Telltale Games' The Walking Dead was one of the biggest video game releases of 2012, picking up multiple awards and receiving huge critical acclaim. But at one point in its development cycle, the game was in danger of falling into the traps that "old Telltale" games did.
In the postmortem for the March 2013 issue of Game Developer magazine, Telltale CTO Kevin Bruner discusses how the team tackled the idea of player choice, and taking that further than simply giving binary "good or evil" choices.
He also reveals how episode two of the game had to be completely rewritten, following huge changes and tweaks made to the first episode.
Here are some choice extracts from the postmortem:
What went right: The "No Good Choice" game mechanic
Bruner explains that there were always going to be awful choices for the player to deal with and not much time to consider the best option, given the theme of the game.
"We did spend some time exploring integrating choice into more traditional game mechanics, but things didnít start to really gel until we decided to go 'all in' on choice," he explains. "As a studio, we wholly embraced the idea that the game would allow narrative opportunities if they were plausible to the player."
"However, it wasnít a simulation," he continues. "We would still be handcrafting the 'spine' of the story, and if a narrative option seemed plausible within that context, we committed ourselves to letting the player explore it."
One great example of this in motion is during the third episode: Lilly suddenly and deliberately shoots another member of your party, ostensibly to ensure the ultimate safety of everyone.
"The initial idea for this section of the game was that zombies would then immediately drive the group back into their RV, which would force the player to deal with Lillyís actions in those close, inescapable quarters," Bruner notes. "As the details of that interaction came into focus, it became clear how strongly we felt about the idea of abandoning her at that moment. This was a moment we simply had to allow the story to play out both ways (she stays or she goes). We felt that empowering the player in critical moments like this was far more satisfying than giving a blanket good or evil ranking."
It wasn't just big moments like this that proved important. Smaller, more intimate details often worked just as well as the larger branching storylines. "For instance," Bruner says, "it's often more interesting to let the player slight or insult NPCs than it is to let the player outright steal all their belongings or completely betray them."
Elsewhere, Telltale found that great story ideas with plausible choices had to dropped, simply because they didn't lead to very interesting places.
"For example, in episode two, we really wanted different characters (not just Mark) to end up as the St. Johns' victim depending on how you played," says the Telltale CTO. "But when we explored allowing him to play a more significant role, and even perhaps survive, he just wasnít adding anything good to the story. He became a sort of vestigial story problem in an otherwise really good part of the game."
He adds, "In these cases, we had to punt. Often though, we would keep working until we had moments where all possibilities were compelling and producible. It was most exciting when we created moments where all possibilities felt equally compelling and intriguing. These made the choice taken and the choice not taken just as important to the player."
Bruner acknowledges that other video games have explored choice and branching narrative before, but that most usually implement player choice as a subset of a larger gameplay mechanic, typically with binary choices such as being good or being evil.
"We felt strongly that a statistics-driven AI and NPC system would not be able to deliver the kind of experience we envisioned," he explains. "Instead, our system tracks every choice a player makes at a very detailed level and then makes that information available to designers. They use that information to create narrative-driven logic that controls the content and subsequent choices that are offered to the player. Our version of choice isnít emergent from a system, but a carefully crafted bespoke experience driven by narrative possibility. This is what we mean by 'tailored narrative.'
What went wrong: Remaking Episode Two
"While we were focusing intently on episode one, getting the cast correct, getting the choice mechanic figured out, and establishing how zombie fights would play out across the series, episode two was quietly coming to life in the background on its own," begins Bruner.
Going "all in" on choice meant that episode one became a joy to work on, as the team consistently iterated on new features, choice notifications, panic meters, and other elements to make choice feel compelling.
The problem is that by the time episode one was up to scratch, episode two had already been written, recorded and was partially into production. "When we were able to compare episode one and two, they felt radically different," he notes. "Episode one had all this really cool new stuff that wasnít being exploited in episode two, and episode two felt kind of 'old Telltale' by comparison. So we decided we just couldn't move forward with the version of episode two we had."
As a result, Telltale brought together a large group of its writers, designers, producers and directors offsite at a local hotel conference, and spent two solid days hammering out a new direction for episode two that took into account all the added features of the first episode.
"Though some large elements such as locations, principal characters, and story beats remained, nearly all of the dialogue needed to be rewritten and then rerecorded," Bruner says. "We were super enthused by the new design, but we were already behind schedule, leading to massive schedule compression."
More in the March issue
The March issue of Game Developer magazine is now available via subscription and digital purchase. This issue also features an in-depth article on animating swordplay with realistic source material, and an end-of-year developer opinion roundup. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.