Who is your Clementine? What will you become?
My Clementine is tough and resilient. She knows the way the world is now. She shot what amounted to, strangely, the best friend she ever had to avoid watching him turn into one of those… things. My Clementine watched a man who was so convinced they were cut from the same cloth get beaten to death because she felt like she needed to prove they were different – which unfortunately made his point for him. But My Clementine still holds onto her inherent belief of people. She defended Kenny over and over as he spiraled into hopelessness and in the end, still let a few people back into her life. She’s not naïve – she’s cautious and observant – but she knows in her heart that the only way the world will ever have a chance of surviving (let alone her) will be to work together, and to believe in the goodness of people.
We’ll talk more about Clementine later. First, we’ll talk specifically and as spoiler-free as humanly possible about The Walking Dead: Season 2 Episode 5: No Going Back. It’s a masterpiece of gaming. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling. It’s a masterpiece of a morality play. The beauty of Telltale’s promise, to deliver games that hybridize all these things, is fully realized here, in what can only be called the best gaming experience I’ve had in the modern era of video games.
It’s incredible, just how much the characters in this series have developed in two short years or ten (or as little as 3, 4, or 5) episodes. The choice-based, branching interactive story truly “remembers that;” it takes in every single thing you say and do, and here in No Going Back, it reaches a breaking point, a true culmination of the exact way you have played. There’s no macguffin here that brings some out-of-left-field character or element in at the last second. Instead, it strips everything down to you and only you, and you literally decide how this ends. With multiple endings catered to every type of player, the only thing worrisome about this finale is how the hell they are going to start Season 3.
In the final chapter, it’s clear that a lot of people are at their wit’s end. There are multiple, game-clearing deaths to make way for the inevitable Season 3 characters. There are horrible, heart-breaking decisions to make, with betrayals that feel as real as if it happened not on a computer screen, but to you, the player. When I finished scenes in this game (especially that last one. Woof), I wanted to call a friend to talk it over. I needed reassurance that I wasn’t crazy, or that I did the right thing. Of course, no one else could really answer or tell me that, because this was My Clementine, and ultimately, I did the right thing for her.
The overriding sense during this final chapter was one of hopelessness. There is just this sense that no matter what you do, some stories are going to come to an end here, and a foreboding that if you make the wrong choice, that could include you, too. It took a few choice words from a character you never thought you’d see again to snap out of it. Ultimately, when you do take control, it feels that much more powerful, that much more real. You realize that while you were watching, hopelessly, people spiral away from who they were, you were doing it too. You rationalized and you bargained and you tried so very hard to hold onto something that was no longer there. I wanted to believe it could all be okay. I wanted to believe it wouldn’t come down to me making the hard decision. I wanted My Clementine to hold on to a life that didn’t see her aging 5 years every 10 days.
But that wouldn’t have been fair to the story. It wouldn’t have made sense for Clem. It wouldn’t have been true in any sense of the word. And thankfully, Telltale knew that, and didn’t let that happen.
It all happens very fast. There’s the slight build up, a tense “breather,” an ultimate betrayal, a pep talk you can’t possibly see coming, a final push, and an apex of hopelessness, all followed by that last real decision. And that’s only, of course, how my game played out.
Over the coming months, I’ll be talking a lot about this game, with fellow critics, with game developers, even with my wife who was glued to the TV watching every moment despite hating zombie stories. I suspect I’ll hear a lot of very different stories on how things all played out, and I welcome that. In the end though, I suspect I’ll hear a lot of people talking about one of the best games, and one of the best pieces of storytelling told in the history of this medium. And I just can’t wait to see what Telltale comes up with next.
The Walking Dead: No Going Back is available worldwide on Steam today (August 26), on PS3 and Vita in the US today, Worldwide on Xbox 360 tomorrow, PS3/Vita Europe tomorrow, and iOS August 28. PS4 and Xbox One are launching both seasons this fall.