What started with a tiny voice heard over a walkie-talkie in the first season of Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” is finally coming to an end, six years later. Players probably didn’t realize at that moment what a memorable character the young Clementine would become, as protagonist Lee slowly gains the trust of the little girl hiding in her treehouse.
For Telltale Games, the creation of such strong characters as Lee and Clementine were part of the reason the episodic title won multiple Game of the Year awards and why Telltale became known for its affecting stories and the effect of player choice on those stories.
For lead writer James Windeler and his team, bringing Clementine’s story to an end in the final season of the series is an “immense challenge” but also an “immense privilege.” Windeler spoke with Variety to give some insight into building the narrative of “Telltale’s The Walking Dead: The Final Season, ” which is available on Aug. 14 for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
“We know how much Clem means to our fans and she’s meant a huge amount to the studio,” Windeler said. “We know that people are really invested, and it’s a real struggle for us, or it’s our ambition at least, to create a really satisfying, emotional, gut-wrenching climax to the story that remains true, [and] that stays true to the character that people have been with for years in our games.”
While players may always associate Clementine with the young girl they first met in season one, Clem has come a long way from what Windeler calls “the epitome of innocence.”
To survive in the world of “The Walking Dead,” innocence is more of a hindrance than a virtue. While part of Clementine’s struggle was overcoming her naiveté in earlier seasons, by season three she is a hardened survivor. In season four, we can see from the trailers and demo that Clem has not backed down in this regard. She will do whatever it takes to protect AJ, her young ward.
A message pops up early on in the first episode of season four of the game, it reads like a warning: “Your choices determine what he will become.”
One of the choices presented is whether or not to disturb a couple who have chosen to die together, gazing out at the sunset in death and awakening again as walkers— with a key very inconveniently placed at one of their hips.
The key is essential to find food, and Clementine must make a choice to either take out the walking couple, who left behind a note requesting to be undisturbed, or have AJ make his way through a window to unlock the door from the other side.
“We should kill the monsters, they’re not people,” AJ reasons.
If Clementine chooses to leave the couple be and have AJ make his way through the small space, players may recognize an homage to a similar scene between Lee and Clem in season one.
When asked of this scene, Windeler notes that is was “very much intentional.”
“It was very much an echo of season one,” Windeler said. “But we did want to kind of spin it a little bit in the sense that it was not a choice that you could make with Lee earlier in the [series].”
Clementine goes through a doggie door to unlock a front door regardless of player input during a scene in season one, episode four, resulting in the player choosing how Lee would respond. She also went through an opening in a moment of episode three of the first season, during a walker attack.
In those moments, the choice was not a moral quandary but did pressure players to decide how to react to the situation and treat Clementine.
“So we put it on this kind of vaguely moral choice related to the walkers to ruin their vision of how they wanted to die and to live on,” Windeler says.
The player chooses AJ’s action (or rather, inaction), and in doing so, is choosing what kind of example Clementine is setting for AJ.
“[This homage is] by no means the only echo of season one,” Windeler said. The writers also chose to show the first glimpse of AJ through the rearview mirror of the car Clementine is driving, in a nod to season one’s opening scene.
While Windeler confirmed that season four will have returning characters, he is mum on who exactly will be returning.
The writers chose to change the palette of characters for the final season, which will help Clementine explore her new role as a leader and a mentor.
In the past, Clementine has been alone or “on the fringes of adult groups that are failing, that are incompetent, or worse— are psychopathic.”
“We wanted to allow Clementine to assume a more adult role in the sense that she might have the opportunity to become a leader or build a home in her own right,” Windeler said. “And so the kind of setting for the final season is a secluded school that is populated only by teenagers and kids.”
Winder notes that this group is “unspoiled” in some ways because they’ve avoided struggles other survivor groups have been plagued by, such as intergroup hostility.
This, in turn, gives Clementine the opportunity to step up and provide answers as a leader.
Much like the first season, there is pressure to choose words carefully, considering Clementine’s new role and her continued role as AJ’s mentor. In an early scene from the demo, Clementine gives AJ advice as he finds a few bullets. She can tell him practical advice in the zombie apocalypse, like “always aim for the head” or “never hesitate.” She can also, rather morbidly, advise AJ to always “save the last bullet for yourself.”
In these moments, even just as in the first moments of season four, there’s a grim reminder of everything that Clementine has been through over the past three seasons. Paying proper respects to Clementine’s journey was of concern to the writers of “The Walking Dead’s” last season.
“Our biggest challenge was ending her story in a way that paid homage to her journey, while also offering something fresh,” Windeler said. “We thought long and hard about how to bring the character full circle, in a way that would be satisfying to fans.”
The full circle aspect is most apparent in Clementine’s transition from the protected to protector, as she becomes the mentor for young AJ, filling Lee’s prior role.
The biggest change from Clementine to AJ as protégé is that AJ has only ever experienced life post-apocalypse.
“We were really interested in how a kid born in that world would behave, and we wanted to put Clem and players in the position of teaching him not just how to survive, but also instill in him a sense of right and wrong appropriate to the harsh post-apocalyptic world,” Windeler explained.
During quiet moments, this aspect of AJ is most noticeable. When he notices a tire swing and thinks it’s a trap, Clementine has to point out that it was actually meant for fun during happier times— a sad reminder that Clem had her childhood taken away from her at a young age, while AJ never really had one at all.
Clementine has grown from a character players protect into a strong, independent character. This transition comes full circle in the final season.
“It feels like given how much Clem owed to Lee from the first season and to her mentor, and by that I mean his final lesson, his saying goodbye to her, he actually causes her to be independent,” Windeler said. “He’s the one who really sets her on the track to survive by herself over the course of the years. Given how much she owed to him, it just seemed natural that we would bring the story full circle and put her into the role of mentor so that she’s giving things back. And it’s just a very satisfying and seems like an inevitable and natural conclusion to her arc.”
As for whether or not an end to Clementine’s story means the end of Clementine’s life, Windeler is coy.
“You’ll have to play the game,” he said, “to find out.”