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The Walking Dead's Faces of Death: Part 2

With episode three finally coming out, we continue our conversation with Telltale Games about the design decisions behind episode two's big choices.

[Warning: If you have not finished both episodes of The Walking Dead, you should read no further. Unlike yesterday's entry, however, there are no spoilers related to the comic book.]

If you’re a PlayStation 3 owner, Telltale Games has already made The Walking Dead’s third episode, Long Road Ahead, live for you. Everyone is patiently waiting for the next episode today, unless you’re an iOS user, in which case the second episode (a great one, by the way) is just about ready.

By the time everyone's sat down for
By the time everyone's sat down for "dinner," things have started to go really, really wrong.

Giant Bomb’s embarked on a five-part feature series with Telltale about The Walking Dead, talking through the biggest choices placed in front of players throughout each episode. While we’re explicitly focusing on choices that involve the death of a character influenced by the player and Lee, the actual conversation frequently wanders all over the place, as we talk through the various choices.

I’m joined by project leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, in addition to writer Mark Darin, who took writing control of the darker, weirder second episode of The Walking Dead, Starved for Help.

I mean, it involves a bunch of damn cannibals, and if you’re not careful, Clementine eats it (them?) right up!

“Initially, my instinct was having a tally of good points and bad points and these things kind of add up and make people feel a certain way,” he said. “That was completely wrong--we had to go back and restructure it. [laughs] It’s just not a point-based structure. We were just trying to go and sway one or the other or anything, [but] it’s just incredibly dynamic and fluid and changing all the time, and it’s gotta reflect that, and not ever make you feel like you’re being pushed away at the same time.”

There’s more death in episode two, and I’m told episode three is even darker. Who knows what tragic events are in store for episode four, Around Every Corner, which was written by none other than our friend Gary Whitta.

And with that, let’s continue.

GB: While episode one has its own holy shit moments, I definitely think I was in a league of players that was not expecting the leg chopping off at the beginning of episode two.

Vanaman: Really?! I see that leg chop and go “Oh, yeah, yeah.” [laughs]

GB: It’s funny, because I was watching the clips of people playing, and it seems like there’s two things that happen, which results in the stat of 85% chopping off and 15% leaving him to die. You approach that scene, see you have the ability to chop off his leg, and you say “Hell yeah!” and you start chopping away. Or you’re like me, where you tried every other opportunity, and then all of a sudden you just run out of time, which I think is great, especially since the game doesn’t display that. So many other choices in the game have a timer, so you know what you’re working against.

Darin: Yup. [group laughter] We went back and forth for a little while, as to whether we should have an indicator on the screen or not that says you’re closing in. But I think people already had the mindset that there’s a leg, and I’m just gonna go ahead and chop it. I think a timer on the screen would have pushed it even further in that direction. But we wanted people to have that experience, and see who were the people who were going to not want to do that, and how far are they going to take it before they get to the point where they think they’re gonna chop that leg off. It’s fascinating to kind of get into people’s heads by looking at the stats, and see who’s doing that and who’s just going right for the leg. “This is a video game, I know what I need to do, I’m chopping that fucking leg off.”

Rodkin: The best playthroughs are the ones where they’ll get two chops in, and then run out of time.

GB: That’s what happened to me.

Rodkin: “I’m gonna try to wrench open the trap...fuck it, I gotta get that leg off.” And the guy just screams, and then Kenny pulls you off. You leave the guy in the woods with his leg halfway gone.

Vanaman: Ugh. [laughs]

One chop? C'mon. Two chops? Stretching it. Three chops? Sure. Four chops? You're crazy.
One chop? C'mon. Two chops? Stretching it. Three chops? Sure. Four chops? You're crazy.

GB: That was absolutely my playthrough, and my wife was screaming at me “Just mash the button, get the leg off.” Because she knows we must be running out of time, and then, yeah, we got two chops in, but didn’t get the third chop.

Rodkin: Good! I feel like so many things do come down to the details a little bit. I’m pretty sure, and correct me slash don’t include this if I’m wrong, but I think on the leg chop, when the scene first opens up, your reticule is right over the guy’s leg.

Darin: Yeah.

Rodkin: So the the very first thing you see is [whistle] that [scene] opens up and there’s an axe icon.

GB: [laughs]

Rodkin: I think if we had just moved that three inches off, so that it would be equidistant for you to swing it over to the chain and the trap or to the guys leg, and we had to let the player discover for themselves “Oh, I can chop off the guy’s leg, I bet that stat would have swung more equally.” And that’s totally down to a little bit of tuning that I don’t think we had a chance to do on that scene.

GB: How did you decide on three chops?

Vanaman: It’s an adventure game, so you have three of everything. Um.

GB: Miyamoto’s rule of three applies even to chopping off legs.

Vanaman: I’m trying to think. When it comes to Lee’s brother, that’s like four or five chops, right? We can only do four or three chops! [laughs]

Rodkin: In our QA [quality assurance] area, we’ve got a lot of one-legged guys now. We found that it takes three swings, on average, for a guy to use sort of strength and chopping agility slash ability to fully chop a leg.

Vanaman: Yeah, that’s a good point. [pause]

You know, I don’t really know. It’s one of those things where one chop, okay, it feels too much like a band-aid. It’s two chops, and you’re like “Okay, it feels almost supernatural to get through that much.” Then, you go to four chops, and you’re like “Okay, that just goes gratuitous.” Then, you go “Okay, three chops.”

Rodkin: When Nick [Herman, lead cinematic artist] was first putting the team together, he had all these horrible pitches for things like you chop the leg all the way off, and then the guy tries to pull his leg out, but then just this one [piece] is still connected and you go in there and just nick the last little piece off.

Vanaman: Oh, god, I remember that part, yeah.

Rodkin: That didn’t ship.

Vanaman: Did we have obj_bonefragment? I think we do.

Rodkin: I think there is a version where there’s just a little half [piece]. I don’t think we actually shipped with that.

Darin: Remember when the leg was moving and you had to hit it right on the spot? You could hack his leg up and not actually cut through because you weren’t getting it lined up. [laughs] We tried a few things.

Rodkin: Yeah, I dunno. Legs!

GB: The scene after that is with Jolene, and that one has a similar stat flip, where you’ve got only 13% shooting Jolene, and the other 87% tried to put it off and Danny just straight up shoots her. That did seem like a scene that, by design, if you were going to be the person who shot Jolene, you were taking this character down a path that was very intentional. Otherwise, it seemed like the game was sort of guiding you to this moment where, if Danny shoots her, you get the first indication that maybe something is up with these people that you’ve aligned yourself with.

Darin: That was the point where that is supposed to flip the table. During that scene, when Danny shoots Jolene--I still would have liked to do more [to get it] down the middle. There were some things, some ideas that I had for doing that, but we couldn’t make a path for a couple reasons. I still think the scene ended up really good. That stuff with Danny, the table kind of flipping on his character, happens throughout that whole scene, even if you didn’t have him shoot her. I still think it would have ended the same way, with you coming out of that scene, feeling like there’s something not right with these guys.

Vanaman: Because if you shoot her, Danny is like “Woo!”

GB: He even says “Nice shot!”

Vanaman: You’re like “What?!? Whoa, creepy.”

Rodkin: Did you end up shooting her? What’d you do?

GB: No, I just kept having the conversation with her, and let it go. Those tend to be my favorite moments in the series, and it happens twice in episode two, almost back-to-back. I like the timer because it creates a sense of tension, but I like it even more when that timer is happening in the background, and once the scene is finished, you realize how that mechanic worked. I think that’s driven more because I play enough games to understand what mechanics are. I imagine, especially to a player that doesn’t--like my wife, for example--it's a revelation. She doesn’t think about games in that way, so the surprise to her unimaginably bigger.

Vanaman: Yeah, and we implement that on-screen timer bar in situations where it’s reasonable to think that Lee would be able to intuit how much time he has left before something happens. When Danny just ices Jolene, that’s a surprise to the player and it’s a surprise to Lee, so we feel like it would be inappropriate to message to the player how much time is left until something bad happens. That’s the implementation strategy on that one.

Rodkin: If you can perceive that there’s an endgame coming if you don’t act, we put a timer on it.

Vanaman: It’s the difference between me throwing you a football and you know almost how long you have before you have to get underneath it versus throwing it at the back of your head. [laughs]

GB: There’s plenty of surprising moments in both episodes, but the only time I literally shouted “what the fuck” was with Larry. I chose to try and save him. The split there was actually 75/25 in favor of saving him. It’s specifically the way the camera is set up. You’re over him, and then the salt block just fucking shatters his face. Whereas when I watched the way the scene plays out the other way, where you chose to restrain Lilly, you know what’s coming, you know the salt block is coming over, but if you try to save him, that whole sequence is completely out of nowhere. It gives that element of surprise when you think there’s a chance.

Vanaman: It’s so funny. Whenever we kill a character, there’s a lot of talk of “Do we want to put a split here? Do we want to split the content here and bring this character forward?” That happens a lot. We have that talk every single time someone does. Again, with Larry, I felt like I didn’t know how much more interesting story there was to tell with Larry, but it was surely going to be interesting to this woman who’s in your crew if she thinks you helped murder her dad or not. That just felt like “Okay, that is the most interesting thing, so let’s make sure we get out of the scene with that.” Therefore, old Larry’s gotta go. [laughs]

If you chose to try and save Larry and saw the salt lick drop coming, you're a damn psychic.
If you chose to try and save Larry and saw the salt lick drop coming, you're a damn psychic.

GB: He felt like a bit more of a one-dimensional character. He felt like a story tool to push Lee in certain directions.

Vanaman: I thought that’s what I was writing. I really thought I was writing, and then tossing it over to Mark for episode two, and I think Mark put a lot more interesting stuff into Larry in episode two, but I thought I was writing a really one-dimensional character that I knew was going to be this tool in episode two, but there’s so many people in the forums [saying] “I didn’t think Larry was actually that bad of a guy, he’s just an a-hole, and he knew [Lee] was a murderer, so Larry seems decent. Larry just seems like a guy looking out for his daughter, and isn’t going to put up with any shit.”

Rodkin: It was surprising and kind of awesome to read. Like you, I came across a few two or three paragraph long diatribes before we were like “I know Larry is presented as the asshole in this story, but that’s who I’d fucking be in a second, if I was with these fuckers.” [laughs]

Vanaman: I dig that.

Darin: I also think it’s really interesting, watching the playthroughs of people, and they just start off episode two saying “I hate that guy. As soon as I fucking get a chance, I’m gonna kill that guy, I’m gonna kill him.” And then they get to that point and “I can’t kill him! I gotta save him! I gotta do it!” I don’t know why that is, exactly, but I like it.

GB: The conversation just ahead of that with Lilly, where you pull her aside, was important. The dialogue option I chose, at least, was “How do you put up with that asshole?” She goes through this whole little bit about “Well, he’s an asshole, but he’s my dad, and he’s just protecting me.” That is the emotional setup for what probably shifts how the player acts. I still think you would have seen a split where most people, given the choice, are not going to kill this dude, even though he’s a virtual character, but it’s specifically because of that scene that you get Lilly’s perspective on why he’s acting that way. I don’t think you get things spelled out as plainly as you do in that very short conversation, and I think that tilts it. At least it did for me.

Vanaman: That’s awesome. I’m kind of lamenting that it’s over. [laughs] Their relationship was something that was really interesting in general, but especially that opening argument with them in the drug store, I was really happy with the way that turned out. It was put together by a cinematic artist named Graham Ross, and it’s just awesome. I always wanted it to come out that Lilly was this hard ass, but if Larry told her to shut up, she was just going to shrink. I wanted the players to not actually make Larry the villain, but I wanted the way he talked to his daughter and has moments that sort of hint at proooobably some abuse there at some point--probably not a cool dude to grow up with, who-knows-where-the-mom-went sort of thing. She’s still his dad, and I’m glad that came out in episode two.

Rodkin: She’s still his dad.

Vanaman: I’m a little out in the woods. [laughs]

Darin: It was really important for me to put that all throughout episode two. [It] was to give you little glimpses of Larry’s humanity. That one dialogue that you picked really put everything on the table, but you could get through that without picking that, and still see glimpses. There’s little psychological things, like when you’re talking to Mark, and he asks about Larry and you get your dialogue options, you see an option where Lee has the option to say “He’s just looking out for his daughter.” You might not pick that, but it still sticks in your brain, and it still gives you a piece of Larry that you might not have communicated, but it still sticks with you psychologically, and that carries over about Larry’s character. So I wanted to have that stuff layered in, as well.

Vanaman: We use dialogue like that a lot. These are the sorts of things we could say, so they matter, even if you don’t pick them. Implanting them like that is always really important, and so what happens all the time is they’ll think they have learned something from a dialogue choice, and [say] “Well, I picked that.” No, you didn’t, you picked this other thing. “Well, I knew that other thing, too!” [laughs]

Rodkin: When you have the opportunity to kill Danny in the barn with a pitchfork, those stats are overwhelmingly in favor of people of people were just like “Fuck that guy” and stabbed him with a pitchfork. Then, when they get to the next brother out in the yard, the one that you can punch and then throw into a fence, next to no one threw him into an electric fence. Looking at forums, the response was “Oh, I stabbed the shit out of that guy with a pitchfork, and then Clementine was right there, and I saw here see me kill someone, and that made me think twice about doing it to the second guy, I just couldn’t do it.”

GB: You have Lee, who seems to have an aversion to succumbing to this world where you have to kill everyone and fuck everyone else. But those moments, after what those characters have gone through, you want to fuck these guys over. You want to kill them. The atmosphere--the music is pounding, it’s raining outside--it’s a setup for “You shouldn’t feel bad if you want to take these guys out.” For the player to walk away from that feels like an important emotional shift in the story, since it’s a moment where everything becomes very real for the characters and the player. If you choose to go down this path, it’s a wholly different path than if you chose to, say, not kill them. In that case, it’s the harder choice to make.

Vanaman: Yeah. Thanks for pointing that out, actually. That was something we talked about a lot. If you put a crosshair on the screen, somebody’s going to pull the trigger, you know? Games are built around these set-piece moments often times, especially linear third-person action games where it’s like “Yeah, I iced that guy!”

GB: If you put a button prompt on there, people are, by nature, inclined to press the button. If you were to put the situation down on a piece of paper and say “Do you want to kill this guy or not?” they might circle no.

Vanaman: I think some of that stuff came into Lee’s backstory stuff. I think people always say “When’s the shoe gonna drop on his backstory?” That’s coming up, obviously. We didn’t leave that behind totally. But, for me, when we were talking about “Who is this guy? What baggage does he bring to the table when you start playing the game?” I really wanted him to bring an aversion in to having killed before, feeling really bad about it, and spending some time with that to see a) if players would empathize [and] b) if players would adopt that baggage as their own and c) give Lee something to do very physically and emotionally, in idle, before the player is put through a choice where he’s going to kill somebody or not. I’m glad. I feel that’s working a little bit. It feels like it’s another wrinkle of consideration if you’re the player. If you’re an empty shell, sometimes you’re in that sort of gameplay [mindset], where it’s “I’m not making this guy do that, I’m making this shell that I’ve got [do that].”

GB: It’s not just the agency of the player themselves, but it’s also your agency over this character, who has his own backstory. There’s this really interesting tension between what the player thinks is important, but then, at least for some players like myself, not wanting to violate who you think this character is and what they would do, even if your own motivations as a player come into conflict.

Vanaman: Yeah. I think it’s interesting. It’s interesting, the gameplay story of “I met this guy, via the game, and then I sheparded him, and thus me, through a story, really trying to achieve both redemption and, also, corner off a section of morals that worked for me and the character.” On the flip side, it’s saying “I brought Lee to this place that was inside of him and it made him do all these things.” Bad ways is not necessarily the way I’d look at it. You may construe things that some people, like Kenny for instance, feels are not bad or good but necessary. That’s the thing. What is necessary is the bigger question for us when we’re creating situations for Lee. When people come out of their playthroughs, it’s fascinating both ways, and I’m happy about that.

Rodkin: And then there’s the silent Lee, who just stands around and does nothing. [laughs] Who picks the ellipses every single time, it’s the weirdest thing.

Vanaman: Yeah, whatever. That’s really hard to support.

GB: If you can separate yourself at all, how do you think you would have acted, as the player, put into these situations?

Vanaman: You’re the first person to ask that, so congratulations. [laughs] I’ve just been waiting for somebody to ask! I don’t know who I would save with Doug and Carley--it’d be close. It’s easier for me with episode two because I was a little further away. I would have chopped the leg for sure, definitely, and I would have tried to save Larry. It would be really hard to not kill those brothers. It would have been really hard not to kill those brothers. I think I would have killed them. They’re bad people in this fucking world. [laughs]

Rodkin: It’s tough. I definitely would have chopped that leg off, I think. There’s no way I wouldn’t have tried, but when everyone’s eating dinner, and Larry starts giving me shit, I would have definitely have told him to eat the fucking food. [laughs] Did you do that? That’s my favorite thing.

It's up to you whether Clementine and everyone else manages to dig into the pile of human meat.
It's up to you whether Clementine and everyone else manages to dig into the pile of human meat.

GB: No, no. I was busy yelling at Clementine.

Rodkin: There’s one, small path you can go down where you sort of get Larry’s ire up, and he starts [yelling] “You fucking fuck” whatever, and you can just look at him and say “Eat up, Larry.” And he just starts eating the plate of food.

Vanaman: It’s the one time where it pushes the racism aspect of him the most, and he really creeps up on it, and Lee can be just like “You know, dude, eat up. Fuck it.” [laughs]

GB: I gotta go try and find that clip. That sounds awesome.

Rodkin: He’s not happy with you in the meat locker, but I probably still wouldn’t kill him. I still...I got my revenge by making him eat human meat. That’s enough for me.

Marin: I really don’t know for any of these. It’s... [pause, laughs] I know who I am.

GB: Would anyone have picked to save Doug?

Rodkin: Fuck yes.

Vanaman: Hell yeah.

Rodkin: I’d personally save Doug, but that’s because, if I were in Lee’s place. But if I were me, I would save Doug, because I’ve known Doug for, like, 15 years. That’s not a valid [question]!

GB: Oh, I forgot that. Not fair.

Rodkin: Doug is based off of Telltale’s old web designer, who’s also--he does work for us on Idle Thumbs. He does our backend stuff. He’s a dude who’s real. Making that choice is skewed. [laughs] So everyone should save Doug because he’s a nice guy. The people who did save Doug are in the minority, but many of them are very vocal about the support of their choice for saving Doug.

Vanaman: They’re like a family of brothers.

Rodkin: There’s a “Save Doug!” crew.

GB: That was in one of the YouTube videos that I pulled up. In the description, that person wrote this really long “pros” list for Doug, and how you shouldn’t let the fact that she’s a women make it that you have to save her. “Put that out of your mind. Doug is much more resourceful. Just because she’s got a gun? Everybody’s got a gun.” It was really funny how impassioned he was, so Doug definitely has his fans out there.

Rodkin: That was actually Doug’s YouTube playthrough. [group laughs]

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