Creating the second season of The Walking Dead was a difficult proposition, largely because of the high body count of the first.
[Spoiler alert: If that first sentence wasn't a clear enough indicator, the following article discusses the events of the first season of The Walking Dead game, as well as the first episode of Season Two. Reader beware!]
In a SXSW Gaming 2014 panel titled "Telltale Games on the Future of Entertainment," Telltale's Harrison Pink, Kevin Bruner and Job Stauffer described the challenges that came with creating the second season's cast of new characters. Most of the cast from the first season are either missing, dead or have otherwise departed from the series' core cast. For the most part, Clementine, the character you were tasked with protecting in the first series, is the only familiar face in the game's current iteration.
That kind of character abandonment is a rarity for video game series, but it's only appropriate for The Walking Dead. Robert Kirkman's long-running comic series cycled through cast members, killing off primary characters with reckless abandon throughout the years.
"It's one of the great aspects of the franchise, as well," Bruner said. "The books explore a lot of survivor stories, and they're pretty brutal about what can happen to principal characters that you care about. So, it seemed like a really interesting thing for us to do as game-makers and storytellers, and it also seemed like the right thing to do for the Walking Dead universe."
It made sense for The Walking Dead game to change its cast, but Telltale wanted to make sure that it didn't completely reboot the lore of their take on the zombie franchise. Figuring out how to change the face of the story without changing the story itself was a difficult task.
"That was not an easy problem to solve," Pink said. "Because there are so many memorable characters in season one — just hitting the rest button? We try not to just go, 'Boop, new game.'
"It just didn't fit the series to be like, 'It's a completely new thing,'" Pink added. "We definitely experimented with that in 400 Days, to be sure, but Season Two always needed to continue on."
Of course, the biggest change in the refreshing of Season Two's cast of characters was making Clementine, a non-playable character from the first series, the star of the show. The challenge in that transition wasn't just narrative, but mechanical: how, in an adventure game, do you put a young girl in positions where her choice — the player's choice — can create a critical change in the world? How do her decisions affect those of her adult counterparts, making her an empowered conduit for player agency?
"in season one you played a college professor, smart, capable, physically fit and now in season two, you play a little girl."
"In hindsight, if you made a list of the most challenging things we could do — it was like, in Season One you played a college professor, smart, capable, physically fit and now in Season Two, you play a little girl," Bruner said.
"Like, the whole challenge is you're playing as a character who was an NPC before, the way the world treats her is very, very different. As a little girl you walk into a conversation about zombies attacking, pretty much nobody wants to know what the little girl wants to do. Crafting situations where Clementine is really empowered and important in a way that makes sense was really challenging."
Once those narrative problems were solved, a bigger issue remained: How did they make Clementine feel like the player's version of Clementine, rather than a carbon copy of her character in the first game? By the end of the first season, protagonist Lee felt like a creation of the player's decisions — it was important for Telltale to give Clementine that same feel right at the start of Season Two. They did that by separating Clementine from any familiar characters as quickly as possible.
"When you start with Christa, it's like, 'Oh, fantastic, I know who's taking care of Clementine after season one. And then immediately, you — because you're the person with the controller — you screw that up," Bruner said. "You go, 'Oh, now nobody's taking care of Clementine and that's my fault.' And that's where you have this big period of loneliness, where it's just kind of Clementine and you.
"The first the thing that Clementine does is establish a relationship with the person holding the controller; it's the first thing the game does," Bruner added.