The lights are on
Zombie games are a dime a dozen, but Telltale’s The Walking Dead gives players a different take on the tired formula. The first episode of the adventure series, A New Day, sold over one million copies on the PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PS3. We talked with Sean Vanaman writer and designer at Telltale Games about what he learned from Telltale’s previous failures, the surprising choices players have already made, and how he’s willing to kill off any sacred cow.
Some of Telltale’s previous titles have been a little hit or miss, but The Walking Dead’s reception has been very positive. What did you learn from past titles? Did you guys approach the development of this series differently than previous games?
Well, I think it helped that Jake Rodkin (who has been at the helm with me) digested our past few games as audience members – we were working on Puzzle Agent and then moved on to The Walking Dead – playing them in their final days. We were able to take the mechanics and other things that people were killing themselves to innovate on, in those other games, and bring them into our game. It certainly helped to learn from other folks’ hits and misses.
It seems hard to keep the tension high in a game that has a cartoony art style. Was that a challenge? Did you guys ever consider going with a more realistic style?
No, the art style was something we hit on early and kept. We knew we had to be 3D to make the game we wanted to make with the engine and pipeline and people we have, and we knew we wanted the game to look and feel like the comic. Our art director, Derek Sakai, just nailed it early and we didn’t look back after that. I don’t treat the characters as cartoons, to me, it doesn’t matter how they are rendered – they are just people. The style we have lets the animators here create genuine emotions, and that’s all that matters to me when we’re trying to tell a good story.
The Walking Dead tells a pretty gripping story. How much did you guys iterate on the plot?
A lot. All of the time. We wrench on the sequence of events a lot – in fact we moved the end to the beginning and back again in episode one a couple of times. There’s actually a fade to white still in there – if you’ve played the game you’ve seen it – that drives Jake bananas because it was a holdover from this big time jump that is no longer left in the game. Moving stuff, rewriting, just plain re-thinking is all key to keeping the tension that folks respond to.
While it’s cool to run into characters from the comic and show, some felt they weren’t necessary. It seems like most of your original characters were pretty strong; did you feel like you needed those existing anchors to the story?
I did, yeah. We wanted people to say “oh I know that guy,” at least a few times in episode one because we were taking such a huge risk not having Rick as the main character. We didn’t think a Rick game sounded like much fun because you couldn’t make any choices Rick didn’t, so then we had to strike out into new territory by creating Lee, and in order integrate his story we needed some existing characters. We poured over the books and character timelines trying to find a loose end we could spin out, but the books are right. For instance, I really wanted Abraham from the comics to be in your group, but his backstory was such that we would have had to give up setting the game in Georgia, which we couldn’t do. Everyone is accounted for. We went ahead and found the characters that could conceivably be doing their own things while Rick is in a coma and made sure the player got to impact their lives somehow.
How challenging is it to design interesting puzzles around a narrative like this? Were there any specific hurdles that you had trouble overcoming?
For me, personally, it’s really challenging. I will write dialog all day if given the opportunity, but to design a good puzzle I really have to wrack my brain. I had an entire sequence in the street outside of the drugstore that ended up getting saved by a good puzzle suggestion from Joe Pinney, a designer here. The electronics store window puzzle was all his idea, and it replaced this less-puzzley, more-experiential thing I had in where you were hiding in the trunk of a wrecked car. I liked the tone and feel of what I had, but it wasn’t a good game. Balancing those two is not a challenge – it is the challenge.
What’s the deal with the energy bars? It seems like you collect a lot of them in the game, and you can give them to people, but is there a payoff for that? Why don’t you collect other food items? Will the bars carry over to the next episode?
Ha, good question. The energy bars were something that sort of grew and then shrank as a “thing” while we were trying to figure out what the game is about. We’re so used to making games where everything you pick up, every bent piece of whatever, matters in a very specific way. At first the bars were a way for us to figure out who you cared about, for puzzle design, and then they had a puzzle element to them – classic adventure game tropes seem really out of place in The Walking Dead, and somebody said, “well you should just feed people – that’s a thing you do if you’re in a survival situation.” It gives Clementine the ability to pose to you a really simple problem: “I’m hungry,” which is the type of thing a little girl says even when there are zombies around, so they became this thing the game could remember and also just a way to be nice to people and get new bits of story.
The stats at the end are pretty cool. Were you surprised by any of the choices that players made? Were there other player choices that will affect the story going forward that you didn’t reveal to players at the end?
I think there’s always going to be choices that the players are making that they won’t realize are impacting the story – that’s part of the fun, the unexpected “oh man, what if Doug were alive,” here and there. To that point, I’m surprised (well, not really) that 80% of you have killed my pal Doug in order to save Carley. I have my suspicions that it’s a gender thing but I thought you were all were better than that. Just, wow. I guess in terms of the Doug/Carley choice it has actually, no sarcasm here, been really interesting to see the choices as a social experiment because there are no right answers to any of the choices – are people really that influenced by a good looking woman with a gun? Answer: abso-g**damn-lutely. Marked in my notes.
In the comic, Kirkman seems willing to kill any sacred cow. Are there any lines you’re not willing to cross? Are you willing to torture your characters as much as Kirkman’s narrative does?
If we weren’t we would be the wrong people to make the game. I just wrote something today, in fact, that I think will really get to some people. I hope, at least. I’m really grateful to get to experience that feeling of knowing there is a captive audience for a big, bold moment that eschews what is traditionally done in games and stories. It’s a lot of fun.
Check out our reviews of episode one and two.
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