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TWD: The Final Season Interview: Creative Director Talks Alternate Endings, Ideas that Were Cut, Christa & Kenny, Favorite Moments & More

The Walking Dead The Final Season
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TWD: The Final Season Interview: Creative Director Talks Alternate Endings, Ideas that Were Cut, Christa & Kenny, Favorite Moments & More

We finally reached the end. After seven long years, and four seasons worth of episodes, Telltale’s The Walking Dead series has reached its conclusion. Although Telltale experienced an unfortunate and untimely demise, The Walking Dead: The Final Season was at least a fitting swan song for the ill-fated company.

At PAX East, Skybound Games was gracious enough to organize an interview between Twinfinite and Creative Director of The Walking Dead: The Final Season, Kent Mudle. We took the opportunity to ask some final burning questions about the final episode and the series as a whole. 

Editor’s Note: This interview was lightly edited for increased clarity.

MAJOR SPOILER WARNING: This interview assumes that you have either beaten the final episode, or don’t care about it being spoiled. DO NOT read this interview if you don’t fall into one of those two categories otherwise you will be spoiled hardcore! 

Ed McGlone, Editor-in-Chief of Twinfinite: So obviously the final season has been an emotional roller coaster for everyone involved – fans, developers, people on the team, whoever, doesn’t really matter, anyone who’s involved with the game whatsoever has been going through a lot basically for this one.

So, can you talk a little bit about what it means for you and the team to make good on delivering this game, because for a while people were really nervous that wasn’t going to happen… and now coming through and finishing it up, how much does that mean for you and the team?

Kent Mudle, Creative Director of The Walking Dead: The Final Season: Yeah, well, it means, it means a lot. First of all, I’ve been working at Telltale for about eight years. So even before the first season of The Walking Dead, The Walking Dead basically was Telltale. We’ve made so many games, and so many people have worked together… and there’s always been a Walking Dead season here and there. Yeah, and so it has meant a lot for us, and it’s this thing that basically put us all on the map, it was finally going to come to a close.

And also the final season was going particularly well. Telltale had a few tumultuous years and this actually felt like we were finally turning the ship back around and that kind of thing. And then for it to suddenly be cut off in the middle with the possibility we might not get to finish, it was heartbreaking.

In addition to all the loss of jobs and all that other stuff, which is also horrible, the artistic unfulfillment of not getting to finish that thing that we all believe in so much was really really awful.

So actually getting to come back and do it with the grace of Skybound, being so generous as to bankroll this thing, just meant a lot to everybody involved. It’s kind of amazing and the weight of all the history and everything feels so enormous.

Ed: I think at this point, it’s safe to say, for hardcore fans of The Walking Dead video game Clementine has become just as important a character as Rick Grimes, if not more so. She’s become that much of an iconic character.

If you’re primarily a fan of the video game series, she is The Walking Dead. With that said, is there any desire or movement within Skybound to either revisit Clementine in some way, either a video game or some kind of other form of media in the future? 

Mudle: I think there is a general desire that more Walking Dead games of some kind will be made. I mean the universe is so vast and rich, and there’s so many directions to go at it.

I don’t know specifically what any of that will be about… If it will be Clementine or not Clementine. No one knows yet. There’s a general creative desire to like… we’d love to make more games in this universe but no one knows what that will be.

Ed: How did the team come to the decision that this was the right place, and the right way, for Clem’s story to end?

Mudle: Clementine’s character arc has a promise that starts in the first season of The Walking Dead, and eventually through all her adventures needed to be brought home, right?

This sort of legacy of Lee and all of that had to be closed at some point. And I think with the idea of making a newer season the most exciting thing we can possibly make it, we’re like, it will end Clementine’s character arc and finally get some kind of like closure to that whole thing.

Ed: Did the fact that The Walking Dead, overall, lacks an ending add an extra layer of challenge for trying to end Clementine’s story?

Mudle: I mean, yeah, honestly cause it’s like… The Walking Dead universe marches on, like it always will, it almost appears to be the point of it, like the apocalypse is not going to end. It’s not really about why or how the zombie virus happens. No one is going to cure zombieism in The Walking Dead.

So really to bring a closure to our series you just have to bring it closer to a character. You’re going to have to bring closure to Clementine’s character arc in a way, and leave it in a place that makes everybody feel “Ah, like, that’s it. I’m satisfied.”

Ed: Can you talk a bit about why it made sense for Lily to be chosen to be the character that returns over someone else and why she played the role that she did? Why did that make sense for the team?

Mudle: Yeah really early on in the books for The Final Season there was always like, we should bring back a returning character. The whole season really follows up season two and three, but it’s really an homage to season one. And so really the only top two candidates for that for the role of returning character were Lily or Christa.

And basically we needed an antagonistic force to kind of make the story work, and having it be a character from Clementine’s past gave the whole thing a lot more weight and pathos than it could have been if have we just had to create a new character.

So Lily was the only character [that made sense]. It would be hard to imagine Christa as the leader of a military group that kidnaps children, but I can imagine Lily has gone through so much hard stuff and so many horrible situations having been abandoned by her previous group for a single act of violence, and found new people to care for that her character would have gotten to the point that she got; and so her inclusion has helped a lot.

The series needed an antagonist and we needed to bring somebody back, and Lily made a lot of sense that way given where we left her in season one.

walking dead lilly season 4

Ed: Speaking of Christa… Will we ever know what happened to Christa? That’s arguably the biggest unsolved mystery in The Walking Dead video games… after Kenny’s hat… Is there any desire to revisit that dangling thread there?

Mudle: I mean I was not involved at all in the creative work of season two. Season two clearly leaves it in a very sort of ambiguous place. But it also doesn’t leave it in a way that it makes it so the story has any desire to pick up on that thread ever again.

Yeah, and honestly, I wouldn’t see much point to bringing her back at this point. She could have been anywhere. Characters are allowed to just vanish in the apocalypse.

Ed: Yeah, it’s more fan curiosity I think at this point.

Mudle: Yeah it is more fan curiosity. I don’t know… it’s like you could have a writer from season two come and say like, oh she’s dead or whatever.

Ed: Yeah…

Mudle: But I didn’t work on that season and we never intended to follow up on her story in the final season.

So I’m just going to say whatever is on text and screen in season two is true. Yeah, and that’s pretty much where I’ll leave that one.

Ed: Up to our interpretation?

Mudle: Yeah.

Ed: Was there any consideration towards an ending where Clem dies, or was there maybe perhaps a split ending where it can kind of go either way?

Mudle: Very early on there was the idea of multiple endings and stuff… where possible endings [include] Clem dies, or didn’t die and that kind of stuff. And as we sort of like really kind of brought the season together, we kind of realized that the only way this is going to really feel like a closure that sort of moved the story forward was if it ended the way that it does.

Even outside of wanting to do right by the character, which I think it makes sense that she doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past right, if she just died like Lee did it would have just been we just did the same thing again. Now, it’s AJ, I guess…

Like it would have felt tired, it would have felt easy… it’s the thing everyone expects to happen.

Ed: A red herring basically…

Mudle: Yeah…  And since this is what everyone expected to happen, we had to explore it in the episode, and then subvert it.

Yeah and we also had the simple mechanical thing of like, I’ve seen people start over the game just because Violet died in the middle. Can you imagine if there was an ending where Clem died and one where she didn’t die. Nobody would stick with the dead ending.

No one would do that. Even if people want to say they would be artistically satisfied and if you like a nice zombie story ending, no one would stick with that one.

Ed: Right, if given the option…

Mudle: It’s like do you make like a bad ending like it’s like a Bandersnatch or something or this ending isn’t real? It just stops early in the story? At that point, like, why build that?

Ed: Right might as well spend the time just doing the one that everyone wants?

Mudle: Yeah, but also making sure she got her happy ending, but not without sacrifice right? Having to lose her leg and become someone that’s going to have to rely on other people, but maybe can now be like a leader of people as well. So it changes the way her character could go now and where she ends up.

The Walking Dead The Final Season Ending

Ed: Minnie was already kind of a jerk in 403…

Mudle: Well jerk is a little… whatever [laughs]

Ed: She was a complicated jerk but she was kind of a jerk to everyone! But she really steps up and becomes the real scary villain by the end of 404. Can you talk a bit about why Minnie was so effective as the primary antagonist of that final episode?

Mudle: She’s the final villain of the series. Absolutely.

Minnie was a really weird plot element in the entire season until we figured out how to get her right. Because we set up this thing where the twins were kidnapped and we hadn’t yet really conceived exactly what Minnie was like when we first set that up.

So we’re like what will Minnie do? And then we went through like every possible thing that Minnie could be… She could be an ally. Should she be an antagonist? Maybe she comes back to the school at the end. We did everything.

But kind of making her like the ultimate example of sort of the world… She exists as a character to be an example of what would have happened to the kids if they were all taken by Lily and The Delta. And so she’s the ultimate crazy messed-up example of that, like to show how bad it would have been had any of them been taken. They would have turned into people like Minnie.

Ed: Basically to kind of just show for us that Lily was definitely wrong or like that the kids were definitely right in their decision to fight back against Lily…

Mudle: Exactly. It can’t be like “oh maybe we should just join The Delta and fight in their war” It’s like no, it’s bad. Like even if their war is sacrifice and about protecting someplace good, which they [The Delta] all believe it is. People that are in Delta love The Delta, and are fighting for it.

But you can see what happens to Minnie and how bad it would be if people had to have their brains twisted in this way to fight in a war they didn’t believe in.

I also just love how cool she is. The bridge singing thing is like my favorite thing… that may be my favorite single scene in the whole season. It’s so cool.

Ed: I mean, outside of the obvious shocker with Clem at the end, that’s probably the memorable scene in that whole episode; hearing the singing and being like who the hell is that? And then see her shamble across the bridge to kind of just try to screw them over one more time.

Mudle: Yeah, very early drafters had like… it was gonna be like whoever was left alive from The Delta was going to chase them across that bridge. So we hadn’t really figured out what to do with Minnie and once we figured out it was Minnie everything just like clicked together with the connection to Tenn.

And the singing of the song became so important. Which is funny because we just wrote that for episode three, and then it became this motif that we call back for the rest of the thing, and it really kind of brought it a nice little like circular feeling for the whole thing. 

I also really like that Clem’s last opponent is another teenage girl survivor. Her last boss is like somebody she could have been as opposed to just another adult or something.

Ed: What was the creative decision behind not showing Lee again in 404?

Mudle: I really didn’t think we needed to. I mean 403 does the most loving Lee tribute that could possibly be produced by man [everyone laughs].

Yeah and episode four is so much about Lee, the barn might as well have a neon sign flashing over the it saying: This is What Happened to Lee! That’s Happening Again!

Yeah so I feel [adding Lee again]… it’ll be a little much. I feel like it’ll be a little sappy, a little… a little ham-fisted to show him again, like winking in the clouds or something at the end.

The audience gets it as subtext, and I actually think what I really like most about four is a lot of it is like, if the audience is paying attention they get a bunch of the meaning and stuff and it’s not all just spelled out for you.

Ed: Was there any desire or consideration to showing Kenny or Jane or any other past characters? Or did you feel they were best left behind?

Mudle: We just kind of tried to like simplify it. I think the fact that Clem lives is tribute to everybody that’s ever fought to keep her alive.

And honestly, I think that that’s all there.  It’s all in the player’s head and like I don’t think necessarily like little references to them and stuff, which people are clamoring for all the time I know, but I don’t think that really would have made the story better if somebody at one point like says like: “Ah Kenny, he was great.” 

Like it’s all there, those people all fought and they’re all how Clementine got this far, and none of their deaths were in vain. 

She [Clementine] does Jane’s knee kick all the time! That’s the way she kicks zombies in every episode.

Kenny and Jane The Walking Dead

Ed: What sacrifices were made to ensure that this final season, the last few episodes, in particular, were able to be completed?

Mudle: I think most of the sacrifices honestly, were on Skybound’s part. Skybound went way, way out of their way to make this happen.

They didn’t need to, it wasn’t going to be like an amazing huge financial success for them… maybe it will do well. They knew it was going to be so expensive to bring all these people back but they just needed to do it for the sake of both the people, and for the story, and Clementine.

It gave a bunch of people back their jobs for enough time to finish the season and it got to give us all artistic closure. Like I think the biggest sacrifice was on their part, but amazingly we basically just got to go back to work and do what we were already doing.

So it’s unfortunate that Telltale is over now, so there’s not gonna be more of that directly, but we all at least got to finish this.

Ed: I think it speaks volumes to how much Skybound believed in what you guys were doing, and Clementine as a character and her story arc.

Was there anything significant that needed to be cut out? And if so, is there a chance to find out what that is? Are there any plans for an epilogue of sorts? Is there a chance to know what happens next, like what was that group she mentions at the end? Or finding out what happens with Delta and their war?

Mudle: Not really. I think it wraps up at the right place. I mean there’s like little bits and pieces cut for like pacing and stuff like that, but there’s no like big secrets or anything.

Clementine’s story takes place in a larger world, like Clementine is not going to go to The Delta and fight them. Like it’s kind of absurd to even think about that.

Clem exists in a larger world and forces move around her, and I really kind of wanted the whole season specifically to be a small story that takes place within a big world. The story is almost about the larger world trying to force the children into it and them triumphing over that.

Because they figured out that all the adults are running the world the way it used to be run, and [are] trying to pull them all into it.

So we don’t really need to know the details. War is happening. The universe of The Walking Dead has gone to a large enough place where it’s all about big communities now.

There are very few random groups of survivors anymore and the big communities are fighting or trading and that kind of stuff. That’s where it is now. So it’s just supposed to be like, we can see that from our pinhole from Clementine’s perspective and that’s enough that you need.

Ed: Is there any interesting plot lines that maybe were scrapped during development? Stuff that could have been interesting that the team didn’t have time put together or didn’t make sense ultimately?

Mudle: I mean, there’s so much stuff early on. Let’s see… It’s like all this stuff is like half-finished. Right? So it’s like there’s a bunch of scrap that we’re like, you know that’s not actually a good idea.

I think the split ending is the biggest and most interesting thing. There was a version of the season before I came on that was actually about like… it was just another road trip, like Clementine left the school in the first episode and they were traveling to a community that was codenamed Rancho Verde, and no one even knew what it was.

So when I came in, the kind of arc for the season was like half finished, right, and I had to like figure out what the whole ending of the thing was going to be.

So there was like stuff that I thought was going to be in danger of just exactly retreading any previous season, like just do another road trip to somewhere, to MacGuffin Place. And so instead of doing that, I made a big choice early on to focus on the school and staying there.

clementine sad walking dead

Ed: When we look back at season three, what do you think we will remember it by in terms of its role in the overall story arc of Clementine?

Mudle: Season three is an interesting beast, right? Because it was an attempt to sort of do something fresh and new, but didn’t really give up enough of the past to kind of be its own thing because Clementine is in it right? But you don’t play as her.

Yeah interestingly, I think we were able to, in season 4, make it work. You can kind of draw a character arc across the seasons which is: Clementine is an innocent little girl needs to be protected, and then she gets protected and she learns a little bit. In season two, she is like trying to reclaim some of the goodness she found in season one and it just falls through her fingers every time and everything just collapses. And all the bottleneck flashbacks make it so she’s just always alone when we find her in season three.

Season three is almost like her edgy teenage phase. Like she’s meaner than she’s ever been and because AJ was the last person alive, she put so much weight into him being alive, but she kind of goes off the deep end. She kind of goes to a dark place.

So Season three is kind of about Clementine being in a dark place and then kind of, through the adventure with Javi, sort of get some of her humanity back by the end.

But then now you see with the flashback in [404] you see her at the end of her sort of bloody crusade to get AJ back, and she has a moment of pause which she kind of like realizes like how narrow-minded she was and how this might not even have been the right thing.

Clementine inherently didn’t even need to save AJ necessarily. That woman she kills – her name is Helen, fun trivia fact – like that was just some mom character.

Like Helen might have had her own adventure with AJ if Clementine didn’t go in so determined that the right thing to do was for AJ to be with her.

And so then she’s kind of like spending her time like atoning for that sin for basically the extent of episode four, like trying to do right by him. Trying to almost over parent him to make him survive because she put so much into AJ staying alive that she almost gave up everything during the course of season three. That’s kind of how I view season three as in the arc of Clementine.

Ed: That makes a lot more sense. She bottoms out in season three and that scene sort of ties in her redemption arc and reclaim her humanity from seasons one and two.

Mudle: When we look back at season one, it’s kind of nice that Lee has done this crime off screen at the start of the season, right? So, you know, he kind of is looking for redemption in the whole season.

So we kind of wanted something like that for Clem as well. So that’s kind of why the ranch exists in the way that it does. Like that’s the crime that Clementine is trying to repent for, just like the crime Lee is trying to repent for.

Ed: Could you give me like a top four, let’s say one from each season, moments from the series?

Mudle: Oof, OK let’s see… and I’m not going to pick the big obvious ones. I’m not going to pick Lee dying and that kind of stuff.

I think episode two of the first season almost as a whole might just be my favorite piece of Walking Dead content ever. It’s such a tight little cannibal story.

In particular, Lee’s fight with Andy in the rain is just fucking stunning, like what an amazing scene. It all just built up to that moment. The whole episode was designed by legendary designer Mark Darin, and it’s one of his finest pieces of work I think. So probably episode 2, and if I had to pick a scene, it’s Lee and Andy fighting in the rain.

Let’s see… in season two I’m going to be a little selfish and pick a part I did [laughs]. I did Carver rolling into the mansion at the end of season two, episode two, which I think is like the first time a real big bad villain character shows up, and it just changed the whole course of everything. So that’s my selfish pick.

Season three I think the last fight between Javi and David is actually a really good piece of design. It’s kind of weird ‘cause it is similar to a thing that was done in Game of Thrones, but repeatedly saying I love you while he punches you in the face is real solid. That’s a really good scene.

Yeah, and then in season four, I think I got to call it the Minnie bridge scene again, honestly. I think Minnie showing up on the bridge is so crazy and so ridiculous, I almost can’t believe we got away with it.

But it’s turned out to be almost everyone’s favorite scene. People can’t stop talking about it. And Minnie too… I didn’t know what we were going to do with her the start of the season for her to turn out so well… I feel a lot of pride.

Ed: Yeah, a pleasant surprise. And that song, that was originally just meant for episode three, is what really sold it, it’s what pulled that scene together.

Mudle: We had it as an idea, and it’s like on paper you write that out, it’s like: Minnie is the Pied Piper of Walkers. And you’re like, I don’t know if this will work!

But then honestly as soon as we got Cherami [Leigh] to voice it, and as soon as we heard the singing I was just like: Oh it’s going to work! I didn’t know literally until we recorded the voice. I was unsure, like is this going to be too silly?

Ed: From a player perspective, not as a director, is there a preferred ending for you? Like if you were going to play through the game yourself as a player. Like who you prefer lives and dies at the end?

It’s really hard because I know this is the less popular path… I actually like Louis or Violet dying at the bridge.

Ed: That’s how mine ended!

Mudle: There you go! Well and I like it in particular because I really like the scene where Tenn and AJ talk at the shack.

Tenn and AJ talking at the shack is just a simple scene where two little boys have an existential crisis in the woods.

And it’s like soft, and it’s quiet, and it feels really special. I can’t think of another scene like that in almost anything. Like these two kids are just like death… and like I was naive, and all this stuff, and it’s like… they are just little boys. They’re just little babies… and they want to be friends.

So yeah, I don’t know… I just love that scene.

***

Big thanks to Skybound games again for setting this up, and to Kent Mudle for taking time out of his day to speak to us.

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