7 Lessons Game Designers Can Learn From Telltale's The Walking Dead

Monday, March 31, 2014 at 6:00 am

3. Don't Shock for the Sake of Being Shocking

Telltale Games

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 allowed you to shoot up an airport terminal. Grand Theft Auto V had you torture an innocent man. Saints Row the Third let you run around with a floppy dick sword.

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It's called the Penetrator!

...okay, perhaps we shouldn't take that last example too seriously. But game developers have been pushing boundaries, especially these last few years, and while it was once innovative and "grown up," it's getting to the point where the audience is wondering what horrible atrocity the guys at Rockstar or Infinity Ward will get up to depicting next. Not only does that take the "shocking" out of, well, "shocking" somewhat, but it's not really advancing anything or proving a point; it's titillation. On a non-video gaming note, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's original Walking Dead comic is guilty of this very faux-transgressiveness, finding new ways to utterly destroy characters fans had come to love just for the sake of further dashing their hopes. That's not advanced or subversive storytelling. That's mild sadism.

Telltale's The Walking Dead is chock full of shocking moments. In the course of the first season, you're able to hack off someone's leg, or kill a tormentor in the most gruesome way possible, or even shoot a child(!). But, you ask, how is this an improvement over the gratuitously shocking stuff in those other games (and comic)? For starters, these instances are few and far between, and when they do occur they don't come out of left field but have been built up to typically over the course of an episode. In short, they're earned.

As well, it really does feel that the writers are making a point or at least trying to encourage discussion about the choices people have to make in catastrophic situations, like deciding whether to save or abandon the previously mentioned fellow survivor who repeatedly endangers the group. In short, the game is shocking in the same ways as Apocalypse Now, not like Uwe Boll's Postal.

2. Go Outside Your Comfort Zone

Telltale Games

A few days ago at this year's Game Developer's Conference, designer Manveer Heir of BioWare Montreal spoke about how the gaming industry at large needs to improve how it portrays minorities of all creeds, colors and sexual preferences. As it stands, the vast majority of playable protagonists in Western video games are straight, white males. While some people within the industry have argued that games starring female characters or visible minorities simply aren't that financially successful, Heir countered that these titles suffer from a lack of marketing and a smaller development budget, thus "skew[ing] the numbers in the negative."

In this sense, the designers at Telltale behind The Walking Dead have been incredibly progressive. Standing out from their paler contemporaries, both player characters in the series so far have been black, and one is a woman - an extremely capable preteen girl, no less. Later episodes in the first season feature Christa and Omid, an interracial (black and Persian-American) couple who are two of the game's most memorable and best-written characters. This is to say nothing of the wide variety of body types, ages and ethnicities seen throughout the supporting cast. So although larger game companies like Capcom might go to absurd lengths rationalizing why Deep Down won't include any playable female characters, Telltale has been quietly breaking down barriers this whole time. Now they just need to get some gay zombies up in that mix... though that understandably wouldn't go over too well.

1. Put Your Players Through Hell

Telltale Games

This isn't about difficulty. Dark Souls is difficult, Halo on Legendary is difficult. In terms of playability, unless you have the worst reflexes ever, it's almost impossible to fail at The Walking Dead. But what it does better than pretty much any other game is put its player through an emotional wringer. Given the quality of Telltale's writing and the immersiveness of The Walking Dead's design, it's almost impossible not to form some attachment to this game's cast. And when Telltale gets you in its grip, they can and will mess with you.

In Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules for writing a short story, number six was "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them - in order that the reader may see what they are made of." Poorer writers like Robert Kirkman have taken this the wrong way and used it as an excuse to mutilate his characters to no end. But Vonnegut's rule was about using hardships as a means of forging respect for a character. Sometimes this can catch even writers by surprise: Stephen King wrote that he originally intended to kill off all of the main characters in 'Salem's Lot, but by the time he reached the climax he realized that some of them were tougher than he originally thought them to be. In The Walking Dead, Lee and Clementine go through physical, emotional and moral Hell, and due to the level of empathy Telltale is able to evoke, the player feels every bump, every bruise, every tragedy.

Forging an emotional connection with the player is difficult, even in a medium as interactive as video gaming. Weird as it sounds, sometimes the mechanical act of playing the game can get in the way of empathizing with the figures on screen. But with The Walking Dead, Telltale has exceeded at creating a truly immersive experience and they deserve all the acclaim and accolades it's gotten them. Now all they need to do is apply their increased budget to a comedic prequel about Christa and Omid's cross-country roadtrip. Call it pathos-free fan service.

Previously by Daniel Link

7 Reasons We're Going to Miss Jeff Lemire's Animal Man

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