What’s next for the brains behind the series that turned adventure gaming from point-and-click comedies to must-see TV.
When you think blockbuster games, you think 40 hours epics, games so addictive that they stop you leaving the house the whole weekend, or even glimpsing sunlight.
You don’t think episodic dramas that aren’t so much played as aired, events that gamers all over the world join in on at the same time, follow along and discuss between parts like soaps.
But that’s just what the team at Telltale Games have created with their adaptation of zombie apocalypse comic The Walking Dead, turning the whole business model of gaming on its head in the process.
Over the course of 2012, the California studio released its adventure game in five episodes, culminating in a “season finale”: each takes about two hours to play, and picked up ecstatic reviews along the way, including nine out of ten from IGN, as well as several coveted game of the year awards.
Its success - episodes have been played by more than a million gamers worldwide on PC, Mac, Xbox 360, PS3 and iPhone - has come as a bit of a surprise to Telltale’s CEO and co-founder, Dan Connors.
Although Telltale has been around since 2004, its previous adventure games have mostly been games of well known comedies (Wallace And Gromit, a game of internet cartoon star Strongbad). “It’s a far cry from Sam and Max where everyone is trying to pile on a joke and make it more bizarre and hilarious,” Connors tells Red Bull UK.
Many of the team come from LucasArts, George Lucas’ gaming studio which was famed in the 90’s for turning out belly-achingly funny adventure games like Day Of The Tentacle, Sam And Max and Monkey Island - the latter two which Telltale recently remade.
The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman’s hit comic series - and which has also been turned into TV show - couldn’t be any more different. It’s a grim universe in which a zombie virus has destroyed America, but the greatest threat to Kirkman’s cast aren’t the flesh eaters; like on zombie survival game Day Z, they’re the other desperate survivors.
“With The Walking Dead the mood was definitely a lot more serious, but the areas we were pushing on from a gameplay standpoint and a narrative standpoint were fascinating and really motivated people,” Connors says.
Though Kirkman and the team at his comic publisher Skybound were involved, Telltale created most of the characters and the storyline for the series, which sees a university professor, Lee Everett, imprisoned for murder trying to survive in zombie-ridden Georgia.
“It was great working with Robert and all of Skybound. They provided us with all the information we needed to do our job. Once we committed to creating our own side story it became easy to introduce characters into the world.”
Connors and the team drew inspiration from the comics, as well as more traditional action adventure games - and of course TV.
“I think the games that we talked about the most during development were Heavy Rain and Uncharted from a cinematic standpoint, and Mass Effect from a choice standpoint,” he explains.
“For other media we always look at the best episodic series out there - obviously the Walking Dead TV show, but also Game of Thrones and Mad Men, for the way they handle characters and are able to present them with so much depth.”
Telltale’s secret sauce though is its logic software. All its games revolve around you making vital decisions, and the impact they have on the story and your character. Over the course of five episodes and ten hours of gameplay, that means lots of different arcs and possibilities - and keeping track of them all soon gets complicated.
“Well the big ideas are on Post-its in the writers’ room, but the rubber meets the road inside of our dialogue tool. That’s where the great writing of [Telltale writer] Sean Vanaman and the team meets the logic to branch and things start to multiply. Player choice definitely overlaps multiple branches.”
In a big twist, Telltale started logging all those choices, pulling the stats together after each episode to show players how many people made vital decisions like rescuing someone, and how many left them to be eaten alive, like polls of TV viewers.
Those choices, which affect the story throughout all five episodes, may even carry on into season two, which Connors confirms Telltale is working on already: with any luck, your save game files will impact on the storyline right from the outset.
“Right now we are just starting to form the concept for season two,” he says. “This all remains to be seen but we are definitely figuring out how to carry the saves over.”
Connors is keeping tight lipped about what we can expect for Everett and the cast in season two, but he’s open about what else he’d like Telltale to do next, and he’s thinking big.
“Coming from LucasArts we always felt we could do a great Star Wars story game,” he says. “We also love the idea of building out a deeper story to a great game franchise, something like Half Life Stories or Halo Stories.”