Q&A: Turning a Telltale game into 'a Telltale experience'

Gamasutra's Kris Ligman speaks with Telltale Games' Kevin Bruner, Ryan Kaufman and Pierre Shorette on what it takes to be the 'Pixar' of game studios.
With multiple hit titles under its belt and four projects currently underway, The Walking Dead developer Telltale Games has become something of a powerhouse for story-rich adventure games. But what makes a Telltale game a 'Telltale experience,' and what makes its narratives 'just work'? Speaking with company co-founder and president Kevin Bruner, director of design Ryan Kaufman, and series writer Pierre Shorette, Gamasutra probes about new directions for Walking Dead's second season, the challenges faced by The Wolf Among Us, and what's on the horizon past Telltale's upcoming Borderlands and Game of Thrones adaptations.

Playing Clementine

Gamasutra: Starting off with the second season of your Walking Dead series, one of the things that is very different this time around is that the player is put into the shoes of a child, Clementine, rather than an adult. How did that affect the negotiation of agency or player empowerment? Ryan Kaufman: I recall one of the things that Pierre said once, which is that [first season protagonist] Lee was essentially sliding down a hill, grabbing shit to try and hold on. That was the feel of what it was like to be Lee Everett. So when you are discussing what it was going to be like for the player to be Clementine -- it's not about 'less' agency so much as a different sort of agency, to put a finer point on it -- her perspective on things is necessarily different. But the ways that she interacts with the world are just as visceral and vital. It's just a completely different set of dilemmas. [To give a specific example,] there are a few scenes when she first meets the group where even the camera angle is lower, to impart the impression that these people are talking down to you. It produces a totally different psychological effect in which you, the player, are coming at things feeling smaller, less respected. Pierre Shorette: It's unique too. Players coming out of season one will recall that one of the linchpins of the season was you, as Lee, taking care of Clementine. Pointing her in the right direction, making sure she's safe. There are still characters in season two feel that same way toward her, but we've flipped it around -- now you are the character that others will coddle or look down on or try their best to do what's right for you. It's an interesting dynamic to play with. Telltale is well known for its storytelling and also for creating these rich characters players are able to feel empathy for. What goes into the character design and creating the emotional beats that breadcrumb these stories? Shorette: It's sort of a two-pronged approach, a combination of the writing and the game design. When it comes together, that's when you generate empathy. On the high level, writers really care about characters: what sort of character would be interesting to meet; what is their perspective that makes them fascinating, scary or whatever? And then from the designer perspective, the question becomes how I interact with that character in a compelling way. What's the thing that I can say to them or do with them but will have me reconsider something or think about something in a new way? When those two elements come together, when the writers are bringing a strong voice to them and the interaction is compelling and feels very tailored, that really nails it. I think that's something that we're well known for, as being proficient at those two things that really need to work well together to work at all. Keith Bruner: That's probably the thing that we care most about. When we talk about tailored narratives, what we mean is we really try to amp up the emotional connection the player has to the characters. I always get a kick out of these old-school or academic game design analyses that say our games 'don't branch enough' or that the choices in our games 'don't matter' -- but yet you're crying at the end of it. And that’s very intentional. We design agency around character relationships from day one. The group dynamics, how each character interacts with everyone involved, we examine that carefully. Shorette: On the level of moment to moment, I think it's easy to relate to what these characters are going through. You may not have experienced the specific things this character is, but everyone's experienced loss and failure. The more human the characters are, even when they aren't technically 'human' like in The Wolf Among Us, the more your players can relate to it. A lot of the things we have the player do in these games are things you imagine yourself doing: standing up to the bully, or running headlong into danger to protect someone. That might not be who you are in real life -- I'm probably not that person -- but you might think a lot about being that person. Kaufman: And when you're interacting with those characters in the moment to moment, if they seem real enough to you, you care about how they're going to react to you. You care about whether or not they're going to accept you, or that they're upset or whatever. That's essentially where we generate the building blocks of creating empathy for an episode or over a season. You get enough of those little moments, of getting the player to push a button and say 'this is what I think about what needs to happen here' or 'this is what I'm risking,' then you're generating empathy. That's the gameplay.

A New York City Fairy Tale

Segueing over to The Wolf Among Us, has it proved a challenge building off an IP like Fables, that doesn't have quite the same groundswell of consumer interest on the order of a Walking Dead? Shorette: It's not a challenge for us as creatives. We have plenty of people here at Telltale who love Fables. The passion is definitely there, so it was not a creative challenge to get going. From the marketing perspective, yes, it's different. Bruner: Yeah, it's an issue. The Walking Dead has a huge audience. Fables has a rabid fanbase, but it doesn't have [something on the scale of] a television show. So we were aware that we were potentially introducing a large number of people to the story universe for the first time -- largely people who had played our other games. We expected that fans of our style of games would be interested in giving it a shot even though they didn't know the source material. It was something we were definitely sensitive to. You say 'zombie game' to people and everyone knows, generally, what a zombie game is going to be like. But the Fables universe that Bill Willingham created is incredibly rich. We chose very specific aspects of this giant universe to unroll and introduce very slowly, isolating a few key elements to build the game around. I really hope that those who get introduced to Fables through The Wolf Among Us read the books, because it's a lot deeper and richer than what we can get into in the game. We chose instead to focus on these personal stories, since we couldn't unpack everything. We're very happy with the response to both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us so far. Wolf's been enormously well received.
Still from Telltale's Tales from the Borderlands announcement trailer

Looking Ahead

You recently announced development on adaptations of two more properties, Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire) and Gearbox's Borderlands. Is it a challenge working on so many simultaneous projects? Bruner: Our staff is up to 180 now -- we're not the small studio that we used to be. We have separate teams assigned to each title, but it works in such a way that everyone is building with and off of each other. Every chapter we do goes on to inform the next chapter, even if it's in one of the other series. We're very much one big family. It is a challenge to maintain a consistent tone and stamp of quality, but that's something we pride ourselves on. A comparison from the film world that seems appropriate would be Pixar: no matter how different a Pixar film, whether it's Brave or The Incredibles, there's something about it that you recognize immediately as just being 'Pixar.' That's the same impression we want to impart to players of Telltale games -- whether it's a noir piece, a comedy piece, or a zombie piece, there is a style and tone to our gameplay that you can see across our titles. It's part of how we keep all these disparate IPs grounded. Kaufman: Making sure the tone is faithful to the IP is also important. There is a definite difference in the tone between The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead and I feel the fact that players respond to both in the same way is a credit to that 'Telltale experience.' Bruner: I often go back to one of the things I said when we first founded Telltale -- and I'm dating myself here a little, but here goes. When I was growing up, I was a big fan of Infocom games. I played a lot of them. I remember going to the store, seeing the gray boxes with 'Infocom' printed on the side, and it didn't matter whether it was a murder mystery, a sci-fi, or a fantasy game -- I knew I wanted one of those kind of experiences. It may be an IP that I knew and loved, or it may have been something new to me, but I knew I was going to feel a certain way when I played it and I looked forward to that. That's what we want to create with Telltale. Kaufman: Pretty much like any HBO show. Bruner: Yeah. Kaufman: You just come to expect a certain level of dramatic quality from an HBO series. For us, it's player investment and player interaction.

'The best licensed game company on the planet'

With the name you've made for yourselves as producers of high quality licensed games, do you foresee yourselves taking on an original, fully owned IP sometime in the near future? Bruner: We get asked that all the time. And I think there are definitely possibilities for doing original stuff. That being said, we do take a lot of pride in being the best licensed game company on the planet. There was definitely a long time where licensed games were terrible. All these franchises we are adapting are ones we know and love. We've never worked on a franchise because we had to. We always did it because we really, really wanted to. And there's still a pretty long list of things that we know and love and would love to make games out of! The flipside of that is, we also have the opportunity to work with some really amazing creatives. When we're working with Bill Willingham, Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) or Bob Gale (Back to the Future), all those guys get super creative about what we do too! They share thoughts and ideas. There's a lot of over-a-beer talk of 'hey, if you're doing something original, you could do something like this,' so there's opportunity there as well. But I think that right now, the IPs that we know and love and the creators that we really respect is where the near-term future is. Beyond that, there are huge opportunities.

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