This interview contains VERY HUGE SPOILERS for The Walking Dead. DO NOT read this interview if you have not played up the end of Episode Four.
Gary Whitta is already a well-known scriptwriter, having penned movies such as The Book of Eli, and contributed to games like Gears of War and Prey. He’s now working as a story consultant at Telltale Games, and penned the recently-released Episode Four of The Walking Dead, “Around Every Corner”. Jason Imms sits down with Gary to discuss how they go about writing their scripts, how they aim to kill off the characters you love most, and what it takes to make a player wrestle with hard decisions.
GON: On that night when I played Episode 3 I sat there thinking “Can I do this? It’s already late at night, would I be crazy to start now?” But, I did, and I didn’t finish until about 2am, and didn’t get to sleep for quite a bit longer after that.
Gary: Yeah, I think Episode 3 is definitely, emotionally the most brutal episode that we’ve had so far. There is kind of a wave that’s running through this season, and each episode kind of has its own vibe, each episode has its own tone. I think it’s going to be interesting to play them all together as a five episode season once they’re all out, and kind of see how the energy and the tone of the season changes from act to act. 3 is definitely a kind of emotional low-point.
GON: I guess it technically is the dark middle chapter, isn’t it?
Gary: Yeah, and I think people respond to different things from The Walking Dead. Some people just like the zombies, some people like the human drama, and some people really like the unrelentingly bleak aspects of it. Robert (Kirkman) has always set this very dark emotional tone for the book and for the show. For the video game, I think 3 was the closest that we’ve come to that darker end of the colour palette. Y’know, you have the death of a child, and there’s a lot of kind of emotionally shocking stuff that kind of hits you out of nowhere, so yeah, it’s not surprising to me that a lot of people were kind of traumatised after that.
GON: Especially following up on Carley’s death. I had grown quite attached to that character as a potential love interest for Lee, so that was a real shock.
Gary: Yeah, so you had hoped that there would be some possibility for a romance, and of course the game almost trolls you a little bit by having that scene with Carley where you feel like that maybe there is going to be some potential for… that there is some sort of attraction between them. Then of course, well, you know. This is something that, as you become more familiar with the kind of storytelling that The Walking Dead is, you become worried that as you become more attached to character, that the writers are going to take them away. Because that’s what we do, we try to make you like a character, and then we pull the rug out from under you.
GON: When you’re writing for a game with a branching storyline like this, how do you even begin to scope that effort?
Gary: The initial writing is just in a text document, it’s all written very linearly, but then at some point you have to sit down with a special piece of software that Telltale use that helps you visualise all of the different branching paths more visually, it looks kind of like a flow chart. It’s very overwhelming at first, but over time you get the hang of it, and it makes it much easier to see the different versions of the scenes happening in parallel, and visualise how the different narrative paths connect when different conditional things either happen or don’t happen.
There are certain decisions, particularly that one at the end, there are so many different ways that that scene can play out, not just the eight different outcomes, but also the multiple different ways to get to those outcomes. There is so much that has to be taken into account, that just figuring out the logic and making sure that the way that the scene is wired up is correct, is really kind of overwhelming. It can look good on paper, but you often don’t know if it’s going to work until you actually play the game and start pressing buttons, trying a permutation to see if the characters are responding the way that they’re supposed to. Oftentimes they don’t, and you have to go back in and fix it, making little changes along the way. It’s very very daunting.
It’s much more difficult than working with a linear narrative where things can only go one way, but it’s worth all of the effort because it’s really satisfying to see players feel like their choices are being reflected, or again when two people talk with one another after playing the game, realising that actually had different outcomes based on the choices that they made. It’s really cool!
GON: It certainly sounds more complex than the ‘diamond model’ that that describes how some branching narratives are designed, the Mass Effect Series, for example.
Gary: Are you talking about how things diverge, but you always come back to the centre eventually?
GON: Yeah, that’s it.
Gary: I mean, The Walking Dead does that as well. To some extent, there’s basically one set story. You have some latitude within that story to affect elements of it, but at the end of the day you’re playing the story that we want to tell you. You get to tailor it, or customise it to your liking to some extent, make different choices, decide who lives or dies, and you see those choices become more consequential as the season goes on with more things to take into account.
But, at the end of the day we are still telling you a story. You don’t get to radically re-write the story yourself, you get to polish and edit it a little bit, and make it unique to you. And really, until we have the resources and capability to have really really divergent branching storylines, this is what it’s going to be for a little while.
GON: I’ve heard players decry this form of design, because they feel like it makes their choices inconsequential, but it’s not really a realistic argument is it? I mean, they can’t write the story for themselves. It’s still a video game.
Gary: Some people like to play games where we give them the opportunity to make choices, we say that they can affect the story. Some people think that that means that they should be all-powerful. That they should have power over everything, and they their choices should work out just the way that they intended. Of course, the reality is, especially in a game like The Walking Dead where we’re trying to be a little bit more realistic in that there isn’t necessarily going to be a happy outcome, you don’t always have control. Like in real life, you don’t always know what the consequences of your choices are going to be until you make the choice and can see what happens. It’s not always what you intended or necessarily what you wanted, and The Walking Dead reflects that.
When Carley or Doug is killed in Episode 3, a lot of people were really pissed off, because they felt that this is a game that allows me to make choices, why did I have to choose that? Because, sometimes shit happens that is out of your control. That happens in real life, and that happens in this game as well. I think that if you felt like you could save everyone and control every outcome, it would obviously be a much less interesting game. We’ll give you some control, but there’s are going to be some elements that just are going to happen beyond your ability to control them.
GON: It wouldn’t really be a Walking Dead game anymore, would it, if you could ‘save the day’?
Gary: Yeah. We would never be able to do anything really horrible to you. The reality is that most players want to be good-guy characters, they want to save everyone. They certainly want to save Clementine, and most people saved Ben. I’m sure that if you’d had the option to save Carley and Doug everybody would have done it. Then you have this world where everybody has power over everything and you’re right, then it’s no longer The Walking Dead.
GON: I must admit, I didn’t save Ben. I wanted to…
Gary: Hey look, it’s not that I don’t like Ben, but we worked very hard to set up that situation so that some people would drop him. I think the results right now are something like 65% to 35% in favour of saving him, and that’s actually far closer than I would have expected, I would have been happy with 80/20. Because, again, we’re far enough into the season now to know that most people want to save them. They want to be the good guy. The Ben choice is probably the most starkly reasoned choice you have to make. Do you want save someone, or do you want to let them die? That’s a very good-guy-bound choice, so a lot of the work that we put into Episode 4 was trying to balance that choice as much as possible, and make an argument for maybe dropping him, and make an argument for not dropping him. Then, let people decide.
It’s been really interesting to see the results. Not just who’s dropped him and who hasn’t, but the reasons why. I think often what is more interesting is beyond just the statistic, when you talk to players or listen to players talk about why they made those choices. Some people saved Ben for one reason, some people saved him an entirely different reason that I didn’t expect. People have different views on that situation. So, it’s really interesting to hear different players talk about the choices that they made, and sometimes just looking at the number at the end of the game doesn’t tell you the whole story.
GON: As I said, I did drop him. The reason for that was partially the fact that the zombies were right there, just coming up the stairs, and the fact that he’s telling me to drop him, he’s made that decision. It felt like a turning-point for that character after the mistakes he’s made, and the amount of pressure he’s putting on himself for the events that have occurred. Plus, I feared that it was going to turn into a choice between saving him, or someone else. At that point in my story, I was more attached to the other characters than I was to him, so I let him fall.
Gary: When in fact, the reality is that you actually can save him at no cost. But of course in the moment, you don’t know that there could be a cost to saving him, and a lot of people did drop him for that reason. One of the things that I’ve found most interesting is watching people play. You can go online and watch people play the game with their commentary. It’s really instructive to listen to their commentary, see how they agonise, how they think out choices.
With Ben, what I found most interesting is that a lot of people don’t really like Ben. Right? I mean, he’s kind of designed to be that kind of character. He’s a bit of a Jonah [sic], he’s constantly putting the group in danger. People at this point really don’t like him, for the most part.
I think it’s interesting to discover, watching people play through Episode 4, people saying things like “Oh my God, Ben: I can’t wait to kill you. As soon as this game gives me a chance to kill you I’m doing it.” And then, when we actually give them that choice they can’t go through with it. I think that’s really really interesting.
We saw it with Larry, people hated Larry, and then when the choice came to kill him a lot of people backed off a bit. We saw it with Lilly, people hated Lilly, but they couldn’t necessarily bring themselves to leave her behind. It’s been a theme through the whole series.
People talk a big fight about wanting to kill them, or be the bad guy, but then when we actually ask you to follow through and make that choice, people become much more squeamish about it. I think, psychologically, that’s very interesting.
Some people regret dropping him, some people regret saving him. That was probably the toughest choice to design in the whole game. It’s probably the one that we spent the most time revising and trying to balance. Even before we shipped, I was very cynical, even with all of the work that we’d done. I thought it was going to come back at, like, 95/5… It just didn’t seem like an interesting choice, it seemed like a no-brainer to save him. I think that we’re getting the numbers that we have, a solid 35% of people are choosing to drop him. I think it’s the most balanced statistic in the game right now is really surprising to me. It tells you a lot about human nature and the different ways that people view these characters.
Thanks to Gary for chatting to us!