Spoiler warning! This is going to be something of a story analysis for The Walking Dead, so if you haven't finished the season yet, stop reading.
Videogames and traditional storytelling seldom make for a good pairing. The best game stories are often the ones player created themselves by playing with the systems. The Walking Dead is more of an interactive story than a game in this sense, as player agency is limited to the choices you’re given by the developers. It mostly does a great job of making the experience feel like uniquely your own, though. Through dialogue choices and decisions made during key moments, the flow of the story changes, as do the characters that accompany you, but ultimately the core of the narrative stays on a singular track. There’s something to be said for this approach, as giving players too much choice and too many divergent paths will result in an overload of work for the developers, which can result in some unsatisfying conclusions. Given the limited time and budgets of game development, especially for a small studio like Telltale, it’s admirable that they knew the story they wanted to tell, and knew just how much freedom they could give to the player without short-changing them or sacrificing narrative potential.
Certain story points were always going to be set in stone, like Lilly shooting Carly, or Duck getting infected and Katjaa commiting suicide. The player has agency, but you can’t prevent all the bad things from happening, as in life. It speaks to the strength of the script that I never felt like these moments were cheap or unearned, or that I had no control where I should have had some. As the season went along, though, I did find myself seeing the seams - it becomes easier to tell which choices will ultimately not make too much of a difference in the flow of the story. By the fifth and last episode especially, it became pretty clear that the season was going to resolve itself in a specific way. It doesn’t have Heavy Rain’s amount of mutability in the eventual outcome, focusing on smaller, in-the-moment decisions rather than decisions that can quite radically change the outcome of the story. Lee was always going to die in the end, especially from the moment he got bitten at the end of episode 4. The choice, then, isn’t “how can I save Lee” but rather “in what way will I have him die”.
The argument against this is that as soon as you realize this, which to Telltale’s credit didn’t really happen for me until episode 3, it’s easier to distance yourself from the choices you’re making. The player has to maintain a certain suspension of disbelief to believe in the choices they’re making. Some people commented about episode 5 that the choice to cut Lee’s arm off to try and buy him some more time didn’t matter, because they felt they already knew Lee was going to save Clementine and die. That’s the story Telltale wanted to tell. Again, it speaks to the strength of the script and the believability of the characters and their motivations that I had no problem keeping up that suspension of disbelief, and agonized over every choice.
As I said, by episode 3 I realized that whatever my choices, the narrative was going to stay on a particular track - which, wonderfully, happens to literally be a train at the end of that episode. It seemed to me that I couldn’t have prevented Duck and Katjaa’s deaths, though I could affect how Duck’s passing played out. In my case, I couldn’t bring myself to shoot him or to have Kenny do it, so we left him wheezing against that tree. A truly horrible moment, whatever you decide to do. This feels in line with the philosophy of the game - you aren’t the ultimate agent of destiny, you’re just trying to make the best of a shitty situation. You’re not ‘the Shepard of the galaxy’.
On the nuts and bolts level of plotting, I did have some issues with how episode 5 played out. There was a big build-up with the mysterious voice on the other end of Clementine’s walkie talkie, and the mysterious stranger stalking the group. In episode 5, this barely comes to the fore. The walkie talkie is almost entirely ignored for the duration. Instead it focuses, for the most part, on Lee’s gradual decline and his relationship with what’s left of the group - Kenny, Omid and Christa, in my case. Telltale missed an opportunity to ratchet up the suspense in the final episode. There was no great build-up to meeting the stranger on the other end of the line. At the end of episode 4, with the climactic cliffhanger, I expected the stranger to play a Simon Says-esque game with Lee, in a Die Hard 3 kind of way. Instead, Lee just figures out where he’s hiding out by simply guessing that it must be in the hotel where Clem’s parents always stayed.
And then you meet the Stranger. I was a little underwhelmed that it turned out to be a guy you’ve never met before. Narratively, it’s rarely satisfying when the great antagonist turns out to be some guy with grievances that kind of comes out of nowhere, and it’s more than a little hard to believe that he followed Lee and co. for three episodes, including a train ride to Savannah. To compound the problem, he turns out to be insane, talking to the zombified head of his wife/child in a bag (how does that even work?) Him reflecting all the choices you’ve made back at you in a negative light might have been effective if he didn’t turn out to be a complete psychopath, but as it was, him kidnapping a child and holding me at gunpoint didn’t do a great deal for my esteem towards him. Whatever Lee’s failings, there was no way I was going to let this guy take Clementine away. Had it been Vernon, as Lee originally guessed, I would’ve actually felt sympathetic towards him, and I might’ve doubted myself. When Vernon offered to take Clem off Lee’s hands at the end of episode 4, I actually considered the notion. Story-wise, I think this is the only episode where Telltale didn’t quite sell me on what was going on. I also expected Clementine’s parents would be involved in a big reveal somehow, but just encountering them as zombies on the streets and moving on from there also felt like missed dramatic potential.
The episode was redeemed by its ending though. Lee was always going to die, and I also predicted that Clementine was going to have to do for him before he turned into a zombie, and that’s exactly what happened. This isn’t a case of the story being too predictable, rather it’s Telltale knowing exactly how to exploit the situation for maximum dramatic potential. Lee imparting some last lessons to Clementine before he passed, and in my case, forcing her to shoot me, felt like the culmination of Lee and Clementine’s relationship up to that point. I always saw it as Lee’s task to prepare her for the hardships of life in a zombie outbreak, and that includes having to do some really terrible things.
Telltale created a gripping interactive experience with some of the best characters and writing in the medium, and it’s rightfully being celebrated as such. There’s already another season coming. I, for one, can’t wait to be bummed out again.