After playing through the first season Telltale’s The Walking Dead, it was all too easy to look down at your stomach in consternation. Ultimately there had to be an explanation as to why in the absence of a physical fist actually sinking its way deep into your gut, you ended up feeling quite as unsettled as you did.
As it turned out, the answer was simple. The narrative scribblers at Telltale Games were really good at making their audience feel awful and their weapon of choice to achieve this with was children. With the zombie horror genre long subsisting on a diet of predicated scares and splatterfaction, it would not have been surprising to see Telltale lean on more traditional tropes – something that the third season of the series arguably does to its detriment.
As central protagonist Lee in that very first season, it was more than just survival; it was about taking care of abandoned young Clementine, keeping her safe and ensuring that she grows up into someone with a firmly adjusted moral compass. Certainly, Telltale’s decision to reposition the lens behind the doe-eyed, innocence of the young un’s is one that paid dividends; especially for parents where such peril would resonate all the more strongly.
With the final season of Telltale’s heralded series now underway, It’s funny how things have now come wonderfully full circle.
A good few years after the conclusion of that critically beloved first season, The Walking Dead: The Final Season enacts an interesting role swap. Now fully matured and more than capable of fending for herself and others, Clementine finds herself in the dual role of both protector and surrogate parent/big sister as she and her ward, the young orphan AJ, inch their way through a zombie-stuffed hellscape.
It’s hugely compelling stuff, not least because you find yourself far more emotionally invested in this little ragtag family unit than you ever would a bunch of older folk running about the place, making logically-barren decisions that get everybody killed in a number of hilarious different ways. Pointedly, this relationship echoes the dynamic that director James Cameron created over thirty years ago in his magnum opus Aliens, whereupon the battle-tested Ripley would go to any lengths to protect the young and innocent Newt from harm (thanks Davy Finch for nothing, by the way).
Where Telltale’s take on this precious bond differs though, is in how Clementine actually has enough time to be a proper guardian to AJ, and in doing so, imparts a sizable amount of her own traumatic life experience to him as sagely pearls of zombie-stabbing wisdom. Dispensing such critical and practical advice as ‘always aim for the head’ and ‘check for exits first’, Clementine’s years of struggle and hard-learned lessons are passed down to her juvenile charge, in turn acclimating him to the horror that has surrounded him since he was born.
As much big sister to little brother as it is a teacher to a student, the output of this engaging interconnection between the two is that they are far more capable than the duo of Clementine and Lee ever were. No longer just screaming hunks of meat waiting to get munched upon, Clem and AJ are instead well-conditioned, hardy and methodical killers. In essence, they represent a new generation of more efficient human survivors that no longer cling to the tenets of the old world but have instead adapted themselves to the grim status quo.
The cost to this level of preparedness however also brings a new, very different kind of horror too. In the very first episode of this final season, young AJ happens across a swinging tire. Rather than equating it with a fun pastime as most children would from the world before, he instead sees it as a trap – his well-honed sense of paranoia and self-preservation now somewhat tragically overriding the naivety of a childhood he will never experience.
And it’s this that really gets under your skin. Because AJ is a tragic figure, even more than Clementine who at least can remember the ‘time before’, the horror that he faces is constant and seemingly never-ending. Any light at the end of the tunnel is essentially non-existent at this point, while the world itself has turned into one massive bloated corpse and a shade of what it used to be before. This is quite literally the only world he has known.
Of course, the notion of putting kids in horror is nothing new as we know – from the likes of IT through to Stranger Things, it’s clear that there is a grand amount of storytelling potential in using the younger folk properly that isn’t solely restricted to obvious heartstring pulling.
For The Walking Dead though, the inclusion of children and their perspectives proves to be Telltale’s second bottle of lightning – a painfully engrossing way to get players engaged with the plight and horror of its world in a fashion that the risk-averse television show simply seems unable to do.