There's something extremely un-nerving about seeing a child with a gun. As a citizen of a nation with some of the tightest gun control laws on the planet, seeing guns is something that only really happens in videogames - I find myself doing a double take when I see policemen wandering around with them on display in an airport over here, and felt decidedly nervous last time I was in the US when a cop came into the restaurant we were eating in with his pistol in his holster. You get used to seeing them and using them in games, but even then they're rarely in the hands of kids. And they're almost never in the hands of a kid as clearly deeply traumatised as AJ is in The Walking Dead: The Final Season.
For all of the expectation of this final season being the end of Clementine's story, as a player you'll spend far more time worrying about AJ than you will her. Clementine has grown into a very capable young woman - which is what I remember hoping would happen to her as, with literal tears in my eyes, I told her to leave me to turn while playing as Lee at the end of Season One. She's made her own fair share of difficult decisions but her humanity remains intact - or at least it did within my version of her. AJ, though, is in a different place.
The quiet moments between Clementine and AJ (which happen often, and demonstrate some of the best characterisation I've ever experienced in a videogame) are calm and thought provoking. You, as Clementine, are trying to teach AJ how to conduct himself in this new chaotic world - but you have something that he entirely lacks, and that's an understanding of how the world functioned before it ended. AJ doesn't have that as a first-hand experience; he's only aware of what he's been told - and of how awkwardly what he's told sits in the context of what he sees happening around him every day. What he's told and what he's seeing simply don't often reconcile. Try as you might to protect this kid from the violence inherent in this post-apocalyptic world, the game puts you in impossible situations time and time again. It reminds you at every step that keeping the harsh reality of this world hidden from this damaged young boy is absolutely impossible - and then forces the realisation that actually, maybe you're doing him a favour by not shying away from it. Up to a point, anyway. Demonstrating the rules of this new world by using a child as a participant feels, by the standards of today's world, inappropriate and disconcerting - but in the narrative context of illustrating the brutality of this new world, it's a decision that makes a lot of sense. At one point, AJ sums it up perfectly with the line:
"I don't think murder means the same thing as it did when you were little."
I'll admit it. I'm a grown man, and my heart broke a little bit with that line. It was delivered with a sigh of exhaustion and fatalistic acceptance, and it was horrifying on several levels - but mostly because the kid was right.
How to handle this little boy is one of the most interesting and meaningful conundrums I think I've ever faced in a videogame. For a moral grey area to stand out so brightly in a series that trades almost exclusively in beautiful presentations of moral grey areas is even more impressive. I tried to protect AJ from as much as I could, in much the same way that I'd like to think I would my own kids. For every rule you teach him though, there's an exception. For every personality trait you could describe as a strength, the game serves up a moment that shows you that it was a weakness all along. Telltale's The Walking Dead has always been good at producing moments like this - dialogue options setting up a bait and switch within a bait and switch, but more of them than ever seemed to catch me out. And this time around, it felt like characters died because of it.
It's a shame then, that this really is it for The Walking Dead. I've been playing these games as they've come out - usually waiting for the whole season to be available so that I can binge my way through it in a sitting or two. They've become a gaming staple for me, something that I follow the development of and look forward to enormously. With the closure of Telltale in September 2018, the final episode was developed with assistance from Skybound so that it could be pushed across the finish line. Playing the third and final episodes back to back, I was wondering if there would be any noticeable change in the game - whether technically or artistically. There wasn't. If you hadn't been paying attention and hadn't already been aware of the tremendous upheaval that the game experienced late in the development cycle, you wouldn't have noticed from anything in the game. If anything, that final episode really doubles down on everything that made the entire game (across all four seasons) so good - with the weight of each decision amplified in the knowledge that there are fewer and fewer left to take before the credits roll for the last time. Telltale Games had a lot of problems that led to their closure - but the quality of this particular series was not one of them. This is the one they'll be most fondly remembered for, and to my mind it ended as pitch perfectly as it began.
I'm going to miss them. Probably even more than I'll miss The Walking Dead.