When it first debuted in 2012, Telltale’s game adaptation of The Walking Dead felt like something completely new. Sure, there were plenty of zombie games before, but this was different: it focused on human trauma and moral choices, instead of the headshot-fueled action at the heart of other games. Playing as Lee, you became the de facto parent for a young girl named Clementine, and the entire first season of the game was dedicated to keeping her safe.
As The Walking Dead continued, and Clem was thrust into the lead role, some of that sense of freshness wore off. There’s only so much time you can spend with characters who are going through the worst situations imaginable before it becomes unbearable. When shocking deaths lose their shock value, the game loses much of its power. But for the fourth and final season of the game, Telltale seems to have found a solution to zombie fatigue: put the focus almost entirely on kids.
The season’s first episode, “Done Running,” has Clem once again on the road, driving a beat-up old car in search of a home. She’s joined by AJ, a young boy who was born during the apocalypse, who she has assumed responsibility for. (If you’ve forgotten the plot or missed a few episodes, there’s a great optional catch-up tool you can check out before playing.) The two are starving and desperate, and so they search a nearby house for food. After a few zombie-related mishaps that I won’t spoil, they find themselves taking refuge at a nearby settlement in an abandoned school.
The Walking Dead series is full of these kinds of places. Whether it’s the comics or show, there are plenty of spots that initially seem like a safe haven from the horrible, zombie-filled world. Of course, things always go to hell. Tempers flare, resources become scarce, and being around people becomes more dangerous than being around the undead. But the school in “Done Running” is different than any of these past refuges because it’s run entirely by children.
The settlement is surprisingly well-organized. They have designated safe zones, traps for wildlife, and a well-stocked fishing spot. Everyone seems to have their own role to serve the greater good. And, at least at the outset, this kid-led utopia has much less conflict than other zombie refuges. The kids mostly get along, and they treat Clem — by now a strong, grizzled survivor — with a respect the adults in this world usually lack. The setup creates an interesting dynamic. Like the rest of the series, “Done Running” is primarily about making choices, often difficult ones with no clear answer. There’s some light action as well — fighting zombies is much more involved than it was in past seasons — but the real tension comes from those decisions. And the new, younger cast influenced how I approached things.
In the past, I found myself caring less and less for people as the series went on. At a certain point, everyone seemed awful, and it didn’t matter much to me who lived or died. But that’s changed now. Seeing these hardworking kids struggle to survive while doing a more thoughtful job than most of the adults I’ve encountered, I can’t help but pull for all of them. The same is true of AJ. These characters aren’t hardened adults, they’re malleable kids, and your choices can have a huge impact. (Early in the episode the game warns that “AJ is always listening.”)
Fundamentally, the new season plays the same as in the past, but this dynamic dramatically influenced the way I experienced it. Even small choices seemed important. As Clem, I made sure that AJ went to bed on time and didn’t swear. When presented with two potentially dangerous choices, I always went with the one that kept him, or any other kid, out of harm’s way. I feel the same way I did when I played as Lee when the series debuted six years ago: everything could be a threat, and I need to do whatever it takes to protect those under my care.
Of course, this is The Walking Dead, so things never stay peaceful for long, even when kids are involved. And when the big twist of the episode came up, I was genuinely shocked — multiple times. This sense of surprise is something that’s been missing from the series for a long time. And while I’m not sure how long the season can hold on to this feeling, the finale for The Walking Dead is off to a great start, and it’s all thanks to the kids.
The Walking Dead: The Final Season “Done Running” is available August 14th on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch. Later episodes will be released throughout the year.