For all its ubiquity, zombie fiction can still be thrilling – as the many incarnations of The Walking Dead proves. But for many, its neither the comic book nor the televised take on Robert Kirkman’s series that’s caught the imagination this year. Telltale’s episodic adventure game debuted in April to cautiously positive response, but over the course of the year its in part player-affected story has engrossed a league of fans, with new episodes eagerly dissected and notes compared online. We talk to Jake Rodkin and Gary Whitta of Telltale about interactive narrative, moral choices in games, and working the license.
The Walking Dead is different from Telltale’s previous games, and also different from the comic, the TV show and other zombie games. What did you set out to do with the licence?
Jake Rodkin When we started development on Walking Dead, we had one new piece of technology as a studio: the ability for a player’s save game to carry across the entire season. In past Telltale episodic games, each episode is entirely disconnected, so every player is playing the same story as they go through. With The Walking Dead, we had the ability for the first time to track the choices each individual player was making in their game, and have their season playthrough really tailor itself as they went along. So we had that piece sitting there from the outset.
During early days of the design, when we re-read all of the Walking Dead comics, the thing which stuck out to us the most was watching Rick – the main character of the comic and TV series – have to balance his family against the needs of the group, against the increasing toll living in this world was taking on his own personal mental and physical state. We wanted to put players in that seat – someone with the weight of these huge decisions and choices on their back – knowing that there was nothing they could do that would please everyone, that would make everyone feel good about the outcome and about themselves. Except that posed a problem: We already know what it’s like to be Rick, because we’ve read his entire story once in a widely-read comic and then watched it again on a hit TV show. Audience members know what Rick did when confronted with every difficult choice in his post-zombie-apocalypse life, so as a player put into his shoes there is no risk, no unknown! Our solution to that problem was to do something which seemed kind of crazy at the time, which was to tell a Walking Dead story with a completely new protagonist and unfamiliar cast of characters, someone with an unknown future and a whole new set of choices in front of them. Fortunately, Robert Kirkman – the writer of the comic, and the executive producer of the TV show – was more than excited about the idea, so Lee, Clementine, and our whole gang were born.
Gary Whitta I think from a storytelling perspective the overall mission was always to create something that felt tonally and dramatically authentic to the world Robert Kirkman had created. And to start with a totally new cast of characters that gave us the freedom to take the story in any direction we wished without feeling shackled to what Robert had already outlined so definitively in the comics. Especially with the TV show following the same basic story as the comics, it just doesn’t seem interesting to present another riff on a story people were already familiar with.
While Telltale has produced lots of games, The Walking Dead seems to have really caught people’s attention. What do you think it is that melds so well with your approach to game design?
JR Telltale has always been interested in games that tell a story, games that are about people – or sometimes talking dog and rabbit detectives who act kind of like people – and The Walking Dead is always referred to as “the zombie game that’s about the people and the stories more than it’s about the zombies,” so right there on the surface it seems like a good fit.
The Walking Dead is a story of characters put in a series of almost impossible-to-bear situations, and seeing how they deal with that nearly impossible state of existence, and what that does to them and their relationships is a huge part of why the comic is successful. The characters end up in this heightened place, where everything they do has a huge consequence on their psyche, on their relationships with others, and even with which of their friends and loved ones stays alive. The idea of putting someone in that space and asking them to form these relationships and make these tough decisions for themselves – relationships and decisions that they’d only been able to passively watch characters make before – was super appealing and felt like something we’d be good to take a crack at, given our experience with games focused on narrative and character interaction.
GW I think it all comes down to emotional engagement, and choice. For me the biggest evolution in this game over other adventure-type games that have come before it is a shift toward emotional conundrums rather than intellectual ones. Like all adventure games, The Walking Dead has logical puzzles to solve, but there’s a greater – and I think more compelling – emphasis on emotional puzzles. More compelling because we try to present them in such a way that there’s never a clear right or wrong answer; only what the players themselves bring to it. And this of course is a perfect fit for The Walking Dead, which for years now has based its drama in putting the cast of characters through a never-ending emotional wringer and forcing them to deal with agonisingly difficult moral situations. In that sense I think our game is perhaps the most directly engaging iteration of the franchise in that the audience isn’t simply watching characters face those dilemmas and experiencing them second-hand, but being asked to confront and resolve them directly via their own decisions, their own sense of morality, and in doing so help shape the narrative.
Have you been surprised at how well players have responded to the game?
GW Certainly we always approached the game with the intention that it should engage players emotionally, but I don’t think anyone expected the degree to which so many players have really embraced these characters and come to feel so invested in them in a very real way. In particular I’ve been really struck by how much people really care about Clementine, to the degree that they seem genuinely concerned about her fate. We asked players to assume a protective role toward her but they’ve really taken that and ran with it; they’re determined to protect her not just physically but emotionally too, to the degree that we now feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to how we handle that relationship.