The Walking Dead's first season was nearly Giant Bomb's game of the year. The year-long adventure of Lee and Clementine's struggle for survival in a wasteland of hope was powerful, sobering, and left more than a few with less-than-dry eyes by the end of it.
No one would have blamed Telltale Games for ending Clementine's story there, but you can't blame them for trying, either. It's a double-edged sword, one especially sharp now given season one's lead creatives--Sean Vanaman, Jake Rodkin--left to form their own studio, Campo Santo.
But episode one, All That Remains, pulled few punches in returning players to The Walking Dead's bleak world, now in Clementine's shoes. It's a new dynamic. Lee was an adult, but Clementine is still growing up.
Last season, I spoke Telltale's designers and writers about their work on each episode. We're continuing that feature this season, as well. Director Dennis Lenaart and writer Mark Darin joined me on the phone earlier this week. It's not as long as I'd hoped, but scheduling conflicts related to the release of episode two, A House Divided, got in the way. We'll have something more substantial for next episode.
(Unfortunately, the audio quality is so poor that it cannot be posted as an Interview Dumptruck. Sorry!)
Beware of spoilers, obviously!
Giant Bomb: You guys had certain expectations, you set out with a story you wanted to tell. What surprised you about the reaction to episode one?
Dennis Lenaart: The thing I was actually happiest about was people really feeling like they were playing Clem--way quicker than we ever expected them to pick it up. Even watching YouTube playthroughs, it seems like, within the first 15 minutes, people are sold on “now I’m playing Clementine, and now I’m thinking of my decisions as her,” as opposed to Lee or thinking about it from a third-person player perspective. I was really, really happy to find out that people jumped on board that quick.
There was a lot of worry going in. We wanted it to feel like you were playing this young girl in this apocalypse. That means a lot of limitations in what you can do fighting [back], your strength--things like that. We knew we were going to embrace it wholeheartedly, and we weren’t 100% sure if people were going to be on-board, or if they were going to be bummed if you can’t do as crazy of a thing in an action scene as you would. Just seeing that, and seeing people jump on that was awesome.
Mark Darin: I’ll back that up. We were hopeful people were going to find the transition from playing as Lee, somebody protecting Clementine, to jumping into Clementine’s shoes and actually being Clementine [smooth], and still feeling the same type of protection. That went really smoothly, and people really embraced it. It was also interesting--we anticipated this--we provided space for the player to now play Clementine however they wanted to play Clementine, whether they wanted to keep Clementine as innocent as she seemed in season one...or branch out and get a little meaner, a little sassier. It’s fun watching people explore those depths of Clementine.
Lenaart: To add to that, I was extremely surprised at how much people loved playing devious Clementine in areas. In the end, there’s an opportunity to call out to Rebecca about whose baby is it in a really sort of devious way. Everyone does that, and everyone loves it. It’s their favorite part. [laughs] I thought people were gonna be like “no way!” Nope.
Darin: I will say the thing that surprised me is how much people roleplay the hell out of the juice box. You get the juice box when you’re sewing up your arm, and it does absolutely nothing, but people will take a sip, then take a sip, then take a sip. They roleplay the hell out of the juice box because they have it. [laughs]
GB: When it comes to designing Clementine’s story arc for season two, the relationship with the player is different. In season one, Lee's he’s an adult making adult decisions. That impacted Clementine, but you weren’t controlling her. You are her in season two. How much does that change how you shape the player's choices?
Darin: We have to build enough context within the game, in the narrative, for you to be able to make those decisions, and not just pulling from your life experience as a human. It’s both. You have a certain amount of experience in life to be able to make those moral decisions, but I think we also have to work really hard to provide enough context, so that people of all ages have a base to make a decision and see how it plays out. Even if you don’t have that life experience, then the results of your actions will lead you into situations where that will impact you, as well. If that makes any sense at all. [laughs]
"Omid was the unfortunate victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, both narratively and with our design needs."
Lenaart: The thing we had going for us that was really nice was that we tried to put thought into all the decisions that were made. Everyone was a kid at some point in their life. Whether or not you had 100% analogous experience growing up, we still tried to take that instance of “oh, I got caught stealing the cookie, I can probably get away with it.” Or “I would say this kind of thing to lie and no one’s going to call me out on my bullshit.” Giving you experiences like that [s] you could, at least, relate to in a general way. Except in this case…it’s people wanting to lock you in the shed. [laughs]
GB: When the season starts, you’re not quite sure what characters you’re going to run into, what Clementine’s situation is. This episode opens with reminding you “hey, by the way, we’re going to be killing people really quickly.” Why did Omid need to play that role?
Lenaart: That’s a good question, and you’ll get a long answer on that. I think it was important for us to start [like that]. We spent a lot of time debating where we were going to start, but we knew that we wanted to get Clementine to a point where she was going to have to be on her own. But we also had to tie back into season one. The last people we saw were Omid and Christa. Omid was the unfortunate victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, both narratively in our story and, also, with our design needs. [laughs] I think that’s how he ended up being the one to bite the bullet.
Darin: At the end of season one, we say to Clementine “find Christa and Omid." The last shot of is season one, seeing people in the hills, wondering who it is. It was definitely something we knew was seeded in people’s minds at the end of season one, and it was just a question of how early do we pay off on that. As a hope for the season, in episode one, we really wanted to focus on Clementine removing all of the familiarity, and really just being on her own in this terrible world. It seems like the sooner we could do that--actually, in the first scene!--it would give us time to explore her being alone in episode one, and setting up her journey for the rest of the season.
GB: There’s a lot of powerful moments in episode one, as there normally are in The Walking Dead. But there’s always one that has me cursing you guys.
GB: I’m a dog owner, and there's the harrowing moment where this dog starts biting me. I don’t expect that my chihuahua is ever going to get that crazy, but still. In The Walking Dead, you’re usually offered choices between two bad decisions. Here, you either kill the dog or leave it to die. What did that decision represent for you?
Lenaart: Well, you didn’t play episode two, where zombie dog comes back to kill you and you have to put him down! [laughs] The dog was a really interesting situation. When you start the beginning of the episode, learning you were separated from Christa and Omid is no longer in the picture, and you’re off on your own. It seemed like a good first step on the road to recovery for Clementine. She doesn’t have a family of people anymore. She doesn’t have anyone helping her. It’s her first step--coming across his animal. It’s a familiar thing. Dogs used to be pets, and it’d be great to have one as a companion!
It was actually fun to watch how well that worked with players. Pretty much everyone I talked to, they said that in that scene, they were pretty sure this was going to be their companion for the next episode. The thing that was surprising to most people is that when they met the dog, they were like “oh, man, I don’t want to get attached because I feel like, at some point, this is going to go bad.” But no one had any clue it was going to be in the next scene. [laughs] That surprised pretty much everyone I talked to, which is good.
It’s funny, too, with the choice. I feel like 90% of our conversations in meetings--and this is going to seem really bizarre--were that no one would kill the dog and this choice would be super unbalanced. It ended up being quite the opposite of that, which was super surprising to us. When you even mention the situation to people, in principle, people are just like “no, no, you never kill a dog--you never do that! That’s horrible! You never do that!” That line that we give to Luke: “You don’t kill dogs, man!” Once you saw it in the game with the horrible sound effects and everything, it’s amazing to me how much that tips people to the completely opposite end of the spectrum.
Darin: On the design side, we spent a lot of time concentrating on moments where it’s a really hard decision and it’s a really horrible decision either way you go. I wanted to experiment with [moments] in-between some of those really hard decisions, [and] have some decisions that feel like they’re actually easy decisions. For some people, this was the dog. Upfront, we had the decision to burn your photo of Lee or burn an old, wet log. They’re not difficult decisions, but they elicit a response from the player, reminding you that you do have choices and there are things that mean something to you, even if these things don’t end up being hard decisions in the moment. As soon as that choice comes up, it elicits an emotional response, and those were things I wanted to explore in that episode.
Lenaart: It puts you in an interesting emotional space when those options pop-up. One of them is a picture of Lee, one of them is a photo of Kenny’s family. You have the log. Every time I’ve watched someone play through, most people don’t burn the pictures, but they immediately have that visceral response “what? no way! I’m keeping these!” Some people--[this is] more rare--see that and go “well, you know what, Clementine? You need to grow up, you need to move on.” Even though people usually go into that choice knowing exactly what they’re going to say right away, it does make an emotional impression on them.
GB: The impression for many was that this dog would be a companion. Was that something you considered?
Lenaart: For episode one, it was importance to establish that isolation, to make Clementine and the player have expectations…and, then, pull the rug out from under you and know that you’re going to be humbled a few times. This world doesn’t pull any punches. That was extremely important.
Darin: The phrase that we always have around the office is that “the world doesn’t give a shit if you’re a little girl in the zombie apocalypse. It’s going to treat you horribly.” The whole first half of the game is just making that click. At every step of the way, you think something could go well, and, then, we say “nope, in reality, this would probably be horrible.” If you had that food, the dog would probably try to take. Even if you have the best intentions and want to make a friend, it wouldn’t really happen.
GB: When Clementine comes across the house, she’s not trusted. You might think there would be sympathy to a child, but the house is very divided. How did you approach setting up that group dynamic?
Darin: Those group dynamics evolved over the course of creating the first episode. We struggled with finding an identity for the group. Are they going to trust you outright? How much are they going to distrust you? How much do they trust each other? It went through a lot of iterations. It’s hard to look back and think what, at any given point in time, we were thinking about the group. [laughs] A lot of the situations first came up with the simple scenario of getting bitten by a dog. You’re a person in the zombie apocalypse, you show up in front of strangers with a serious bite on your arm, what does that mean? From there, we built out and found the voices, how they were going to treat outsiders, and what it means to trust people.
"You’re a person in the zombie apocalypse, you show up in front of strangers with a serious bite on your arm, what does that mean?"
GB: Was there a particular moment in this episode that you had to workshop the most?
Lenaart: A lot of what the dynamics within the group themselves and the relation to Clementine. There was a lot of stuff we went back and forth on. Just classically, all of our episode ones go through a lot more iteration than the rest of the season because we’re trying to get as many people in the office to play it and give opinions and see what parts of our opinions are validated and what stuff we need to work on more. The group was a huge part to me.
Also, just [figuring out] how to start the episode exactly. How soon is too soon to separate Clementine from people? How much time can you spend alone? That was all stuff that we calibrated pretty significantly over the course of production.
Darin: The beginning and the end was the thing that we worked on the most, over and over again, to see what felt right.
Lenaart: We’re really happy with how episode one sets up what we’re trying to do with the overall character arc for Clementine in season two. One thing that I was a little bit surprised on with some of the reaction to getting to know the characters a bit more. I think episode one is a really good foundation for what we want to do. Over the course of the season, when all the episodes come out, it’ll be a pretty awesome thing to look back on. It serves a really good function.
Darin: That function is that it’s Clementine’s story.
Lenaart: It was weird for us, too. How much, exactly, could we play with her [being] alone? That was something we debated a lot, too. A lot of our games are dialogue and talking to people. Again, one of the things I was happy with was that a lot of people really loved the Clementine [being] alone sections of the game, which is cool. It’s not something that we often do in Telltale games.
Darin: It’s difficult to make that work narratively when it’s just one character with nobody to talk to. [laughs]