Ending a saga or long running series has always posed a challenge. It’s generally a situation that cannot satisfy everyone since fans will have their own polarizing expectations of how and what should happen. This isn’t solely an issue with any particular medium but it does seem to be particularly terrible when it comes to video games. It is typically guaranteed that if a video game series is coming to a close, narratively speaking, one can expect a lackluster ending.
Unlike a television series or film franchise, game publishers are largely reluctant to essentially kill an IP in pursuit of a satisfying conclusion. The common practice is to literally milk it to death, and move on to the next franchise.
For example, while it’s debatable whether the ending to the television series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was actually well written, it definitely left that particular series with no basis to continue. It was a proper conclusion that wrapped up questions of Captain Sisko’s ultimate role in Bajor, resolved the ongoing threat of the Cardassians, and had the majority of the core cast going their separate ways; O’Brien took up a teaching position at Starfleet Academy, Worf was heading off to become an ambassador between the Federation and Qo’noS, Odo returned to the Founders, and Sisko mysteriously “vanishes,” seemingly fulfilling his prophecy.
While obviously Star Trek continued with the next series Voyager, the core narrative of Deep Space Nine was over and done with, never to be visited again. With video games, the pattern has been altogether different.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to bring up Mass Effect with its largely dissatisfying ending, one which wasn’t merely poorly written but was actually perceived as offensive by its fanbase. While I won’t go into detail about the exact reasons why Mass Effect’s conclusion ultimately failed (MrBtongue has already done so here, here, and here), it is worth noting that much of its failure can be linked to the lack of more individualized and consistent authorship in the medium, at least when it comes to bigger-budgeted releases which ultimately leads to a lack of narrative coherence.
While films are by no means works that can be conversely said to be created by single individuals, it does have notions of the auteur, or at the very least reflecting a single unified artistic vision. Even something as communal and flexible as television series have a similar notion with the presence of showrunners, whether that be Joss Whedon or someone like Ronald Moore who ensure to a degree that their works remain internally consistent. And while videogames do have individuals like Hideo Kojima, by and large it’s an industry with a constantly revolving door, everything from the lowest developer, to the lead writer, and to whole development houses can easily change between proceeding entries in the same franchise. And with Mass Effect, this is exactly what happened with the departure of Drew Karpyshyn after Mass Effect 2, and Mac Walters taking over as lead writer for the final entry.
While Telltale’s The Walking Dead isn’t a long-running series by any means, it still represents a serialized franchise, one which should be open to the same ills described above. With confirmation for a third season already out in the open, it seemed logical that Telltale might employ the same thought processes that would render the possibility of proper conclusions to an extreme low.
But this simply hasn’t been the case. Taking a look at both seasons as a whole, it is clear that the narratives told are cohesive and consistent to an exacting degree. There isn’t a sense that writers shifted, or plans in regards to how things would unfold were scrapped midway through. And there is absolutely no impression that Telltale held back any punches. Season 2 of The Walking Dead is unsurprisingly an amazing work, but more significant is in Telltale’s delivery of satisfying conclusions, of which retain narrative coherence and provide fitting levels of closure to Clementine’s journey.
The maturation of Clementine
Before delving into the conclusions of The Walking Dead, a step back needs to be taken in order to properly contextualize the whole series to this point, and pinpoint what facets actually needed to be resolved and ultimately what the series has been centered upon. And boiling down the series past its zombie sensibilities and large cast, the first two seasons of The Walking Dead has been first and foremost a coming-of-age for Clementine, a young girl forced to adapt to a harsh new world.
While players did not directly control Clementine in the Season 1, instead as Lee we looked after her and ultimately passed on the skills and mindset needed to survive. But more importantly and especially given Lee’s past, we made sure that Clementine would retain a degree of her humanity and morals, something that was consistently getting blurred or pushed to the sidelines for the sake of survival by other characters.
Season 2 had players finally in the shoes of Clementine. Without Lee, she no longer had an adult to rely upon and largely had to take care of herself. Unlike the scared and naive girl of Season 1, Clementine now was able to survive on her own, suture her own wounds, take down walkers, and believably deal with adults on an even playing field.
As the story unfolds and she finds herself amongst a new group of survivors, she even becomes a person people look to for help and guidance despite her young years. And much like Lee, she often acts as a mediator in attempts to resolve differences in the group for better or worse.
But at the end of the day, Clementine isn’t Lee and without his protecting aura, she is constantly faced with attacks upon what ultimately makes her who she is. Season 2 is ultimately an examination into whether or not Clementine can retain her humanity when survival becomes the primary concern, and discovering her identity in the absence of Lee.
Sarah and her father Carlos offers a direct comparison to Clementine and Lee. While Lee sheltered Clementine from the dangers and reality of the outside world initially, he quickly realized that this was a poor decision. If he were to die, Clementine needed to be prepared in order to survive on her own. Because of this, he told her to keep her hair short and showed her how to shoot a gun. Carlos on the other hand is completely unwilling to let Sarah realize the full extent of the horrors that now inhabit the outside world. Sarah is completely oblivious and lacks the fortitude to deal with reality.
While Sarah does retain much of her youthful innocence so to speak, being generally upbeat and ignorant of the troubles others have to face, she also selfishly lacks the capacity to take care of herself or think about the well-being of others. With the eventual death of Carlos, Sarah is left an absolute wreck who continuously puts the whole group in danger without a shred of guilt or understanding of her toxicity. And while Clementine can ultimately still defend her and do everything in her power to protect her, she ultimately succumbs to being ripped apart by walkers with no willpower or foresight to save herself right until the very end.
What is interesting about the interjection of Sarah and Carlos, is that it offers up one extreme side to who Clementine could have possibly been. If Lee had simply sheltered her without proper preparation, her fate wouldn’t have been much different then Sarah’s. And it’s hard to forget exactly how Clementine acted in Season 1 given how capable she comes off now, but it only takes a brief moment to recollect that she was just as childishly reckless, ultimately putting the whole group in a tenuously dangerous situation.
On the polar opposite side of the possibility spectrum is the older but relatable Jane. While Jane is clearly an adult, she represents the type of person Clementine might develop into when considering certain aspects of the path she is currently on. And in a way, Jane and Clementine do share a special bond pretty much from their first encounter. Unlike other characters like Bonnie or Luke who Clementine does become close to, these bonds only get forged over the course of a long period of time in close proximity and over shared external threats. And while this is something that is variable based upon player choices, my Clementine was extremely reluctant to trust either Bonnie or Luke initially.
While Jane isn’t the most trustworthy individual either, she presents a character that is fundamentally more closely linked to Clementine then anyone else. Much in the same spirit as Clementine, Jane is ultimately a “survivor.” In some ways by their shared nature, Jane acts as a sort of older sister to Clementine, mentoring her in order to reveal the flaws of trying to survive in a group as opposed to roughing it alone. Unlike most of the other adult characters, Jane sees Clementine for who she truly is and doesn’t treat her in a condescending manner, rather admittedly states that she is better then them, and that the group will ultimately bring her down.
Jane is an interesting character primarily because she is quite possibly one of the only ones that thrives when she is alone. She is an obvious lone wolf and much like Clementine, very capable of surviving and coping with much of the emotional trauma the new world brings. In direct contrast, the majority of the adults can’t cope or become irreparably damaged as is the case with both the sadistic Carver, as well as our old friend Kenny.
And Jane herself is apparently damaged as well, which becomes explicitly apparent during the game’s conclusion. On the spectrum of possibility though, Jane represents the polar opposite to Sarah. She is someone who through previous trauma has fully acclimatized to the dangers of outside world, but done so at the cost of her humanity and at the inability to properly emphasize with other people. She kills easily whether the victim is a walker or human, and holds no loyalties or social ties to anyone else. At least initially, she is only out for herself.
Lastly on the subject of Clementine’s development, Telltale brings up an intriguing look into the capacity for different generations of individuals to fully adapt to such a starkly different world. Those of older years such as Kenny or Carver regardless of whether they are “good” people, are presented as stubborn and unable to cope properly when faced with such a change. As players we never learn the back-story of Carver but it’s probably safe to assume he wasn’t the deranged sadistic man that he was prior to the onset of walkers. Much like the Governor from the original comic book series, he was likely an average man beforehand.
Kenny provides possibly the clearest example of an older trauma victim. He is introduced as a relatively friendly man who has the best intentions at heart for both his family and friends. While he has his flaws, with both Lee and Clementine coming to heads with him on more then one occasion, he is fundamentally a well-intentioned person. Even in Season 2, he always acts in accordance with what he thinks is best for the group, and later on for Rebecca’s baby. But the constant loss of loved ones, with the suicide of his wife, his son getting bitten, and then the death of Sarita leaves Kenny hopelessly beyond repair.
On the other hand, Jane, while also set in her ways, does open up to a degree through her bond with Clementine. While she does abandon the group, she eventually comes back in worry over Clementine’s well-being. But despite this she still presents a proper lack of understanding seen in her ultimate act that is entirely reckless and misplaced, but also in some ways (and depending on player choices), selfless in a desperate attempt to expose what she perceives as a looming threat.
Coming full circle back to Clementine, with the injection of player agency and choice, she represents a younger generation that has yet to fully become cemented in her ways. While the argument could obviously be made that with her smaller stature and relative immaturity, she is less capable of survival. However she also has the capacity to adapt fully to this new world without the full extent of the trauma suffered by her adult counterparts. And given the variability of who is playing the game, Clementine is essentially not bound to any single way of thinking or specific choice processes.
Clementine by all accounts is damaged but not to the same extent as someone like either Kenny or Jane. Because of the fact that she is literally growing up in this harsh environment, she has the capacity to not only simply survive, but essentially make the most out of a desperate situation. And with the injection of Rebecca’s baby, Clementine takes up the reigns as a caretaker much in the same way that Lee did for her in the absence of her real parents. And in a way, the baby offers a true blank slate in terms of hope in regards to the survivability of humanity against this apocalyptic backdrop.
Making the Ultimate Choice(s)
Telltale has often been criticized for advertising their games as characterized by the importance of choices, but offering no real direct consequences. While it’s hard to argue against the fact that at least in a narrative context, choices lead to the same outcome, I don’t agree that these choices don’t ultimately matter. I’ve written my thoughts about it here, but one only needs to look at the strong reaction and discourse generated by these seemingly pointless choices to see that they do hold value, regardless of whether they branch off like a “choose-your-own-adventure” book.
And not to beat on Mass Effect 3 too heavily, I again have to return to it as a basis for comparison. Mass Effect 3 was a game that was advertised and sold on the notion that it had clearly different endings dependent on choices players made throughout the course of the series. It is why the series utilized a save-import system across all three titles, and was ultimately the key promise that had fans tied in over the course of five years. While it’s hard to argue against the fact that Bioware clearly didn’t deliver on this promise, from a purely logistical standpoint it’s not all that surprising.
Writing with different possible endings in mind creates a huge challenge, especially when considering narrative coherence and thematic consistency. Ultimately this is why games that have had multiple endings have either ignored these factors or simply provided endings with marginal differences.
Saints Row the Third and the first Silent Hill both had various endings but only one could be considered “canon” when contextualizing them against proceeding entries in those series and while maintaining coherence. On the other hand, Mass Effect 3 technically does have different endings depending on whether the player chooses synthesis, control, or destroy. But the endings themselves are so bare bones with the main difference being that each one is essentially a different tint of color. And I imagine that if/when Mass Effect 4 eventually releases, not all three of these endings will be viable.
What is quite possibly most impressive about the multiple conclusions of The Walking Dead, is in how each unique ending is coherent to the rest of the experience, as well as being consistent to every possible ending. There truly isn’t one ending over another that seems more logical or in character, and the various endings themselves don’t contradict each other thematically.
At the conclusion of Season 2 with the rest of the group dispersed or dead, Jane and Kenny ultimately come to a boiling point that finds Clementine trapped in the middle. In the midst of a snowstorm, they all get separated momentarily with the baby in Jane’s arms. On reuniting, Jane comes up empty handed and before confronting Kenny tells Clementine that whatever happens next “to stay out of it”. To preface this encounter, Jane had consistently been warning Clementine that while Kenny may have been a friend and good man once, that this new world had twisted him into a dangerous man that would eventually hurt her.
Understandably Kenny is furious and Jane does nothing to calm him down, if anything she does everything to provoke him further. Ultimately the two end up in a violent brawl that will only end when one of them is dead. Kenny finally turns Jane’s own knife towards her, and Clementine is left meters away with a gun. The choice is whether or not as Clementine, the player chooses to shoot at Kenny to subsequently save Jane, or do nothing and let Jane be murdered by Kenny.
If Jane is killed, Clementine is horrified and especially so when seconds later both her and Kenny can hear the wails of the baby close by. Unsurprisingly it is revealed that Jane didn’t lose the baby to walkers, rather was putting Kenny to the test in order to reveal to Clementine the threat that he poses and that he couldn’t let the baby go, as he had essentially latched onto it in the aftermath of Sarita’s death.
At this point in the game having been unable to shoot Kenny myself, I chose to finally leave Kenny. He was definitely not well, and I feared for the baby’s safety. While Jane’s death was no one’s fault but her own for essentially fabricating the whole situation to take place, it did at least reveal that Kenny was mentally unwell.
But this said, Kenny truly demonstrates that Jane was ultimately wrong. He completely agrees with my decision and instantly feels guilt and remorse. He tells me to take the baby saying that he isn’t fit to take care of her. The game ends much in the same manner that Season 1 ended. Clementine finds herself in an open field with walkers in the distance. But this time she isn’t alone, and has the baby to care for. She covers both herself and the baby in walker guts before confidently proceeding through the horde.
If players chose to go with Kenny, Clementine does eventually reach the fabled community of Wellington but they deny them entry. They are at capacity but in an act of good will, offer up a large bag of supplies. And much in the same vein as the previous ending, Kenny demonstrates his selflessness to full degree. He begs them to simply take the children, and refuses the supplies not caring for his own well-being.
Players are then offered a final choice in this branch, where they can agree to enter Wellington with the baby, or refuse to leave Kenny behind. While it’s somewhat subjective, it does seem Kenny does go through a sort of reformation after the death of Jane. He is aware of his flaws to a point that if players choose to stick with Kenny, there isn’t a sense that Telltale is implying this as a wrong course of action. While the world is still full of dangers, it doesn’t seem as if Kenny presents a threat to Clementine or the baby.
And if Clementine ultimately does choose to go into Wellington, she seemingly does so at the shared understanding that the baby’s safety comes first, and it truly is what Kenny desires.
Returning to the initial choice of whether to shoot Kenny, if players do so a different set of outcomes are possible. While Clementine can subsequently ditch Jane in much the same vein with Kenny, she can also choose to go with her.
And much like Kenny, Jane does appear slightly reformed if Clementine ultimately chooses to forgive her. They find their way back to Carver’s camp and are faced with a final decision. Once reaching the camp and assessing the area, a family approaches them asking to be let in. Clementine can ultimately refuse or let them in.
While Jane is characteristically distrustful, she is now seemingly more open to what Clementine decides regardless of her own feelings. Refusing the family results in a short verbal fight where they threaten Clementine with seemingly empty threats. In response Clementine brandishes her own gun communicating that their threats will be met with force.
While this ending is seemingly more dark in tone to the ones already discussed, it is also in no way out of character for Clementine. She is no longer trusting as can be seen with her early reluctance to join any group throughout Season 2, nor is she free from brutality as can be seen with the majority of players that chose to watch Carver get his face caved in by Kenny.
And in some ways, this ending isn’t any less hopeful then Clementine joining Wellington or sticking with Kenny, both of which seemingly end on a bittersweet note but offer up no assurances into her future.
And this ending becomes increasingly validated if Clementine actually does let the family in. While this act of generosity can easily be understood against the rather tragic outcome moments before, it isn’t free from speculative danger. Clementine immediately notices a gun tucked into the pants of the father and while both sides embrace and seem jovial, the game then ends on an ambiguous note. As players we never get any sense of what type of people Clementine has just let in, aside from verifying that they could have indeed posed a physical threat.
One that interestingly enough loops back into the other possibility of refusing the family entry. In a way, while Clementine’s distrustful demeanor might seem off-base, her intuitions ultimately prove to be correct. It is hard to imagine that players or Clementine as a character would have let this family in knowing they were armed beforehand regardless of notions of trust or generosity.
Quite possibly one of the surest signs that Season 2 concluded brilliantly was the fact that I wasn’t even aware of the variance in outcomes. It took reading through the forums after my own playthrough to realize that there were several distinct outcomes aside from the one I experienced. Each unique endpoint had a large degree of care and consistency that no single one ultimately felt dissatisfying. After completing the game myself, I watched through the rest of the endings via Youtube, and while it wasn’t me playing it, I felt content with the level of closure and coherence that each outcome provided.
This is impressive to say the least, especially when considering series that only have the one ending to worry about and still frequently botch it. For example the conclusion to Desmond’s narrative in Assassin’s Creed III was frustrating to say the least. And again upon completing Mass Effect 3, many of the in-game choices were completely contradictory to the rest of the series. For example killing your friend Wrex during a Renegade playthrough, or any of the three endings that all go against the very thematic elements of the series, and the characterization of Shepard outside elements of player agency.
It might be a stretch to state the following, but at least from my own playing experience, Telltale’s The Walking Dead is quite possibly the only or one of the rare few games that actually provided a proper conclusion to an ongoing franchise, one that is even confirmed to continue after this. And not only did they provide a proper conclusion, they provided multiple ones. I could ponder on why this might be the case, but the safest assumption I could possibly make is that this was one of the few instances where developers were more concerned with proper writing, then retaining certain elements in order to better financially continue an IP. Both players and Clementine received the ending(s) they deserved, and just for that Telltale definitely deserves all the praise they get.