The Walking Dead: The Final Season game review – a fittingly grisly end

It has taken seven years to finish the story of Clementine, the girl forced to survive a zombie apocalypse with no hope of rescue – and we almost didn’t get to see it end at all. In 2012, the excellent first season of The Walking Dead video game made its developer Telltale synonymous with player-driven storytelling, forcing gamers to make choices that influenced how things progressed. But just one episode into this final season, in 2018, Telltale closed its doors without warning, leaving all but 25 employees without work, benefits or access to healthcare. Skybound Entertainment, owned by Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, stepped in to see the game through to completion, but due to the abrupt change in circumstances, most of the creatives who spent years working on it couldn’t be there for the end.

The video games industry is dependent on teamwork, but the profit imperative often leads to an unsustainable environment that rarely meets its workers with empathy. Yet empathy is a crucial component of The Walking Dead’s storytelling: if you didn’t care about Clementine and the people she meets, your choices would mean nothing. It has always confronted players with unforeseeable, unpleasant consequences, such as the death of a father figure or groups turning on each other out of desperation. Over the years, it’s taught both Clementine and the player to always expect the worst.

In an inversion of roles, Clementine, the eight-year-old rescued from a treehouse in The Walking Dead’s first episode, is now a 16-year-old trying to look after another young survivor, AJ. The Walking Dead poignantly reminds you of your responsibility at the start of each episode: AJ sees everything you do, and you’re supposed to consider his personal development as much as his chances for survival. Time and time again, Clementine impresses upon him the importance of a set of rules meant to keep him safe from harm. Getting AJ to stick to those rules while allowing him to behave like a child whenever there’s no threat becomes a marvellous balancing act as AJ and Clementine are rescued by a group of children who have made an abandoned school their home base.

Never having ventured outside the school gates since the world collapsed, the children have a hard time accepting Clementine and AJ’s instinctively cautious and aggressive behaviour. While you always have the option to play hardball, what really gets you ahead is trying to understand different experiences and points of view. Both you and Clementine know this, but AJ experiences mounting difficulty telling right from wrong. The backbone of the story is the same as ever – you meet a new group and try to defend it – but if you manage to strike a good balance, you have time to really get to know the other characters. Through teaching AJ, the final season considers what it means to preserve your humanity in such an environment in a way previous seasons didn’t have time for.

By investing in its characters’ personalities and motivations and making each fight a real struggle for your life, The Walking Dead makes violence more meaningful. Nonetheless, segments in which you plough through groups of walkers with your knife and bow, with clunky controls and repetitive animation, undermine the gravity of life-threatening situations.

The Walking Dead: The Final Season screenshot.

The Walking Dead: The Final Season screenshot. Photograph: Skybound Games

The Walking Dead takes place in a world where people are forced to make terrible decisions to ensure their survival, and during periods of rest, Clementine encourages AJ to reflect on his feelings and actions. Like us, the players, AJ has internalised a “kill or be killed” mentality, but Clementine wants to build a future for him that’s about more than just survival. This is why she tries to impart morality to him, but sometimes, no matter how you try to explain things, he will react with confusion or anger.

Rather than a flaw in the system, this is Telltale reinforcing that sometimes there are no good answers to give. After all, how do you stay kind in a world that just isn’t? If there is an increasing dissonance between your teachings and your actions, AJ will grow confused, but it’s disturbingly easy to engage in the violence the game demands of you in high-stakes situations despite your attempts to be a good role model. Throughout this season Telltale explores the different facets of a difficult but loving relationship, resulting in a conclusion that feels less grim and hopeless overall despite plenty of shocking moments.

Telltale’s The Walking Dead might not have invented this style of meaningful narrative adventure, but it certainly popularised it. It is tragic that its popularity led the studio’s leaders to run it into the ground, badly overstretching its staff on endless similar projects from Batman to Borderlands to Minecraft. The circumstances of this final ending are disappointing and unfair. But if The Walking Dead has taught us anything, it’s that things don’t always end well.


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