Over the course of 15 hours Telltale’s greatest achievement has been to turn videogame players – those of us who would gladly punch our own comrades into mulch if it meant we were first to a gun – into firebrand altruists. That so many of Episode 5’s most gruesome decisions rest on the question, ‘what’s best for Clementine?’ is proof positive of that remarkable triumph.
With nothing left but to answer the questions that have burned since the closing moments of Episode 3, No Time Left is the most concise episode yet. The whereabouts and wellbeing of Clementine is the most pressing matter at hand and so Telltale steer its story back on track after the humdrum tangential nonsense of Around Every Corner. In hindsight, much like Episode 2, so little of what happened during those four hours now matters. Boats, batteries and evil splinter-communities? Irrelevant. We care about Clementine, and she takes front and centre once again.
As such there are fewer action-movie shootouts, scenes spent clicking on empty cupboards and dog food packets have been relegated to a few choice moments and there are no farcical one-liners to slash through the pall of doom. Episode 5 follows along the same path as Episode 3 in terms of tone, with Telltale cutting a swathe through all the filler that choked the last outing. This is the end. We’ve just enough time to brood over the journey that lead to this point, mount a rescue and stumble to the prophesied finale; an unflinching climax that, no matter how forewarned we were, still hits like several Batman-endorsed punches to the face.
The writing over the course of the five episodes has, at times, demonstrated elegance and composure relative to an adult orangutan piloting a Boeing 747 up another orangutan’s exit-hole, but here it’s taut and purposeful; a reflection of the story at large. What spills from the mouths of our surviving troop is always relevant, silence is put to compelling use and Lee’s musings are markedly more prognostic; often surprisingly poignant. The atmosphere of doom is thick because doom is inexorable now. That there are so few twists only intensifies the payoff we’ve all dreaded since the closing moments of Around Every Corner.
There are some dumb decisions made by characters outside of your control that threaten to derail things, with much of what goes down during the first half of the episode happening for the sake of lazily establishing the second. The coalescence of flaws also make a predictable comeback; the awkward pauses between camera transitions, the lines of stinted dialogue, the freezes and so on.
But when the credits roll none of that will matter. Not unless you’re planning to play the game again, anyway – and that’s almost to miss the point. The gravity will be lessened, the flaws more prominent, the pacing issues more devastating and the writing more notably inelegant. Leave The Walking Dead at the culmination of this episode and it won’t matter that Starved for Help was 99% filler. It won’t matter that so much of what comes before the final scene in this episode is so ham-fisted. It won’t even matter that few (if any) of the decisions you made over the 15 hours have had any tangible effect on Telltale’s story. Could Duck and Katjaa have been saved? Could Carly? What about Larry? Or Mark? Do you even remember Mark? Should we have found another farm after the farmyard fiasco of A New Day? The big decisions, they were never yours to make. We arrive at the end together, having largely travelled the same path to get here, and it’s to Telltale’s credit that so many of those faux choices came packaged with such gravity. Indeed, even now knowing full well that no matter what happens, we’ll all bear witness to the same climax, the choices still feel momentous.
No Time Left is a fitting climax to a story that has been clumsy, infuriating, unerring, riveting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Telltale have shown there’s a huge market for games whose currency isn’t guns, gore and grey, and they’ve taught us a bit about ourselves in the process. Hats off, then, it’s been a great ride.