Earlier this summer, in anticipation of San Diego Comic-Con, Telltale Games released a video update in which the ever-growing developer revealed an upcoming slate of three previously-unannounced games, all of which were scheduled to debut at some point during the next eighteen months. The first of these games, Batman: The Enemy Within, has already seen the release of its first two episodes beginning back in August, and the final three chapters are set to release sometime in the coming months. The third announced title, The Wolf Among Us: Season Two, created nigh-stratospheric excitement among Telltale’s fanbase, finally giving fans of The Wolf Among Us the satisfaction of knowing that the story of the 2013 cult hit (set in the universe of Bill Willingham’s popular Fables comic book series) would receive a proper follow-up in 2018.
Following the announcement, news of The Wolf Among Us’ impending return caused a stir in the gaming press, taking up the majority of that day’s news cycle. This is notable not only because it was an enthusiastic response to the return of a game franchise long-thought dead, but because it largely eclipsed the developer’s second announcement made in that video update – the announcement that Telltale’s The Walking Dead, the very series that launched what many consider to be Telltale’s golden age, would be coming to an end with its fourth and final season, set to begin sometime in 2018.
The announcement of the impending end of The Walking Dead is as notable as the reveal of the return of The Wolf Among Us, albeit for different reasons. The first is simple: Of Telltale’s series, The Walking Dead is easily the most beloved, even if there are those who would argue that Telltale has surpassed their flagship title in recent years with the launch of series such as Tales From The Borderlands. The Walking Dead took Telltale, then a small adventure-game publisher known for series based on smaller IP such as Law and Order and Back to the Future, and catapulted them into the public consciousness. The first season of The Walking Dead won the developer several Game Of The Year awards from publications ranging from USA Today to GamesRadar, and took home the top honor at the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards. It was praised as an emotional tour de force that brought new dimension to the concept of player choice, and, in its own way, pioneered a new genre of adventure game. Telltale’s choice-driven adventure game model has not only been the standard for each of the company’s subsequent releases, but has also inspired other developers to develop games in a similar style, such as Dontnod Entertainment’s Life is Strange.
Another reason that the announcement of The Walking Dead’s final season should be considered notable is simple: It’s often that we see games announced, often with the intent of creating or revitalizing a franchise - however, it isn’t often that we see them announced with the intention of bringing an end to one. Sometimes series are conceived with end points – usually trilogies, such as the original Mass Effect and Halo sagas. However, many a time, including in those aforementioned cases, series are extended far beyond their natural lifespans. It’s rare to see a developer actively seek to put an end to a series before said series has grown stale with the majority of its audience.
In a sense, Telltale’s announcement of The Walking Dead’s “final season” seems like a logical evolution of their identity as a developer and a publisher. Telltale has long been a pioneer of the notion that video games as a medium could benefit from a release model similar to that of television: one need only look at the branding of their episodic releases as “seasons”, or, well, the fact that the games release episodically to begin with, to recognize that. Now, with their announcement of an impending conclusion for The Walking Dead, Telltale takes another vital facet of the television industry and revamps it to suit their release model: the notion that all stories must eventually end, and that, most times, it is better for said stories to reach a natural narrative conclusion than it is to allow them to linger into perpetuity before, inevitably, fading into obscurity.
However, no matter what can be said about the innovative nature of Telltale’s announcement, one fact is nigh-indisputable: now is the perfect time for Telltale’s The Walking Dead to ride off into the sunset.
For the uninitiated, The Walking Dead is set in the same universe as Robert Kirkman’s comic book phenomenon, which, at the time of the Telltale series’ launch, was at the height of its popularity due to the increasing profile of the AMC television series adapted from Kirkman’s books. However, when it launched, Telltale’s series was unique among the franchise’s output in that it was the first story to be set in The Walking Dead universe that didn’t attempt to follow the narrative of Kirkman’s books. If a prospective gamer picked up the first season of Telltale’s Walking Dead hoping that they’d be playing as Rick Grimes straight out of his coma, they were bound to be disappointed – rather, at its outset, Telltale’s series was Grimes-adjacent, taking place across the Georgia landscape that Kirkman’s books called home at the start of their run, but without utilizing many of the same characters that made the series so iconic to its many fans.
Rather than choose to follow Kirkman’s narrative, Telltale instead chose to turn back the clock, opening their version of The Walking Dead at the beginning of the undead outbreak rather than six months following the initial cataclysm. Players took control of Lee Everett, a history professor on his way to prison for the murder of his wife’s lover when the outbreak starts. Given a second chance at freedom in an increasingly decaying world, Lee (and by extension, the player) comes across Clementine, an eight-year-old girl whose parents went on a vacation immediately prior to the start of the apocalypse, and whose well-being now depends on Lee’s ability to protect her from both the undead and mankind alike.
Along the way, Lee and Clementine meet up with other survivors, and together, attempt to make a go at survival despite the bleak reality surrounding them. Throughout the course of the first season’s five episodes, players are given the opportunity to make a series of difficult choices that vary in magnitude. Some involve choosing which members of your party live or die in high-stress situations, while others revolve around the formation of alliances. Other choices serve simply as moral quandaries, the outcomes of which might not seem significant at first glance, but clearly have an effect on young Clementine, who’s observing every move you make as Lee throughout the course of the game. These choices have far-reaching ramifications across the first season’s run, resulting in the creation of game states that can vary significantly from player to player. All of this leads up to the first season’s climactic ending, one of the most iconic conclusions to a game in recent history, and one that still haunts many of the series’ fans to this day.
[Spoilers for The Walking Dead: A Telltale Series and its sequels follow]
At the end of the first season of Telltale’s Walking Dead, Lee dies after he is bitten by a walker (The Walking Dead’s term for “zombie”) in pursuit of a captured Clementine. In the final moments of the season, the player is forced to give Clementine a choice: she can either shoot Lee, preventing him from turning into a walker and spending the rest of his days as a member of the undead, or leave him to turn while she runs for safety. Upon making this final decision, the game cuts to black.
The ending was rather finite, save for a post-credits scene designed to give the player hope that Clementine might find new peace amongst the undead-ravaged Georgia landscape. However, with Lee dead, a new conundrum arose, as the demand for a sequel was palpable, yet the protagonist was now dead.
And so it was that Telltale made the shrewd decision to center the game’s second season, released in 2014, around Clementine, and in doing so, assign a new identity to the series that has persisted for the remainder of its run. It seemed impossible at the time, but the second season turned out to be even darker than the first, as Clementine, no longer under Lee’s protection and increasingly isolated, met a new group of survivors only to find herself once again under threat, this time from Carver, a Kirkman-esque tyrant in the vein of iconic Walking Dead antagonists such as The Governor or Negan. The appeal of season two largely stemmed from being forced to make difficult choices as Clementine, choices that would shape the character into whatever form the player felt she needed to take as her time in the apocalypse became more and more desperate.
Season Two featured a far greater diversity of endings than its predecessor, but the one common denominator among them was that, by the end of the season, Clementine had taken it upon herself to care for a baby by the name of A.J., the child of one of the survivors she befriended over the course of the season. Whether she ended up raising this baby alone or with the help of an ally was up to the player and whatever choices they had made throughout the season’s finale, but either way, by the end of the season, Clementine, having already been exposed to the horrors of the undead apocalypse, had now truly been exposed to the horrors of man. The trauma she suffered at the hands of Carver and other passing threats over the course of season two had fundamentally changed her at her core – if season one was the tale of a man striving to protect a child’s innocence, then season two fundamentally represented the loss of that innocence.
Telltale once again chose to reinvent the series during its third season, subtitled “A New Frontier”, centering it around a new protagonist: Javier Garcia, a disgraced baseball player attempting to keep the remainder of his family together throughout the chaos of the apocalypse. During a brief moment in which Javi is separated from his family, he meets a much colder, harsher Clementine, now age 13. During the two-year gap in between season two and “A New Frontier”, Clementine has lost A.J. The circumstances behind A.J’s disappearance are slowly unveiled over the course of the season, and serve to drive Clementine’s emotional arc forward from episode to episode.
“A New Frontier” is a season of The Walking Dead that is profoundly aware of its audience and their desires, which is why, despite the perspective shift to Javier, Clementine’s development throughout the course of the story is the predominant focus. This fact becomes extremely relevant in the season’s final episode, when Clementine’s relationship with Javier is tested, and, based on Javi’s actions, she chooses whether or not to aid him in his efforts to save what is left of his family. At the conclusion of “A New Frontier”, the game takes stock of Clementine’s emotional state and how it has changed from when Javi first meets her. Narratively, “A New Frontier” serves a purpose: it serves as the story of how Clementine re-develops her sense of empathy and caring following the trauma of season two and acclimates to this new era in post-outbreak society: one in which functional societies are now being constructed and isolation might no longer serve as the key to survival.
However, despite this shift in her mindset, Clementine is alone by the end of “A New Frontier”, this time by choice. By the end of “A New Frontier”, Clementine has learned of A.J’s survival and supposed location. Deciding that it is her duty to see to his safety, she departs Javi’s company on a quest to find the surrogate child she has lost – and this is where The Walking Dead’s third season ends. Clementine’s quest for A.J. promises to be resolved in the game’s fourth and final season, currently due to begin sometime in the first half of 2018.
Now is the perfect time to bring Clementine’s saga to an end, and Telltale clearly recognizes it. The appeal of their take on The Walking Dead – the thing that sets it apart from all of the other media produced as part of the franchise – is Clementine’s place in this universe’s apocalypse. Players, over the course of five years and three seasons, have had the opportunity to mold this young child from an innocent eight-year-old girl to a determined, driven teenager with a knack for survival. She’s now been through more in terms of pain and trauma than most people see in a lifetime, and has matured from her own infancy in time to be a part of the rebirth of society.
The longer that this story goes on, the more risk that Telltale’s Walking Dead runs of growing stale. With few innovations made to the series’ gameplay in its five-year run, the onus has been placed on the series’ story to keep it fresh. There’s only so long that a narrative of this sort can sustain itself before the developers are forced to recycle certain elements of their storytelling. Furthermore, the longer that Telltale’s take on The Walking Dead goes on, Clementine will inevitably age along with it, and it won’t be long before she’s just an average adult functioning in this apocalypse, a la Rick Grimes and company in the original source material. There are few ways to keep that fresh, especially in a franchise that has dedicated a long-running comic, a television adaptation and a spin-off of said television adaptation to exploring similar premises.
The Walking Dead: A Telltale Series hasn’t just been a story about the undead apocalypse – it’s been a story of adolescence in a cruel, unforgiving world. By announcing an end date, Telltale is also giving The Walking Dead something that the other entries in the franchise haven’t had yet: a conclusion, and with it, the chance to put a period on the arcs of the many Clementines that players have been forging for the past five years. Through this final run, players will have a chance to determine just how Clementine forges her path forward into adulthood – and that, in itself, will prove for dramatic storytelling.
And there’s something fitting about the notion of season four being the last: Just as The Walking Dead began with its protagonist charged with the defense of a child, so too shall it end; except now, that child, forced into adulthood from an early age, is embarking on a mission to protect a child that is ostensibly her own from the same horrors of the world that robbed her of her youth.
You can’t beat that kind of symmetry.