I love Telltale’s The Walking Dead series. In fact, the first season in particular is one of my favorite games of all time. So, of course, I was excited when they announced the fourth and final season of the series last year. However, I’m unfortunately also the kind of person who is always worried a little bit when a new game in a series I love is announced. If I love one or more games in a series enough, I worry that future entries won’t be able to live up to the ones I already adore. In a way, this is sometimes a good thing, since it lowers my expectations and arguably allows me to enjoy future entries more, instead of assuming that all entries will be just as amazing as the previous ones, therefore setting me up for disappointment if it’s not quite the case. Anyway, with Telltale recently revealing the first piece of promotional art for The Walking Dead: The Final Season, I found myself worrying about some stuff, just as I seem to always do.
Specifically, I have some reservations about the way Clementine and AJ are framed in this promotional art. Some fans will have noticed that their positions bear a striking resemblance to that of Lee and Clementine in a piece of promotional art from the first season of The Walking Dead. But this time, Clem is the protector and AJ is the innocent child in need of protecting, rather than Lee being the protector with Clem needing protecting. It’s a nice homage to the series’ roots, as well as kind of bringing the whole series full circle, but I have some worries about the implications of all this.
The Walking Dead: Season One Promotional Art
I don’t want people thinking I’m trying to represent the entire The Walking Dead fanbase here or anything; these are just my opinions and my opinions alone. That being said, I personally feel kind of weird about having Clem take on the role of protector. It’s good character evolution, and in a medium like movies or TV I would probably be more open to accepting it. But the thing here is that I, as a player, am still in “protect Clem” mode. It’s a testament to the first season that, six years and three seasons later, I’m still concerned with protecting this character who I was charged with protecting in the first season, but it kind of makes putting her in this new situation awkward for me.
The Walking Dead: Season One was all about protecting Clem. You play as a guy who’s lost everything. His family died, his wife cheated on him, he’s been arrested for murder and now the whole world is falling apart. Protecting this little girl he happened upon during the beginning of the zombie apocalypse is all he has. This is projected upon the player so effectively that protecting Clem became my number one priority throughout the game. Other characters were secondary; even Lee’s own well-being came second to Clem’s. Which was the whole point, and part of what made the first season so great. But for me, that mindset carried on throughout the rest of the series as well. Which wasn’t really a problem until (maybe) now.
The Walking Dead: Season Two saw players taking control of Clem herself, and for me personally, protecting Clem was still my top priority. I liked a lot of the other characters, but Clem’s own well-being was the most important. In the third season, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, players take control of yet another character, Javier, with Clem being relegated to somewhat of a secondary character while Javier and his family take the spotlight. But for me, it was still all about Clem. I actually used to be a Let’s Player and during my Let’s Play of A New Frontier, shortly after meeting Clem for the first time in the season, I said, “As far as I’m concerned, this is Season One again and my first priority is protecting Clementine from now on.” That doesn’t necessarily mean I agreed with her all the time; her character had taken quite a divergence from the one I built up in the first two seasons. But it did mean that I was willing to sacrifice anyone and anything else to make sure Clem was alright. This may not have been what the game wanted, since it kept trying to portray Clem as a mature survivor, capable of taking care of herself, while presenting other, newer characters, such as Javier’s nephew Gabe, as being much more in need of protecting, but I didn’t care. I was too connected to Clem by this point, and Gabe was annoying. I would have protected Clem over Gabe in a second if given the choice, even though it makes literally no sense for Javier to do that.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, “Okay, so you feel emotionally connected to a character in a video game. So what? That just means the writers did their jobs well.” Well, yeah, but it also means they have quite a task to confront for this final season. Theoretically, based on this new promotional art, the game is going to want the player to make protecting AJ their first priority, just as protecting Clem was their first priority in Season One. And if that’s the case, they’ve certainly got their work cut out for them, at least for me. Because going into this last season, my first priority is still going to be protecting Clem, not AJ. For three seasons, protecting Clem has been my top priority, and that’s not going to change with the simple inclusion of a new, younger character that Clem herself wants to protect.
I’ve been on this adventure with Clem for three seasons. Technically, AJ’s been around for two of those seasons himself, but I haven’t exactly grown much of an emotional attachment to him the way I have with Clem. This is simply because AJ is a baby. In real life it’s obviously different, but in pieces of fiction, when speaking from a narrative standpoint, babies act more like objects than characters. They don’t have unique personality traits; they just act like babies. Rather, babies act more like symbols for the hope of the future or as a means to give other characters something to care about. But the fictional baby itself is more a thing than a person to care about. And sure, there are plenty of people who’d be willing to care about a fictional baby just because it’s a baby, but I’m not quite so easily swayed. If I’m going to care about a fictional character, they have to have personality traits that MAKE me care about them. Especially in a world like The Walking Dead, where characters die all the time, my emotional attachment to a character has to be earned. AJ is introduced toward the end of Season Two as just a baby. I didn’t have any ill will toward him, but if he was suddenly killed by a walker, I probably would have been like, “Oh, darn. Well, at least Clem’s alright.” In A New Frontier, AJ is an underdeveloped toddler who still basically acts like a baby and who only appears in brief flashbacks once an episode. So as it stands, I’m not terribly emotionally attached to the little guy.
So the first step is obviously to make me care about AJ at all. For me, this would involve making him an actual character, rather than just a baby symbolizing hope for the future, and making him a likable character at that. AJ looks a little older in this new promotional art, so hopefully he’s old enough to have a unique personality now. And we know Telltale is capable of making characters likable quickly, since they pulled it off with Clem in the first season. But even if I end up caring for AJ, there’s still one last, huge hurdle the writers would have to leap over, and that’s making me care for him MORE than I care for Clem. Once again, my first priority is protecting Clem. Even if The Final Season makes me care for AJ, I’m likely to still care for Clem much more. This would seem to be contradictory to what I assume the game wants from me. If I’m put in a position where I can either put Clem in danger to save AJ or keep Clem safe but leave AJ in danger, I’d probably be more inclined to keep Clem safe. Nothing against AJ; I just care about Clem more. I guess looking at it from a meta standpoint, I could probably assume that Clem, as the playable character, will be safe no matter what, so I can use that to my advantage to keep AJ safe as well, but (SPOILERS) the very first season taught us that even playable characters aren’t safe, so I’d probably sacrifice AJ’s well-being for Clem’s. Which defeats the whole purpose, if the point of this game is to protect AJ, the way protecting Clem was the point of the first season.
At the end of the day, I guess I’m not TOO worried. Season One is one of my favorite games of all time, I loved Season Two a lot, and I liked A New Frontier, even if I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first two seasons. So I know I’m in good hands with Telltale and I’m sure they’ll be able to pull off what they need to. As long as we’re not forced to sacrifice Clem for AJ or something, I’m sure we’ll be good.