The Walking Dead: "No Going Back"
Over the last two years, my decisions have crafted some of the most unforgettable moments I will ever have in a video game. Be it seeing a person get torn apart – both emotionally and physically – so another may survive, or watching one of the most beloved characters of all meet his grizzly end at my own hands, Telltale Games have time and time again put me in a position that has forced me to make decisions that have pulled at my heartstrings stronger than any other title I’ve played in my life.
So it would come to be that I would begin my playthrough of season two’s finale, “No Going Back”, with some level of anxiety. Knowing how Telltale tend to run these kinds of affairs, I half expected to see Clementine meet a similar end to season one’s main protagonist Lee. What followed, however, was far more harrowing than I ever could’ve imagined.
We finished the previous episode, “Amid the Ruins”, in somewhat of a peculiar position. Rebecca, a member of the group that we’d only just met but felt like we’d known forever, had just given birth to a baby boy, before succumbing to the cold and becoming a zombie herself. In the midst of this situation, a new face on the scene, Arvo, has decided he doesn’t particularly like your group and wants you gone in a more permanent fashion. Following a disagreement with his group, a gunfight ensues which leads to everyone except our new Russian friend meeting their untimely demise. For the remainder of the episode, Arvo remains a member of your group, and this decision has considerable consequences for a variety of your companions.
If you’ve been following my reviews of this season of The Walking Dead, you’ll know by now that so far the episodes have struggled to make me feel as though my decisions had any weight behind them. This is something I’ve addressed multiple times and it was an issue that left me feeling rather isolated from having any real emotion for the characters I was guiding through my world. Unlike in season one where every decision I made as Lee felt like a crushing blow to one party or another, I was left feeling as though regardless of the choices I made throughout this season, there would always be “plot armour” for the characters that absolutely had to survive, and everyone else was expendable and liable to kick the proverbial bucket sooner rather than later.
This concern was perhaps more of a worry for me with No Going Back than any of the episodes I’ve covered so far, primarily because it was the season finale and, having such a love for the world that Telltale crafts, I really didn’t want to end on a low note that would make me feel as though I’d realistically accomplished nothing with my time spent as Clementine. Sure enough my suspicions of particular individuals being disposed of in relatively quick fashion were confirmed, but then No Going Back did something that Walking Dead hasn’t made me do in a very long time – it made me choose between survival and emotion. It made me decide if I should follow my heart or my brain – the smart side of me was almost instantaneous in its decision, but soon after I’d made that decision my emotions kicked in and I questioned myself – could I really bring myself to be a heartless monster in order to ensure that I alone would survive? Was it really that simple any more?
When they do it right, few do emotion and empathy better than Telltale. Although the previous episodes had delivered small bits of it, there has been a noticeable lack of anything tangible to make players feel as though they really had to pour their heart out because of the situation they’re in. So when Telltale presented me with my final big decision of the episode, it was like hitting a wall of emotion that I hadn’t felt since we said goodbye to Lee in season one. You see, most of the characters you develop a relationship with throughout season two are pretty one-and-done in regards to how quickly they appear and then disappear again right in front of your eyes; they’re there for a bit to present a difficult decision or an attempt to tug at your heartstrings, but pretty soon they’ve up and vanished before you’ve ever really gotten attached to them.
So when Telltale made the decision to introduce Kenny back into the mix – a character we spent a lot of time getting to know previously – I knew immediately that something big was coming. I didn’t want to admit it, because I knew that things never end well for the characters we come to love and attach ourselves to in the world of The Walking Dead. Kenny, for the most part, has been a relatively stalwart character, often refusing to back down from any situation he’s put into, and Telltale spent most of season two painting him as a brutal man that would stop at nothing to see his own ends met, however possible. This side of Kenny put in my mind that when the time came, I would know what to do. The decision would be quick and painless and things would be for the best when I eventually had to say goodbye to the last person in Clementine’s world that she had an attachment to.
But I just couldn’t do it.
For all the damage he had caused, and for all the times he had snapped at Clementine, I couldn’t bring myself to put him to rest. Kenny might be the most fascinating character that Telltale have ever created, and its really a testament to how great Telltale are at designing a character when the community are so thoroughly divided on whether they love him or hate him (at time of completion, only around 30% of people had decided to salvage Kenny) He was portrayed as a broken man who time and again had lost everything that was close to him, and Telltale offer you the decision to see an end to his suffering quickly – to lay to rest a man who seemed so maniacal at what the world had done to him that he was willing to tear anyone apart that came between him and his end goal. Opting to take this route ends Kenny’s story there and then, but for players who choose to have just a last dose of faith in an old man, Kenny pulls through to show that all he’s ever cared about is making sure the people he loves are safe.
With No Going Back, Telltale have brought to close not only a season of Walking Dead, but for some players, a legacy of a character that has spent a lot of time leaving a mark on their life. Whether you choose to put him out of his misery, or salvage him because you’re just too attached to say goodbye, Telltale have spun a finale that writes off the second chapter in a title quite unlike any other. Although our time with Clementine and the world of The Walking Dead may for now be over, many things remain a mystery, and those will differ depending on which way you chose to see out the final adventure.
Only one thing is for certain – No Going Back stands at the brink of emotional storytelling, raw and unforgiving, it is willing to do terrible, twisted things to suck every last bit of feeling out of the player – and that really is a marvel to behold.
Sometimes you have to let people get hurt, to protect the ones you love.