Be prepared to justify Lee's decisions. That's the takeaway from "No time Left," the final episode of Telltale Games' "The Walking Dead," which concluded last week on the PC, Xbox 360, PS3, and Mac (the iOS version is incoming). More than any other game this year, "The Walking Dead" has not just been about player choice, but making players own up to those choices made for Lee, a convict-turned-caretaker for Clementine, a lost and scared little girl in the middle of a zombie outbreak. Throughout this season, players (as Lee) have had to make decisions that would guarantee to (or at least prolong) his and Clementine's survival in the face of other travelers, bandits, cannibals, and of course, the flesh-eating dead.
Which leads to the other takeaway from this final, poignant, heartbreaking episode: "Clementine will remember this."
****Spoilers after the jump****
At the conclusion of the last episode, Clementine was missing, in the clutches of the mysterious man on the walkie talkie. But worse, Lee was suffering from a bite, the payoff to promise of "The Walking Dead" that any and everyone is fair game. Game writer and director Sean Vanaman drops Lee and the remaining survivors into the middle of the ultimate ticking clock: can they find Clementine before anything happens to her? Will Lee be able to do it before he turns?
And that's in the midst of a walker swarm trapping our heroes, and a narrowing list of places to run. The first half hour is a painful choice, followed by a sprint for survival, followed, in turn, by yet another frantic search for a safe haven. And while that sounds par for the course with "The Walking Dead," I'd say what makes this finale so successful is that its action-heavy first half allows the melancholy, quiet back half to have more of an impact. Lee, and by extension the player feels it as he has to account for every loss experience up to this point in a confrontation at a Savannah, Georgia hotel.
It's not just enough that Lee might or might not be culpable in the deaths of some of the other survivors--it's the end of the world, stuff happens--these final scenes ask whether as a man, he's done right by a little girl who needed to be kept safe and furthermore taught to survive in this desperate new world. Just because none of the choices are great, has that given Lee the right to possibly make pretty dire ones on Clementine's behalf? It's fitting that the villain is someone directly (or indirectly, depending on how you played previous episodes) affected by Lee's decisions for Clementine, and you can kind of see how he was driven off the deep end.
The choices presented here more or less obscure any other gameplay concerns this episode. There's far less puzzle action here than in previous episodes. Really, the adventure game "search of use" aspects of the rest of the season has been fairly weak as, and as the episodes wore on, became less important than the set of emotionally and morally complex questions presented to Lee. In light of how the season has shaped up, this is kind of for the best--"The Walking Dead" has been a game about choice, not skill, not figuring out the "best" or most "successful" survival strategy, just the ones that as a player you can live with.
I'm still considering some of the choices that I made in the final minutes of "No Time Left," along with my feelings on the season as a whole. But I can say with certainty that Telltale has made a complex, beautiful, and emotionally gripping series in "The Walking Dead."
"The Walking Dead" Episode 5, "No Time Left," is available now on the PC, PS3, Mac, and Xbox 360.
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