Over five years ago, Telltale Games released The Walking Dead: Season One. Some would argue that game was a flashpoint that changed the video game industry forever. It certainly was a major step forward in game writing. The story was more well-written than anyone expected it to be, even fans of The Walking Dead comics or TV show. It ended up spawning several sequels, and Telltale recently announced the fourth and final season. It’s been a long and unfortunately bumpy road. While Telltale has come a long way, its flagship series has struggled to its finish line, and while it won’t get the sendoff it deserves, it’s getting one it needs.
One of The Walking Dead’s biggest problems is it was almost too good to be true. Even in 2012, the zombie thing was a bit tired (especially in video games). Games like Mass Effect, while good in their own right, didn’t really endear me to the concept of choice-shaped narratives. But The Walking Dead nailed it, with its more subtle approach to conversational consequences and its themes of hope and decency sewn throughout the usual dour survivalist tragedy. The first season of The Walking Dead was something special.
But when you have something so special, sometimes the most important pieces are the people involved. The Walking Dead’s first season can be attributed to several people, but the most important two names you’ll see are Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin. These two, along with other talented writers such as Gary Whitta (who has gone on to movies such as The Book of Eli and Star Wars: Rogue One), Mark Darin, and Chuck Jordan all worked together on this massive (for Telltale’s size at the time) project. Before The Walking Dead, Telltale started with smaller, much less ambitious comedy games like the Sam and Max series.
Most of those I’ve named left Telltale not long after the first season. Whitta is in Hollywood killing it with movies, and Vanaman and Rodkin most importantly left and formed Camp Santos, the company behind Firewatch. Firewatch just so happens to be an incredibly written game, with similar themes of realistic, human optimism in the face of pain and struggling. These people all worked together with a vision, and carried with them themes and motifs that, sadly, seemed to have left Telltale along with them.
The Walking Dead: Season Two felt like an entirely different game. It touted itself as the next big step for Clementine, and being all about “your” Clementine. The story would develop based on the choices you made and shape the future of the series. What ended up happening was a joyless, hopeless roller coaster ride from shocking moment to shocking moment, a series of events strung together to make the player react, rather than learn or feel anything other than discomfort and sadness. Clementine ended up being more of a vessel for the player than any of the characters in the first season and was largely even removed from control as events seemed to largely just happen around her. Playing that game felt like reading fanfiction that missed the point. The Walking Dead: Season Three felt like more of a stalling point, a fleeting experiment to see what the audience wanted after a mixed reaction of sorts to the second season. (I know plenty of others still quite enjoyed it.)
So the Final Season, as it’s titled, approaches in 2018. Telltale has said the player is back in control of Clementine, and this is it. This is the end of the story. It’s a bittersweet feeling for me. The Walking Dead: Season One remains one of the shining beacons of excellent storytelling in a video game, something that affected me so thoroughly that I still remember it to this day. It’s hard for something to sink in like that these days. I am still reeling from disappointment from the sequels and find myself both dreading and curious about what could be in store for the end. When I look at the credits on Season Three, I see several writers per episode, never a good sign. But I have hope that this final take on the world Telltale has established and owned will be treated like what it is: the last shot.