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Why Telltale's Knocking on Death's Door

Telltale Games co-founder Kevin Bruner discusses the problems of Jurassic Park, introducing death for the first time, and the uncanny power of words.

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Jurassic Park shook my confidence in Telltale Games. Sam & Max had run its course after several seasons, and following the beloved but mechanically aging Back to the Future, it was clear the studio needed to shake up its approach to designing adventure games. While Jurassic Park had the right ideas, it didn’t work.

Whether it was quick learning from the mistakes of Jurassic Park or the values inherent to a different development team, The Walking Dead represented a tremendous turnaround. It tapped every one of the right buttons. Riding the continued relevance of the comic and the mammoth success of AMC’s television show, The Walking Dead hit the mark critically and commercially. The first episode sold more than one million copies, a bona fide hit.

“The combination of the game being on all platforms at the same time and the TV show and the comic being fresh content that’s coming out brand-new has really let this take off,” said Telltale co-founder Kevin Bruner to me moments after witnessing some early moments of episode two at E3.

(I don’t want to spoil anything, but the next episode starts with a truly “Holy shit!” moment.)

As a Jurassic Park fanboy, I was especially crushed by what didn't work. But dinosaurs!
As a Jurassic Park fanboy, I was especially crushed by what didn't work. But dinosaurs!

Telltale was ahead of the curve on episodic gaming, and remains committed to the concept. It’s played with how to deliver that content (Jurassic Park, for example, could only be purchased as a four episode bundle all at once), but a huge stumbling block has been delivering content in a timely fashion across all platforms.

The trouble with Microsoft’s “slot” system on Xbox Live Arcade has been documented in the past, and prior to The Walking Dead, Telltale was forced to work with other companies to deliver its content through XBLA. That changed in 2011, as Telltale became an official Xbox 360 publisher. That wasn’t possible in the past because Telltale simply wasn’t big enough.

Additionally, The Walking Dead episodes are being delivered as in-game downloadable content. That doesn’t require messing with the troublesome slot program, meaning episodes will hopefully arrive with less delay.

Both The Walking Dead and Jurassic Park are pushing forward on a central tenet for Telltale these days: what does a modern adventure game look like? Each approach came out of internal R&D tests.

“We don’t play just adventure games,” said Bruner. “What aspects do we like about those games? What do we think are missing from old school adventure games? We really like games that keep you moving along. That was a big thing with Jurassic Park and Walking Dead--the game doesn’t stop, the game’s gotta keep moving.”

Faults aside, Jurassic Park represented a sea change for one very important reason: death. Telltale was founded by ex-LucasArts veterans, designers who approached adventure games much differently than, say, Sierra Entertainment. I died plenty of times making it through those Space Quest games but never in Grim Fandango.

“That was a big mantra,” said Bruner. “It’s comfortable for the player because you know you can walk around and can’t die.”

Death introduces consequence and permanence to the player. Bruner said the debate to introduce death into Telltale’s projects wasn’t very heated, but as Telltale moved into subject matter that asked for interactivity beyond just solving puzzles, the studio was forced to reevaluate its position on killing characters.

There is plenty of death to go around in The Walking Dead, too. The loss of life is rampant in Robert Kirkman’s universe, a theme well represented in Telltale’s interactive tale. Death’s door is player-driven, too, as many of the first episode’s key moments were chances for the player to determine who will live to fight another day.

It didn't take more than a click of the mouse to die in many of Sierra's classic adventure games.
It didn't take more than a click of the mouse to die in many of Sierra's classic adventure games.

“That’s the kind of thing that, as we evolve, we can keep the story moving, keep it interesting, keep the pacing where we want it to be,” said Bruner. “And now we’ve folded in this choice mechanic where we don’t give you a lot of time to make decisions, and we’ve figured out ways to produce the content where you really do live with the choices you’ve made.”

Before showing off episode two, Telltale was running a slideshow of statistics regarding the first episode. It’s common for developers to be monitoring player decisions, but uncommon for it to make that information public. For one thing, The Walking Dead is actually tracking more decisions than any other Telltale game. The statistical results are built into the developer tools, as well, allowing writers to pull up specific decisions and learn what players chose.

This allows writers working on later episodes to include specific callbacks to a moment in an earlier episode, even if there were no plans to address it originally. Telltale’s updated toolset allows writers meaningful flexibility to have that choice unfold in a way no one could have originally expected.

Walking Dead includes a
Walking Dead includes a "rewind" function on player decisions but Telltale said no one uses it.

“They [writers] can go back to look at episode one and say ‘Oh, it would be really cool if a character responded in this way if you had screwed them over back here.’” he said. “We can look back and say ‘Well, only 2% of the people screwed them over, so even though it might be a cool thing to do, nobody’s going to see it. Let’s spend our energy somewhere else, where people are going to see it.’”

One of the stats Telltale was displaying represented a life-or-death decision for two characters near the end of the first episode. I won’t spoil who or why, but 75% of players went with one character, only 25% with the other. Bruner said Telltale doesn’t view that outcome as ideal--they want a 50/50 split.

“We really struggle with the text that’s displayed for choices,” he said.

Bruner said the team were constantly tweaking dialog to avoid influencing a player’s decision. There’s an instance in episode one where Clementine asks the player “What should we do?” At one point, that line was “Should we stay?” In playtests, Telltale found even suggesting the player should stay pushed too many players to do exactly that.

“You want it to be ambiguous,” he said. “You don’t want to use words like ‘best’ because you want people to struggle with these decisions and not feel like there’s a right or wrong.”

Telltale is putting the finishing touches on the next episode of The Walking Dead, and hopes to have it available on every platform before the end of the month. The iOS version is still in development, too, and should be available soon.

Patrick Klepek on Google+