[Warning: If you have not finished episode one of The Walking Dead, you should read no further.]
Zombies are a tired, boring trope for a video game enemy, but Telltale Games' The Walking Dead is, somehow, one of the most riveting pieces of interactive storytelling in 2012. To think The Walking Dead is actually about the zombies, however, is to miss the point. The zombies are simply a catalyst for the human drama.
Episode one, A New Day, launched in late April. Episode two, Starved for Help, released in late June. Episode three, Long Road Ahead, is out on PlayStation Network today, and arrives on Xbox Live Arcade, PC and Mac on Wednesday. As this goes live, the next chapter is close, and it seemed like the perfect time to rope some of the principal characters from Telltale to take a closer look the moral decisions that have kept players sweating.
Project leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin and writer Mark Darin joined me over Skype for a nearly hour-long breakdown of the first two episodes, in which we specifically focus on the decisions where the player is responsible, or at least involved, with the death of a character. There are plenty of other decisions, big and small, that players make throughout each episode of The Walking Dead, but when someone finally bites the dust, those are the ones that make you wonder "Did I make the right choice?" It doesn't take long to contemplate loading a previous save.
The plan is to dissect of these moments from every episode of The Walking Dead with several members of Telltale Games in the weeks and months ahead. We're aided by Telltalle's welcomed disclosure of player decision statistics, which the studio releases as part of an ongoing video series.
Look for a dismemberment of episode two tomorrow, and when we're closer to the release of episode four, Around Every Corner, we'll (hopefully!) be back again with a look back at the inevitable deaths in episode three.
Our conversation began after I'd spent a few hours on YouTube watching different reaction videos. I came across this quote, which seemed to best summarize what makes The Walking Dead click with folks.
"Keep in mind that the decisions I made are my own, there are no right or wrong choices here, at the very best there are more morally questionable paths that you can take. That's what probably makes the game so real, intense and good."
"At this stage, I feel like we have a pretty good gut for the type of choices we want to present the player, but that’s pretty accurate," said Vanaman in response. "We never want there to be a right answer, but at the same time, I feel like there are choices in the game that are probably better than others at doing that, so we have to ramp our due dilligence in the second half of the season when it comes to really making sure the things we’re asking the player to pick between don’t have moral connotation and don’t have good or bad or value judgements attached to them."
As Vanaman and Rodkin started pitching the studio on their ideas for The Walking Dead, there were more than a few developers put off by the material. It took some convincing to get some folks on board. Even now, some of the horrific ideas and concepts they're wrestling with give them pause, a point we touch on later.
"We want players to feel like 'I had to pick between a terrible thing and a different terrible thing,'" said Rodkin, "and 'Would I go back and do it again?' [And think] 'Maybe, but I don't know if I’d go back and reverse my decision.' Because if you have a choice-based game where people feel like 'Oh, I fucked that up,' then they’re just going to go back and chance it. We really want people to feel comfortable with their horrible choice. [laughs]"
"We can’t build a system that locks you in to your choice," added Vanaman.
"Well, it’s a video game!" said Rodkin.
Yeah, it's a video game, but one unlike most I've played. And with that, onto episode one's violent moral quandaries.
GB: In the first major choice that can result in a death in episode one, where you choose between Shawn and Duck, the stats actually showed that was split down the middle. Some of the stuff that people were commenting on was that, no matter what you do, Shawn dies. In that choice, in some sense, it's illusion of choice. Because even if you try to save Shawn, he still gets captured by the zombies and moves on. When you guys set up that choice, was there ever a situation where Shawn was rescue-able, or did you want to set a tone early on where, even if you choose to save someone, that doesn’t mean it’s going to necessarily happen?
Vanaman: That was the most tumultuous choice in the game, and that was the one that took a lot of getting people bought into [it]. By the time we shipped it, everybody was into it.
But, no, there was never an option. Because Shawn Greene is presented as a zombie within the first couple trades of the comic, it was never something we wanted to do. We always wanted him to die, or, at least, to be bitten really badly. If you try to save him, he kind of talks for a minute before drifting off, so you get a little bit more out of him, but that was really hard because that choice really isn’t about Shawn or Duck. The choice is actually completely about Kenny. You’ve just met this guy, you don’t really know much about him, but hopefully you’ve walked around and talked to him and his family and got a sense of where they’re from and how they treat each other, how he feels about his son. He loves his son but he realizes his son is sort of a 10-year-old dipshit. Him and his wife have what seems to be...she really takes care of him. Hopefully you have this sense of who this guy is, so that--how much does that matter to you in a situation where you have to go with your gut? That’s really what the choice is about. The choice is not so much “Which of these characters do you care about, which of these characters do you choose to live?” It’s “I’ve just met this man. How long am I going to be with him? Am I attached enough to him and his son yet to go for him first?”
Jake: It’s also about testing the waters with Kenny as a player. Even if you are someone who is going to place the value judgement on saving Shawn and saving Duck, entirely relative to you, you immediately learn who Kenny is as a person by how he reacts to the choice that you ended up making.
Sean: If you choose Shawn, he [Kenny] saves Duck, and you’ve still got a chance to save Shawn. Lee yells “Kenny, come here!” and Kenny runs away. If those things didn’t exist, if it was just “save this little boy or this early 20s young man” and the young man always dies but you don’t know who the little boy is, you don’t know who his dad is, you take it at face value. Then, that choice...
Jake: We would feel like shit.
Sean: Then, you are just saying “Eff you, player, this game is not only is one track but means one thing." That’s the thing about the game, especially since we’re making episodic content and we can only make so much. At one point, the game is really, really linear, but we hope that we can make a linear game that, in the way it arranges itself, produces a multitude of meaning. And that’s really what I think--that’s what I went into the game thinking. Okay, I know what the limitations are of a Telltale game, I know what the limitations are [in] our production process, where do I think I can make an impact? That’s my thought.
GB: Even if you choose to try and go after Shawn, Duck can’t die. Is there any rule about an aversion to killing children? Or is that, specifically, a moment where you’re given this illusion that you’re choosing between Shawn or Duck, but it’s really about your attitude towards Kenny?
Sean: It’s tough. I’ll be honest. There’s stuff that [Robert] Kirkman does in the comics, where I’m just like...ugh. "How are we..? I don’t know if I wanna go...?" I definitely felt that reading the comics. A lot. But not necessarily in that instance. Duck surviving there or not surviving there--that didn’t really come into play there. To your point, there’s stuff in the comics. I don’t know. Are you up on the comics at all?
GB: I’ve read through the first major trade, but I haven’t read past that.
Sean: Can I spoil something for you?
[Warning: Do not click this if you haven't read up to issue #100 of the comics.]
GB: Yeah, yeah.
Sean: The little kid, Carl, gets shot in the face. [laughs] Right in the fucking face! In the eye! It rips his whole face out. Oh, he’s fine!
GB: He’s just a little cyclops now.
Sean: Actually, Glenn, from the first episode, in the comics, [he] recently died--issue 100. In just a brutal way. That’s something we’re always talking about internally. I think there’s probably stuff in episode three that...I’ll be curious. Let me know when you’ve played it. [laughs] It starts to get darker.
Mark: I don’t think there’s anything off the table, really. Anything that’s been “We’re not allowed, that’s pushing it too far,” that we’re told we’re pushing it too far, we internally fear “Oh, shit, I can’t go there.”
Jake: More often than not, though, when we say “Oh, shit, we can’t go there,” and then the room kind of goes quiet for a couple of minutes, and then someone goes “No, we can probably do that.” [laughs]
One thing that’s maybe worth pointing out about choices that seem important until you do them, and then they don’t seem to do anything is that people should remember that this is a five episode game. Whether or not you save Duck or Shawn Greene doesn’t mean that Lee is suddenly going to be on the North Pole instead of, like, western Europe in episode five.
Sean: It’s not the butterfly effect.
Jake: It’s not like you get an entirely different back half of the season. Things like that, the game and we don’t forget what you do. It’s important for people to remember your storyline because things that you’ve done in the past do end up coming back on you way later on than you think sometimes.
Sean: It’s just being pertinent. Going back, we can kind of sound like “You’re going to regret how he died!” We don’t do that.
Jake: No, I don’t mean come back on you as much as...
GB: There are consequences.
Jake: Things that seem like they sank away a long time ago might still be percolating in the back of a character’s mind.
Mark: That whole choice with saving Shawn, if you choose to save Shawn, just because you couldn’t do it doesn’t mean that the choice is meaningless because everybody remembers that choice, and that ripples through the entire game.
Sean: Mark makes a really good point. Just because somebody dies--in real-life, I’ve gotta live with that guy now, the guy [where] I didn’t try to save his son, the guy who maybe thinks he should have not run away. That’s a tension I have to live with, as opposed to you guys carrying the same amount of baggage. You can’t commiserate. If you choose Duck, Lee and Kenny could realistically commiserate and say “You know, man, back there, we really should have tried to do something else” and there’s a bond built there, whereas now there’s a rift. That, really, more interesting.
GB: In the case of Doug and Carley, the second major choice you get in episode one, when I was looking at the stats for Duck and Shawn, that was basically split 50/50. But with Carley and Doug, it was 75/25, essentially. Do you guys aim for that to be 50/50? I mean, not every choice is going to be 50/50, but these ones where you’re talking about a character death, is the aim 50/50? So when you get a situation like Carley and Doug where it’s 75/25, do you think you didn’t properly set that up?
Sean: That’s a really good question.
Jake: In the specific case of Doug and Carley, we’d hoped that it would be 50/50, but I think we knew going in with that one, we made peace with the fact that hot reporter with a gun versus dorky dude, we kind of knew where that was going to go.
Sean: I mean, we definitely kind of made our bed on that one a little bit. I would probably do things a little differently, I’ll be completely honest. I would probably frame them as different people, and not for the sake of getting it to 50/50, but because I feel, personally--I guess I’m kind of the guy who created Doug and Carley. I mean, Jake and I do a lot of the conceptual work together, but on episode one, I wrote all the stuff. It was in the can when Gary [Whitta] came on, he dug it already, so that was good. [laughs] I would probably frame them a little bit differently, to be perfectly honest. Just because--it has nothing to do with the stat choices--it has to do with the fact that I think I left some stuff on the table with them, with what possibilities could have been communicated in the first episode with their characters. I think, had I done a better job communicating the possibility of their characters, this stat would be a little...maybe not more 50/50, but you wouldn’t be able to boil it down to what Jake was boiling it down [to].
GB: I was rewatching the scene this afternoon, and there’s a line from Carley which says “Doug, if we make it through this, you should know...” which seemed to allude to a much larger backstory between the two, unless that’s me reading too much into that scene.
Sean: No, that’s totally where I was going. If you talk to Carley in the drug store, he [Lee] can be like “Hey, how’d you get here?” and she’s like “Oh, I came down from Atlanta, we were covering this festival, and everything went to shit. My producer got eaten, and that dude over there saved my ass,” and you look over and it’s Doug. “That guy?!” “Yeah, that guy.” They’ve been together for three or four days now, and that relationship--that’s what I’m saying about left things on the table. You get this sense, at the end, where, in the face of possible death, Carley clearly has something to say to Doug, and I thought that was interesting. I wanted to communicate [that].
That was one of those things where I came back and looked at the script and we’re at a moment where we’re trying to get the game done and I’m like “God, I really did not make the relationship between these two characters the way I always wanted to. Okay, I have this moment right here where everything’s going to hell. Can I, at least, allude to it?” So I did.
Jake: There’s one, little reference to at the very end.
Sean: Oh, yeah, that’s true. If you go to Carley, she says “Why’d you save me?” She basically says “Oh, well, thanks.” But if you go to Doug, and he says “Why’d you save me?” he goes “I wish you had saved her.” Depending on who you save, you get a different perspective on their friendship, or relationship in general, was.