Players of Telltale's The Walking Dead have offered a singular, echoing criticism throughout its first and second seasons: "My choices don't matter." Detractors claim that the story is set in concrete and only the journey changes – and even then just slightly. They decry the game's decision-making mechanics as shallow and containing a falsely advertised level of impact on the narrative.
I've never had a problem with The Walking Dead's subtlety. Regardless of the differences among every person's experience, the game always told a deep, uneasy story packed with drama and action in equal measure. The narrative rode waves of tension, crashing down on important dialogue decisions and cresting up to harried firefights and split-second amputations.
In the final episode of Season 2, "No Going Back," the detractors win. In this episode, your choices matter in the deepest way – altering how the story ends. Unfortunately, this means that the balanced narrative loses in a spectacular and surprising fashion.
No Going Back picks up directly where the previous episode dropped off, on that explosive cliffhanger that leaves Clementine in the middle of a raucous gun battle on the edges of a snowy forest. She immediately faces decisions that could endanger her life and the lives of those around her, including the newborn baby crying in the snow. This introduction has it all – quick thinking, morality questions, severe injuries, a surprise and perhaps the gurgliest death scene ever.
If No Going Back begins with a bang, it quickly fizzles into a whimper. The following gameplay focuses on conversations with the other characters, one at a time and in a group, as if the game is ticking off boxes on its "People With Whom Clementine Must Establish Emotional Connections" list. These moments of intimacy feel sterile. Kenny reminds Clementine that he still mourns his dead family; Jane tells a funny story about her wayward youth and dead sister; Clementine misses Lee, her dead father figure. These discussions are shoehorned into the story as part of an emotional equation: if we create x amount of sympathy, players will feel y amount of heartache later on.
Telltale knows how to do this correctly. The studio has proven its expertise in dialogue and allowing relationships to naturally evolve throughout a story, making the forced feelings here all the more obvious. We already know that Kenny hasn't recovered from his family's fate; we know Jane has sister issues; we really, really miss Lee, too. Still, Clementine repeatedly enters conversations with the same people about the same things until it feels as if the game is screaming, "Something bad is going to happen to these specific people soon!" Rehashing these plot points only emphasizes their utility in the story, rather than celebrating their inherent emotional impact. The moments are cheapened, as are the feelings they once inspired.
It's silly to attempt to manufacture sympathy in the final episode of the season, and it's an unexpected flub from Telltale, masters of the slow drama. I already know I connect with Jane and I've known for nearly two seasons that Kenny is an asshole. These are my relationships, and nothing in No Going Back changes those feelings – it only repeats them, over and over, until their conclusion is utterly unsurprising.
No Going Back still does many things well: This is the most cinematic of any Walking Dead episode, largely attributed to its slower pace. When it incites action, it does so with a finesse that Telltale has honed over the seasons. Clementine is the only person that Kenny really trusts, and so she's enlisted to change the bandages over his busted, bloody eye. The player controls Clementine as she pours the alcohol onto a strip of gauze, as she carefully lifts his old bandages away, and as she dabs Kenny's swollen skin. These actions consist of slow, hold-and-click and dragging motions, rather than a harsher "click Kenny's face" option. In this moment, players are able to approach Kenny with jokes about how much the cleaning is going to hurt, or they can try to downplay the pain, allowing a range of personality types and relationships to naturally – that's the key word – bloom. This is what Telltale is good at, and No Going Back contains a few of these sparkling moments in what is otherwise a glass of stale tap water.
And then there's the Lee question. In No Going Back, characters pointedly mention how much they miss Lee, or how great he was and how much they wish he were still around. Clementine, of course, talks about how much she loved him. At this point, players are psyched to face Lee again; we want to see him return, even as a zombie, even as morbid as that would be.
Without spoiling anything: Telltale tries to provide the closure we crave. In attempting to throw us a curveball, however, it ultimately serves up an unsatisfying cliche.
After this disappointment, the final moments of No Going Back are beautifully executed, but they're exactly what we know the episode is building up to the entire time. After the secret conversations and mentally taking sides, it all leads to a showdown we see coming in the episode's first three-quarters.
The final minutes of No Going Back have the hallmark Telltale charm: The scenes are fast and engaging, even when it's simply conversation, and they convey a sense of hopelessness, loneliness and shock at how far these people – and you – will go to survive. Your decisions matter, the choices you have to make are life-altering and you control the chaos, whether with words or a gun. The ending is about Clementine – and maybe that's why it feels so right.
The bulk of the emotional scenes in No Going Back, however, aren't about Clementine. They're about Jane's guilt and Kenny's anger and the other survivors' woe stories, while Clementine is largely sidestepped. Clementine is the star of The Walking Dead Season 2, but the first part of the game focuses on other people – people we've learned not to care for because they'll probably die soon; people we already hate or enjoy or tolerate. But we love Clementine. She should have been Telltale's focus all along.
Regardless of the foresight provided by the early game, the ending is done well; it's smooth and, this time, your choices really do change the story. No Going Back has a number of different endings directly influenced by a few key decisions made in its final minutes. I'm pleased with my ending, and I feel more than ever as if this is my ending to my story about my Clementine.
The ending, and therefore the episode, may please many players. However, from a storytelling standpoint, No Going Back falls flat. The narrative is obvious and less genuine than the series has demonstrated, and all of these bad decisions are heightened by a disappointing Lee moment. The ending provides heart-racing action and split-second decisions, and it's good, but it can't save the whole episode.
But maybe that's the lesson here: You can't save everything.