Zombies are many things. They’re monsters, they’re us, and they haunt our waking nightmares in every medium around. They can be scary, they can be funny, but they’re rarely known for reducing adults to tears. Yet that is exactly how The Walking Dead’s creator, Robert Kirkman, uses them. However, if you don’t want to know exactly how he uses them for fear of spoiling his tale for yourself then now’s the time to look away.
“I have a thing I like to say about The Walking Dead,” Kirkman tells us. “It’s an emotional story and the ultimate goal is always to see if I can make readers cry. I love the idea of people reading what is traditionally an action-oriented, gory genre and finding something really heartfelt and character driven.”
When Kirkman first met with Telltale Games in late 2010, he told the team his theory of what makes his crossmedia zombie epic so successful. “He said, ‘I don’t know why no one else has copied this, but The Walking Dead is really just a bunch of people hugging and crying and shit…’” remembers co-project lead Jake Rodkin.
It’s a self-deprecating comment, but within it lies a kernel of truth. “It’s just his way of saying ‘Aw, shucks, there’s really not that much to it,’” believes Gary Whitta, story consultant on Telltale’s The Walking Dead. “For Robert, the zombie apocalypse is really just a framework for creating extreme parameters of human drama. It’s a cauldron where people get thrown in and pushed to the limits of their psychological extremes.”
But how do you make that into a game? Steven Spielberg once said games would be art when players cried on level 17, but the truth is that the majority of highprofile games don’t offer a broad palette of emotional experiences beyond thrills and shocks.
At best, Kirkman hoped that Telltale might elicit a few tears from players. What he didn’t expect was that this future winner of 80-plus game of the year awards would become a benchmark for storytelling in games. Nor did he guess it would reduce grown men to weeping, wailing, blubbering wrecks on YouTube.
But Telltale Games’ selling point isn’t just telling tales, even emotionally resonant ones, it’s putting players at the centre of them. “Telltale’s mission – that you’re actually going to play the story – is a very rare mission in this business,” says co-project lead Sean Vanaman.
“In an adventure game, you’re playing all the character and story elements that, in an action game, would traditionally be in a cutscene. I think the mission of Telltale Games as a company is [to ask], ‘How do you play these moments that are traditionally relegated to the in-between, very static, prerendered cutscenes of other games?’ Playing a story versus having a story told to you is where it breaks down [for] us.”
Over the past nine years, Telltale has tried to evolve the gameplay systems of the adventure games of the ’90s. Jurassic Park, released in 2011, was the most ambitious game in the company’s history and for it the studio upgraded its proprietary Telltale Tool engine so it could cope with quick-response movements and complicated rendering. But Jurassic Park’s reception was underwhelming and there were those who wondered aloud if the point-and-click adventure game was dead on its feet.
The Walking Dead changed all that. It opens with protagonist Lee Everett on his way to jail, convicted of a crime of passion, until the zombie apocalypse is unleashed. It’s a quick transition, and in the first 15 minutes you’ll have escaped from a crashed cop car, killed the soon-zombified officer who was driving you to the lockup, and dodged a pack of ghouls by taking shelter in a nearby house. It’s there you meet Clementine, the baseball-capped eight-year-old who becomes Lee’s charge for the rest of the five-episode opening season.
What’s noticeable right from the start is how carefully the game balances story, gameplay and dialogue trees. “It’s important to develop gameplay modes that are at the service of your theme,” explains Vanaman. “We paired a writer up with a designer on every episode so that both plot conception and gameplay conception are happening in a writer’s brain and a designer’s brain. Otherwise you can fall into telling a non-interactive story really easily.”
In the first episode, Lee’s panicked attempts to kill Clementine’s zombie babysitter with a kick to the head repeatedly end in failure until you realise that you can take a hammer from the young girl to bash the undead’s skull in. Pairing a tense gaming sequence with character development – Clem is consistently resourceful beyond her years – this moment encapsulates the game’s careful pairing of gameplay mechanics and storytelling.
This design principle ultimately forced Telltale to leave several of its dearest ideas to rot. For instance, a “shithouse-crazy shooting scene where everybody in your crew was unloading all of their guns at the same time into a wall of zombies”, in Vanaman’s words, didn’t make the cut. Because the shooting mechanic was torn between discrete success and failure, it couldn’t capture the sense of panic the designers were looking for. “You have to think about that sort of stuff as a storyteller in videogames. You have to think about the types of mechanics you have at your disposal and what types of moment they allow you to create.”
The Walking Dead isn’t a game about guns. It’s arguably not even about zombies. Instead, its core is emotion, morality and player choice. Everett’s journey is an escort mission that doesn’t simply ask you to keep Clementine physically safe, but poses questions about her psychological wellbeing while she’s in your care. An emotional escort mission, perhaps. Your decisions matter to her, and what you choose ultimately defines how good a man Lee turns out to be. But unlike most games, there is no binary split between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
“It sounds like a marketing catchphrase, but the idea that there is no right or wrong choice was a guiding factor for us from the very beginning of the design of the game,” explains Rodkin. “The challenge was making players do something that they know has a cost and has risk, but then making them also feel OK with that decision and OK with experiencing the rest of the story and seeing the result of that.”
The key was to avoid making the player feel punished and thus stop them being tempted to rewind to a previous save to make the decision again. “All choices are equally wrong,” says Whitta with a mischievous chuckle.
Telltale also tracked the decisions players made, crunching the data to provide an overview of how your peers responded to the tough choices in each episode. Since the instalments were in live development during the first season’s nine-month release schedule, it meant the team could also react to players’ choices. What surprised the team wasn’t so much which decisions players made as why they made them.
“What’s fascinating is how players contextualise them,” says Vanaman. “My mom and my sister are in a feud over the last choice they made in the game. They both feel really ideological about it and believe that they did the best thing for Clementine in a really profound way. It’s not so much about, ‘Oh, did you drop Ben in the bell tower or not?’ It’s more like, ‘Why did you do that? And what emotionally compelled you, in those five seconds before you had to choose, to go the way that you did?’ That’s the thing that’s really interesting about the game.”
There’s no right choice, of course, but that doesn’t mean your decisions have a huge impact on the overarching path the story takes. There is, for example, no ending in which Clem dies. Rather, what you do defines how other characters see you and who lives in the supporting cast.
On a first playthrough, none of this is obvious. As in all good fiction, the player’s imagination does a lot of the heavy lifting. “Not necessarily everything that the player considered is going to happen in the game,” says Whitta, referencing the moment in episode four when you must decide whether to take Clementine to Crawford or not.
“People were worried that if they left her at the house, she wouldn’t be there when they came back. Now, the reality is that the way the game is designed that’s not something that can actually happen. All you need to do is create the illusion that it is something that could happen and it becomes something that will weigh on the player’s mind when they make the choice.”
Like stage magic, the suspension of disbelief is key. A second playthrough reveals the gears driving the story under the game’s hood and runs the risk of spoiling the show. It’s an inevitable downside of trying to convince players they have autonomy within a predetermined narrative.
“If people start being able to see the machinations, the goings on behind the curtain, then we’ll have to adapt,” says Vanaman. “Preserving the genuine feeling of ‘What the hell do I do?’ when you come to one of these moments [of choice] is paramount for the success of the game. I don’t know if the solution is necessarily making the narrative branch a million times, but preserving that suspension of disbelief and preserving the real genuine intensity of those dramatic moments is the focus.”
Player choice only has an impact if we are concerned about the wellbeing of the characters our decisions effect. What makes The Walking Dead so successful is its ability to make us care. In part, that’s thanks to Telltale’s art and animation teams, who brought these characters to life.
With their big eyes and asymmetrical features, the characters may lack realism but they have a definite humanity. “We asked Derek [Sakai, the art director] to make sure that no facial expressions were symmetrical from left to right,” recalls Rodkin. “There is never a point where both eyebrows on a character’s face raise by the same amount; when they get angry, the mouth always has a snarl on one side. We used that as a shorthand way to make it feel like there was more detail and more subtlety going on all the time.”
While Lee is the character you expect to identify with as the hero, it was Clementine who stole hearts. “Everybody at Telltale was just blown away by the degree to which players responded emotionally to Clementine,” says Whitta.
“It comes down to the idea that she is this one little gem of hope in a hopeless world. People really did relate to her almost like she was real. They weren’t roleplaying. Clementine was emotionally real for them. She became this virtual surrogate daughter that they wanted to protect. It wasn’t just enough just to shield her physically and prevent any harm coming to her, they also wanted to shield her emotionally.”
The casting process for her was arduous: Telltale auditioned a hundred actors – from young girls to adult women – to find her voice. But it was worth it. “She is the number one reason why players are making the choices they are making,” says Vanaman. “In a story that’s got hopelessness at its core, you need Clementine. It would be a very different story without her.”
After auditioning so many actors, though, he began to think they’d set themselves an impossible task. “You start to wonder if Dame Judi Dench was sitting there [and] trying to do this character because it was written for her, if she would be screwing it up because you screwed up, because it’s not good at its core,” Vanaman says. Then voice actor and Telltale regular Melissa Hutchison came in to read. “She just was the character. We were like, ‘Oh, there she is. She’s alive now.’”
At his keynote speech at DICE this year, Telltale co-founder and CEO Dan Connors beefed up his presentation with clips from YouTube Let’s Play videos. Players Morfar, PewDiePie and others weeped, raged and despaired as The Walking Dead’s first season reached its climax.
Serialised stories have a long history of creating such emotion. Back in 1841, US fans of Dickens crowded into a New York harbour to hear news of Little Nell in the latest instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop. Telltale, which had a near-revolt on its hands after delays hit the schedule, know how high passions can run.
Yet the episodic release schedule has been a huge part of The Walking Dead’s success as an event as well as a videogame. “You get these multiple bites of the apple and you sustain the conversation about your game over an entire year, not just over the release window of a $60 game,” Whitta says, comparing it to a TV show such as Mad Men. With its BAFTA Award for Best Story and more than 8.5 million downloads, it’s not hard to see his point.
But what about Kirkman? The man who asked Telltale to make gamers sad first saw the game in an early build and played 15 minutes from the middle of the first episode. “It was such a bleak, weird mess at the time,” says Vanaman. “I just remember him being like ‘Um, OK… Er, OK…’ To be perfectly honest, his response was just this sort of befuddlement, which is sort of the same thing you’d get if you picked up his comics in the book store and didn’t really settle down with them. It’s so hard to get in a short burst.”
Later, when it neared release, Telltale sat Kirkman down again with a finished build. This time, his response was less perplexed. “He just turned to us and said: ‘Holy shit guys, you did it,’” says Rodkin. “That was really the most fulfilling to hear.” Did the creator of The Walking Dead have tears in his eyes? Telltale isn’t telling.