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The Writer's Job: If Breaking Bad Became a Game...

February 12, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Experienced game writer Susan O'Connor (Tomb Raider, BioShock 1 & 2, Far Cry 2), explores what a writer brings to the creative process, by analyzing hit TV series Breaking Bad -- as though she were in the kick-off meeting for its game adaptation.

There are only eight episodes of Breaking Bad left. And then the show is over.

That is terrible news for fans, who can't help but wish it could go on forever. (Even show creator Vince Gilligan doesn't want it to end.) It's tempting to wish that someone could carry the IP forward, maybe into a console game...

Sure, the pitch would go: it's got all the elements. It stars an anti-hero; it elevates Walter's puzzle-solving ability to an art form; it's full of unforgettable villains. It could be the next Grand Theft Auto, starring Walter White...

No. That's a terrible idea. Whoever in that back room at AMC that ixnayed that idea did us all a favor. (They went with a graphic-novel game and interactive quizzes instead: good call.) Sky-high audience expectations would hamstring the console game developers into creating a pale imitation of the television experience in a virtual world, but successful IP adaptations smash a concept to bits and then recombine the wreckage into something both recognizable and utterly new.

It's risky. By sacrificing some of the best parts of a show or book or movie, you lose some of the original magic. The good news is that the loss forces developers to create new magic that only an interactive experience could provide. And that's the best reason to turn anything into a game.

Some developers (and IP guardians) are making brilliant choices when they adapt an IP. (Exhibit A: The Walking Dead.) The potential is clearly there -- for the right property, and the right approach.

I've worked as a writer in this industry for 15 years. I've been fortunate enough to be involved with projects from day one, for both original and adapted IP. Those experiences have helped me to develop a set of best practices that teams can use to unlock an IP's potential. In this article, we'll walk through a hypothetical kickoff meeting together, to if this adaptation has potential -- or if it's a disaster waiting to happen.

So: You're about to begin pre-production on a Breaking Bad video game. What do you do?

Break It Down

Step One: Analyze. What makes Breaking Bad so amazing? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But as you read Metacritic reviews, trends emerge. Here's what reviewers have called out, time and again, as part of the show's appeal:

Walter White is an everyman. As Stephen King says in his glowing review, "Breaking Bad invites us into another world, just as The Shield and The Sopranos did, but Walt White could be a guy just down the block, the one who tried to teach the periodic table to your kids before he got sick. The swimming pool with the eye in it could be right down the block too. That's exactly what makes it all so funny, so frightening, and so compelling. This is rich stuff."

His problems are real -- and so are the stakes. Walt's initial problem is as real as it gets. He's facing death. How will he provide for his family before he's gone? He faces real challenges in nearly every scene. In the show's second episode, he faces his first impossible choice: "Murder is wrong!" versus "He'll kill your entire family if you let him go." We don't know what he'll do -- or what we would do in a similar situation -- that's what keeps us watching.

The plotting is brilliant. Here's an exercise: watch an episode of the show, one you don't remember well. At the beginning of each scene, stop the playback and ask yourself how you would end it, if you were the writer. Then hit Play and watch what happens. Princess Bride screenwriter William Goldman once said, "Art needs to be both surprising and inevitable." Vince Gilligan's writing team delivers on both counts.

Walt is brilliant, too. He deals with disaster in clever (and often disturbing) ways. As Emily Nussbaum writes in the New Yorker, "Such problem solving has always been one of the show's great satisfactions, allowing Breaking Bad to feel as much like a how-to as a why-not-to... the audience can view events as a type of meta-puzzle: can the stakes rise even higher?"

The criminal underworld feels real. When Walter crosses over into the life of a drug lord, the world doesn't suddenly turn into a Martin Scorcese movie. The writers don't overplay their hand with dramatic lighting and heavy-handed music; they keep the action grounded in the dusty world of Albuquerque. The world has changed, but it's still a world we know.

The villains are unforgettable. Tuco! Hector! Gus! The Oatmeal breaks it down.

Then there's Jesse. There's the relationship between Walt and Jesse. There's the camera work, the comedy... I could go on. I bet you could, too.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Michael Joseph
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"Ironically, Walt -- the heart of the show -- is the WORST candidate as a player character."

Perhaps in this hypothetical open world game starring Walter as the main playable character, the player is tasked with helping Walter keep all his secrets a secret from his family, neighbors and friends, and deflecting law enforcement and competitors and other hostiles. Keep the player spinning plates, walking that infinitely long tightrope, maneuvering the falling blocks into place until that final eventuality when it all crashes to a halt. How long can the player survive as the heat is constantly being turned up.

Your typical GTA game NPC has the memory of a goldfish. You do one lap around the block and all your enemies have forgotten who you were. Having to deal with people who don't forget, but who may not have all the facts (yet?) would add a stealth element to a GTA style game. A "clue" or "evidence" mechanic could be a good starting point and the game designs itself from there. If you rush in guns blazing to accomplish some objective, you're not going to last very long because there's no way to avoid leaving a ton of incriminating evidence that you can't clean up.

So perhaps the game plays like a rouglike/GTA/The Sims/Heavy Rain/Tycoon Empire Builder mashup. Happy Town, USA looks like a typical middle income American suburb, but all is not as it seems for inside one these houses resides a monster. But you're not the only one with secrets. Car wash or money laundering HQ? Fast Food Mogul or drug Kingpin? Each game the neighborhood and characters are randomized. Your goal is to see how long you can last, how much money you can raise before the 5-0 halls you off in front of the COPS show camera crew.

The Sims folks should make a Detective add-on game or maybe I've been watching too much "Monk" on netflix lately.

Joshua Darlington
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I like your tweaked out SIMs idea. One thing about the BB story that caught my attention was that Walt and Jesse's character arcs don't make sense unless they are tweakers.

Amphetamine psychosis adds a lot of possibility for paranoia and intensity. PK Dick supposedly wrote all his sci fi under the influence. All his stories seemed to have a break with reality at some point.

Of course a tweaker empire builder game will never get made. For the same reason BB wasn't upfront about having tweaker main characters.

Stephane Bura
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The Sims is exactly the gameplay I imagined when reading the article. Try keeping your family happy and oblivious while running a meth empire.

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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When I imagine a Breaking Bad video game, I want Telltale to do it, and to not use Walter White's story, the show covered it well enough. I'm more interested in seeing what can be done with Gustavo Fring. He's mysterious and yet well-defined. Not much is known about his past (which might change with the last season coming up), and there's lots of potential there. Also, I think most people love Gustavo, he's a badass on par with Walter/Heisenberg.

Adam Bishop
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For the longest time I would see the picture used for this article on the front page and think that it was Gordon Freeman.

Scot White
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any straight movie/tv show into video games adaption are always bad. It's like porting WoW to iOS directly.

you need to design around a specific medium to make it works

Michael DeFazio
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Episodic game filling in the back stories of multiple main characters (Gus, Mike (like Evan said), Hank, and Tuco/Hector) you switch to a new main character and "perspective" for each episode.

You can keep things "cannon" whilst filling out the fertile back-stories of these interesting characters.

I always wanted to know what happened with Gus in Chile... Also would be interesting to follow Tuco as he breaks away from the Mexican Crime syndicate and starts off on his own in the New Mexico (with Hectors and the Twin' Brothers help).

Seems to me the major themes of the show (people making bad decisions for the "right reasons" and "people going through "transformations"... or "growth, transformation, then decay" as Mr. White aptly puts it might be well represented in a game where you see the consequences for your decisions)

I'd warn against trying to make it too much of a straight "action game" since that might "cheapen" the main characters...(I'd not respect Mike if he were just a "Dirty cop gunning down anyone in his path") I'd probably opt for something more akin to "the Walking dead" where you are given many choices... but none of the choices are "good" in terms of their consequences...

Michael DeFazio
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On a humorous note:

I'd get the Kairosoft "GameDevStory" guys to create:

"bogdon's car wash" (the breaking bad IOS/Android app)

would print money...

Carlo Delallana
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Nick Fortugno created a "Breaking Bad" game already (

Dave Stern
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Great article, Susan! Thanks for the perspective - spot-on, imo, about the need to reimagine story for each medium. And how such reimagination often offers the opportunity to peek into places the original story medium couldn't... a good lesson for I.P. owners, in how to keep the audience coming back for more... fill in those backstories... find new ways to look at the old characters... etc. Important to keep I.P. continuity in those cases, too...

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll go take a second look at Breaking Bad!

Susan O'Connor
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Thanks Dave!

Andrew Wallace
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Great article, and impressive that the comments aren't full of "STORIES HAVE NO PLACE IN GAMEZ" drivel (yet).

My Breaking Bad game would be Mike's origin story. It would play like Deus Ex, without the RPG elements.

Michael Joseph
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Breaking Bad as a high concept show, is about Walter and his transformation from mild mannered chemistry teacher to criminal master mind. Breaking Bad's character study of Walter _is_ Breaking Bad. And I think Walter's story resonates with alot of folks who are on the 40-40 plan (40 hours a week for 40 years, but its probably more like the 50 - 50 plan these days) and fantasize about making a ton of money selling illicit drugs and then getting out before the deception and lies and heat get out of control. In many ways, Breaking Bad is a metaphor for America losing it's soul and abandoning principles and virtues...

Sure you can create a Mike origin story but then you're kind of just exploiting IP (yes I know "everyone" does it). Exploited IP typically does not result in material that has anything interesting to say. The Mike character is not a character that resonates with middle America. He's basically a career criminal who's best qualities were being not particularly ambitious and careful (until he broke his own rule and teamed up with Walter).

Look at the comic book world and you'll see tons of second rate characters that are given more attention than they deserve as well as lots of interesting original characters that have over the decades become rediculous and absurd because IP owners just have to somehow keep coming up with new storylines to keep the money rolling in. The "which comic character would win in a fight" versus threads shows the schism between fans who are delluded into believing their characters are grounded in some canon versus decades of business decisions having corrupted the characters ages ago and which don't really care about canon. It can't because the characters and stories would eventually become trapped. So anything goes really. Who would win in a fight is just a flavor of the month choice.

So the "keep the IP alive" centric talk seems more of a business angle than a design angle. But I think there are definetly concepts and character that can be used to inspire creation of new IP in the games space. In the games space, original and compelling gameplay packaged in a professional polished bug free app serve better than licensing film/tv IP and making either a re-enactment or spin off game.

Jeff Morin
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I imagine some gameplay mechanics in a Breaking Bad game to be something similar to those in Virus Inc in a way, just in a different context.

Joshua Darlington
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Breaking Bad is centered on social management with a periphery of stealth, occasional action, and an outer ring (implied background) of resource management in chemistry and money laundering.

If you rebalanced or inverted that emphasis you risk going against brand.

Social management in games is typically represented as limited branching dialogue. Working with dialogue nodes as a central dynamic is challenging but could work if its handled with dramatic flair and entertaining consequences. Going a step further - those cliche dialogue choice screens have a lot of room for innovation.

Joshua Darlington
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Skyler: Walt, please. Admit you're in danger.

X: I love you and I would tell you if there was any danger.
Y: Here's a ticket to Paris and $20,000. Don't come back until you relax.
A: Admit you are having another affair.
B: I'm the rockem sockem super cock.

Achilles de Flandres
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Downton Abbey as a video game?

Challenge accepted.

B Marshall
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Never watched the show, but loved your analysis. Really helped me out. Thanks for posting.

Filip Lizanna
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This was fantastic! I'm gonna think about this some, and present a possibility. Immediately i'm thinking it could be something of a parallel universe...where you play as Gus Fring perhaps. Reclamation of the throne.

Brian Benson
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Very illuminating! I have absolutely no game design experience, but am thinking of a career switch, and am just joining this community. It strikes me that "Breaking Bad" is uniquely problematic in many ways, while other shows might be more easily adapted.

For example, I just powered through season three of "Justified" (I'm a little behind!) in a one-night session, and I'm convinced it could make a great game. Some random thoughts:

- As suggested above, it seems best to avoid Raylan as the avatar, for innumerable reasons. I would make the PC a petty thug in Harlan county, and the goal of the game, as Boyd announced in season three, is to control all crime in Harlan county. This gives us definite borders, and a legitimate excuse to confine the action to Harlan County.

- Since so much of the show takes place elsewhere, it seems to me there is much room to develop and populate Harlan County itself, so the game's writers and designers could have great fun creating new characters and locations. Of course, we want all the established favorites to be there, too.

-I'd be okay with a more-or-less shameless GTA rip-off. Players could have endless fun racing the backroads and going offroad, then driving into town for a little variety. If possible, I would give the PC the option to ride (and shoot) shotgun rather than drive.

-The PC would work his way up beginning with small jobs, earning trust and building skills, etc. Ideally, there should also be some options/mechanisms for instigating betrayals, ambushes, etc. The PC could work for/against all of the show's favorite bad guys, and perhaps some new ones.

-At first, the PC attracts the attention of generic marshalls and law enforcement but, as his infamy grows, the show's regular law enforcement peeps begin to give chase. One must become an accomplished villain to attract Raylan's attention. I would DEFINITELY give the PC a chance to kill Raylan in the game. That would be hugely fun for fans, I think, though the show's producers may not dig it....

-Jail/prison should be a play where the PC can earn money, reputation, experience points or whatever, as well as complete missions and learn information, BUT the PC can get stuck there. If he lacks money for bail, and cannot borrow (perhaps having failed or burned too many characters), then the avatar must do his own time! This would have to be finely balanced, so as not to anger the player excessively, but to definitely give him a reason to stay out of jail....

-Given the show's sense of humor, there is much room goofy side missions for comic relief...

If anybody wants to make it, gimme a call! I can do the music, too!