At GDC 2013, Telltale writers Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin hosted a panel exploring both the successes and failures of the developer's popular The Walking Dead episodic game series. They explained that the game was designed to be a character-centric narrative, so the panel would focus on characters as well. "In The Walking Dead, character design is game design," Rodkin explained.
[SPOILER WARNING: This GDC 2013 talk discussed several major plot elements from The Walking Dead. If you have not finished the game and don't want anything revealed, please do not read further.]
According to Vanaman and Rodkin, Telltale set out with a specific question in mind with The Walking Dead: "What does a person do with the time that they have?" Rather than use traditional gameplay, such as shooting, this question was better served with a time-sensitive decision-making system. But they also made sure that system would provide no qualitative feedback on choices that players made, so players had to think about and live with the decisions on their own. "The game players played in their heads was more dynamic than anything we could have come up with," said Vanaman.
"In most games, the player pokes the game," said Rodkin. "In The Walking Dead, the game pokes the player." The duo described games as on a scale between proactive and reactive. Proactive games include open-world games with limited narrative that give players a huge suite of powers; they are games where the players make the stories. Reactive games are cutscene-heavy, and stories happen to the players. Obviously The Walking Dead falls heavily on the reactive side, and according to Telltale the key to making a worthwhile reactive game is providing players with enough context to care about what's happening.
To show how important context can be, Rodkin and Vanaman turned to two specific characters from The Walking Dead: Doug and Carley. Introduced early in the game's first episode, Doug and Carley become the center of a major choice at the end of Episode 1. Depending on what players choose, one character lives while the other dies.
When Telltale looked at stats from the first episode, they discovered something unexpected: 75 percent of players chose to save Carley over Doug. Vanaman and Rodkin clarified that Telltale wasn't necessarily expecting or looking for an even split in The Walking Dead's major decisions, but a mere 25 percent of players siding with Doug suggested a problem.
Rodkin and Vanaman said that many observers reached a consensus quickly: Players decided to side with the gun-wielding girl rather than the tech-obsessed guy because they'd rather spend the zombie apocalypse with an attractive female than a nerdy male. But Telltale didn't accept that solution. "We wanted to blame ourselves, not the audience," Vanaman said.
Exploring the episode step by step, Vanaman and Rodkin showed the differences in how the game introduces Carley and Doug. Players run into Carley as she is risking her life to save a boy. She knows a dark secret about the main character, but earns his trust by not revealing it to anyone else. She shares a deep conversation about keeping another character safe and then joins the player on a difficult, emotionally intense side mission with a horrific outcome.
On the other side, Doug is introduced as a passive observer. The player is forced to lie to him and most of the interaction with him is one-off dialogue. Vanaman and Rodkin noted that the first episode originally had a scene where Doug saved the group from a zombie attack using his technical skills, but it got cut somewhere along the line and was never replaced with something that suitably built his character.
Telltale believes that difference in how Doug and Carley are built up and given context accounts for the disparity in who players chose to save. "A player's experiences with the characters shape the choices made," Rodkin said.
That thesis extends to Lee, the main character of the game, as well. Rodkin and Vanaman said Telltale created a complex backstory for Lee, including lots of information that was not used in the game and may never come up. They also revealed that lead character Clementine is mixed race — a fact that's never presented to players but is important to her backstory.
Rodkin and Vanaman also noted that they went out of their way to create characters who were capable of receiving empathy, even if they weren't entirely likable. The character of Larry is presented as a racist who constantly verbally assaults Lee, but Telltale discovered that in a situation where players had to decide which characters to feed with limited supplies, 42 percent chose to give food to Larry. They wanted to win his approval even if they disliked him.
Vanaman and Rodkin said that stats like these show how players can experience things from another perspective through games. Though they made some mistakes with The Walking Dead, the lesson they took from the project is hopeful: "Games can expand how we feel about other people and do good business."