? Absolutely not. I don’t think I would have made that decision as Lee – however, back during Season One, Clementine served as the moral center questioning Lee’s choices. She would have been the one advocating for Lee’s better angels, posing the question as to why we weren’t honoring the couple’s wishes. But whereas I needed to mold Clementine into a fighter, I have no doubts about AJ’s ability to handle himself in a dicey situation. It’s an interesting conundrum that Telltale raises, and a result of some of the most torturously compelling writing they’ve done over the past six years.
But “Done Running” isn’t just an exercise in creeping dread – as always, Telltale’s writers manage to find just the right amount of levity against the backdrop of the series’ horrific circumstances. The game’s shift to a new setting, this time an abandoned boarding school for “troubled youth”, leads to the introduction of several immensely likable personalities. I was particularly drawn to Louis, a teenager whose carefree, comedic approach to life practically screams “this boy is going to die”, and Tennessee, a child closer to AJ’s age struggling with the loss of his siblings yet maintaining an optimistic and heartfelt outlook towards his circumstances. At one point, Louis attempts to welcome Clementine and AJ to their new home with a piano rendition of “Oh My Darling, Clementine”, which proves both hysterical and so obvious that I was amazed these writers hadn’t attempted such a joke sooner.
The writers are also self-aware; remember my comment about Louis’ potential life expectancy? Later in the episode, you have the option to offer an opinion on which of your new comrades is going to die first. If you select Louis, everyone present – including Louis – responds in the affirmative. It’s a rare moment of laugh-out-loud hilarity in an otherwise relentlessly bleak series.
And yet, these moments of peace can’t last. There is a threat to the group’s welfare in the episode, only vaguely expounded upon in “Done Running’s” two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Interpersonal conflicts abound as Clem and AJ attempt to forge bonds of trust with their new companions. Existential threats, such as scarcity of supplies and crippling hunger, remain ever-present wolves at the door, waiting to pounce in moments of ease and vulnerability. But, as always, the characters’ own demons seem to pose the ultimate threat, manifesting in forms such as PTSD, anxiety, and all-consuming fear, all of which threaten to undo members of the cast regardless of the presence of any tangible threat.
Regardless of what troubles ultimately come home to roost for Clem and AJ, one thing is profoundly clear: Telltale evidently intends to deliver a finale that remains truest to the central tenets of Robert Kirkman’s source material while also paying homage to the studio’s own contributions to the Walking Dead canon. “Done Running” is a great start, breaking new ground while also reflecting upon the series’ history.
Now let’s just hope that history doesn’t repeat itself – for Clementine’s sake.