Interview: Walking Dead Dev Talks Moral Choice, Unexpected Success, And The Importance Of Good Storytelling
At the start of the year, if someone had told you that one of the most critically and commercially-successful titles of 2012 would be a downloadable episodic point-and-click adventure based on a graphic novel and TV show, you’d have been forgiven for thinking they had a screw loose.
Yet in a gaming landscape where movie and TV adaptations are generally much-maligned, Telltale Games’ outstanding Walking Dead series has become the unlikeliest game-of-the-year contender imaginable – with its first four installments generating millions of sales and extraordinary critical acclaim.
No one is more surprised by this turn of events than the game’s co-project leader, Jake Rodkin, who admits to being astonished at just how much of a hit The Walking Dead has been.
“Did I think it would be this big? Definitely not,” he reveals. “We’ve had some successes at Telltale in the past, and a few of our games have done pretty well, but nothing on the scale of The Walking Dead.
“We liked it, obviously, but it’s been cool to see so many people caught up in its story from month to month. I can’t resist reading the forums – seeing people totally caught up in the world is awesome.
“It’s actually a bit of a mixed blessing though. It was easier when I was working on smaller games because I could do weird and wild stuff and know that the fanbase would like it. But The Walking Dead has an audience of staggering numbers, so the pressure to not fuck up is a lot heavier!”
When it comes to analysing the reasons why the episodic adventure has been such a success, Rodkin is quick to point out that his team’s work offers something genuinely different and refreshing from the superficial action games and FPS bullet-fests that dominate the modern mainstream landscape.
“Video games, like movies, have got stuck in a rut of just being action-packed, bravado-filled wish-fulfillment,” he explains. “I think what we’re doing offers a fresh take.
“The fact that what we’re doing is based around storytelling and emotion has made it stand out. The Walking Dead comic book itself became popular because although it featured zombies, it wasn’t just about gore and bashing heads in. It was about the reality of what a zombie apocalypse would do to people.
“We’re a studio that’s primarily concerned with story-based stuff, and that’s why we wanted to do The Walking Dead in the first place. We actually approached the creators to do it. It’s a perfect fit for us. It felt like a no-brainer.
“People are excited about it because of the story and the emotional content. It’s amazing to work on a game that’s popular because of these things.”
Indeed, The Walking Dead – which follows protagonist Lee and various companions as they struggle to survive in a world gone completely to hell – has been justly praised for its high standards of story-telling, voice-acting and writing. But the truth is that these attributes are often neglected or pushed to one side in many gaming projects.
Rodkin himself would like to see more developers placing a premium on plot and writing rather than spectacle – claiming that neglecting these things has led to a lot of superficial experiences this gen.
“Writing is probably the most important aspect of The Walking Dead,” he says. “We build our games around the script, and our writers are doing incredible work. But in many games, the script is actually the last thing that comes in.
“A lot of game developers neglect writing because they think the mechanics and gameplay are more important, which is understandable: but often people fall into the trap of thinking that if enough stuff comes flying out of the screen it will make up for the shortfall in plot and dialogue. It’s the same trap a lot of movies fall into.
“I’d like to see a lot more games adopt mature writing and story-telling. Who wouldn’t? Back in the ’80s and ’90s gaming had a lot of story-based stuff, and a lot of emphasis on personality and character. It’s a bummer that there’s not as much of that around these days. But hopefully the success of The Walking Dead, and games like Portal, will change that.”
As well as its intensely gripping drama, another aspect of The Walking Dead that has been a hot topic for gamers and journalists is its powerful and anxiety-inducing moral conundrums. This is one gaming experience that consistently pumps out edge-of-your-seat moments without the need for ‘epic’ set pieces or repetitive FPS shoot-outs. Here, a simple conversation choice or agonizing decision can be enough to set your heart racing and make your breath catch in your mouth.
Do you steal supplies to help your own group, when it might doom a desperate family in the process? Do you abandon an innocent person to a terrible fate, knowing that it allows you to slip past a horde of zombies unnoticed?
The strength of Telltale’s approach to moral choice in The Walking Dead lies in its ambiguity and murkiness, rather than simply offering binary ‘good and bad’ options. And that’s exactly what Rodkin and his team were aiming for.
“We wanted moral choice to be at the heart of this game from the get-go – but we wanted it to be choices where you don’t know what’s right or wrong, and decisions that have real repercussions,” he explains.
“For us, so much of the thrill of The Walking Dead in the comic or the show is that the characters are faced with horrific choices – and what do they do? They’re always choosing between the lesser of two evils, or having to make an impossible decision.
“It was actually that thought that led to us having an original protagonist for the game, because we didn’t want to have the player stepping into the shoes of Rick, knowing already from the shows or graphic novel what kind of choices his character would make.
“It was also very important that the choices we introduced weren’t simply ‘black and white’. When people think about moral choice in gaming, they think ‘good or bad; black or white’, but in this game there are no good or bad choices. There is no right or wrong.
“I like games that have a more binary choice system, but the feeling we wanted to create in players was that you can’t ‘win’ by making a choice. You just have to do the best you can, and live with the consequences of your actions. It’s a lot more like real-life in that way.”
Telltale have been collecting data on the various decisions players have made throughout the series. But the most interesting thing for the developers hasn’t been discovering the actual choices people have made – it’s been finding out why they made those choices.
“In the very first episode, players were faced with a life or death choice in the drug store, where they had to choose between saving one of two different characters,” says Rodkin. “We were actually kicking ourselves because we thought we’d made it too unbalanced: one of the characters seemed quite a bit stronger and more useful than the other.
“But what was interesting was that when we went on forums to read people’s discussions, the people who actually chose to save the weaker character claimed they did so because the other character revealed they knew something bad about your past. Even though they actually liked that character better, their brain just went: ‘She knows! I have to protect myself!’
“We found that people begin to think a lot more about their actions as they go along too. In the second episode, you get given the opportunity to brutally kill an enemy – and most players took the opportunity gladly. It was an almost-instinctively violent, video-gamey thing to do. But then the game shows Clem [Lee’s child companion] looking on, absolutely horrified, and it actually made a lot of players really question themselves. Later on in the same episode, when they were given the chance to kill again, far less players did so the second time.”
Specialising almost exclusively in games based on well-known TV shows and movies, Telltale Games’ previous output includes several CSI titles, Back To The Future: The Game, and a Jurassic Park adventure too.
Rodkin acknowledges that games based on films and television series have a terrible reputation generally, but explains that Telltale’s staff are dedicated fans of the subject-matter they choose to adapt, and are therefore committed to making it a success.
“If the people at Telltale weren’t making the games themselves, they’d be the fans on the other side of the equation saying ‘they better not screw this up’!” he laughs.
“A lot of movie adaptations and tie-ins are assigned to developers, but we actually choose the games we work on because we’re fans of the source materially – so we really don’t want to mess up. We see it as an amazing opportunity to work on these things.
“There were plenty of Walking Dead comics around the office months before we even knew we’d be working on the game. We can’t let ourselves screw up, because we don’t want to be the guys we hate!”
Telltale also specialise in episodic releasing which – at one time – was hailed as the future of gaming. However, the act of producing continuous downloadable game series has really not caught on with developers in recent years, with Valve’s notoriously tardy Half-Life episodes just one high-profile example of the process being seen to fail.
Rodkin believes that episodic gaming can work brilliantly if a developer is set-up specifically to tackle it – but that attempting to adapt to the process is extremely difficult otherwise.
“It’s not surprising that more people aren’t doing it,” he says. “Making episodic content is hard. It’s very difficult to turn out regular high-quality content, rather than having a lot of time to work on something front-to-back and perfect and polish it. It’s a very difficult thing for existing games companies to adapt to.
“Valve found it very hard because it wasn’t the way they had done things previously. It hasn’t taken on because developers have tried to adjust to it without realising how fundamental a change it requires.
“That said, Valve are now doing it in a different way, with the Left 4 Dead content packs. That’s a form of episodic gaming by a different name.”
So what advantages are there to releasing a game in installments, rather than putting out a complete package in one go?
“Well, creatively it’s very cool to have a non-multiplayer game that lives and grows at the same time as people are playing it,” explains Rodkin. “We get to experience the game along with the audience, and get feedback from them as we go along.
“Most good single-player games hold people’s attention for a month or two at best, but this is a single-player experience that people can really talk about and immerse themselves in for months on end. That’s a really fun thing to see.
“I actually think we’re proving that you can find a middle way between giant Triple A stuff and three-man indie projects. I hope people look at us and think ‘ok, there are other things we can do’.”
Episode Five of The Walking Dead series, entitled ‘No Time Left’, is due to be released in November. Although Rodkin is understandably cagey about plot details and events, he hints at a suitably dark and edge-of-the-seat finale for the game’s first season.
“It’s going to be intense,” he says, “because the stakes are so high – and the repercussions of everything you’ve done throughout the series begin to really hit home.
“Things are pretty desperate, and Lee ends up in some bleak places. We’re hoping it will really test how far people will go for someone else. It’ll be really interesting to see what people do.”