Returning to a world of undeath, Telltale Games has a lot to live up to.
The Walking Dead Season Two will begin very shortly, and though Telltale can't go into any more specific dates (Steam has its release pegged at Dec. 17) or its future on next-gen systems, it did let me tear into the quivering viscera of two of its chief developers (via telephone).
Cracking open the skulls of Dennis Lenart, the director of Season Two's premiere, and Mark Darin, a writer and designer on both seasons, I found their brains rich with delicious insights into how Clementine will or will not survive on her own, and how Telltale's trademark "live development" has shaped the series so far.
Beware, latecomers: spoilers for some of the first season's most memorable moments lie beyond this point.
CVG: In the first Season, Clementine invested players in the world as a vulnerable character to protect and nature. How does giving players direct control of her change your approach to the world?
Dennis Lenart: It definitely is a core fundamental of Season Two, so I would say everything stems from that. We definitely didn't just make a rehash of what a situation would be like with Lee and just swap the models so that it was a young girl. Every decision, the situations we put her in, the dialog options you have, the type of action you can engage in as a young girl - it's all based on that choice. So it impacted everything.
Mark Darin: The world itself is still unrelenting. But the tools you have to deal with that are fundamentally different now playing as Clementine as opposed to playing as Lee. You're still making relationships, you still have to deal with zombies. But the way that you deal with these things is very different, and that's part of what makes this feel different and exciting at the same time.
Not many games explore life as a child in a dangerous world. How do you balance the terror and gore of the world with having a little kid as a main character?
DL: We actually didn't pull any punches with Clementine, and that was actually one of our decisions early on, not to go soft or make the world unrealistically nice to her. It's the same rules, the same world from Season One and from the The Walking Dead comics, but now you are, in many ways, much more disadvantaged.
But in some ways you can also use the fact that you are a young girl kind of to your advantage at times. In action situations there's things you can do that you wouldn't have done as Lee, in dialog with characters there's ways that people will treat you because you're a little girl. It's actually been a really cool, really different spin on what we normally do.
MD: I think in Season One we spent a lot of time charging you with kind of protecting Clementine and setting her on a trajectory. In this one, it's sort of an extension of that. We put you in Clementine's shoes now, so you take that knowledge and experiences that you shared in Season One and we leave you with that in the same world.
I think if we started Season One with Clementine it would have been a very different story from what it is now - picking up and continuing the story with her - because we've already established the rules of this world and those aren't changing, you just have to deal with them.
DL: One of the big keys for us is that you're not an action hero, you don't have an arsenal of guns, you're not able to scale buildings, you're just an ordinary girl trapped in this crazy world and you have to just do whatever it takes to survive. And it really makes people feel, so far that we've seen, just really kind of helpless and empowered to make different decisions than they normally would in most video games.
"One of the key things for us is that you're not an action hero... you're just an ordinary girl trapped in this crazy world."
The world has aged, not just Clementine. How will that be reflected in the game? For instance, starting out last season the zombies were fresh and there were many survivors. Now that it's many months later, how is that going to be reflected?
DL: It's something we're exploring, we're seeing how people are adapting to life with...
MD: Dennis keeps saying Season One was all about dealing with living day to day, getting through those first days of the apocalypse, and now it's not necessarily a day-to-day struggle, it's carving out a place for yourself in this world and what that means.
And we're kind of looking at what time has done to the world, what time has done to the zombies, how people react to them differently, how they're trying to make a new life in this world, and what all that means. So the world has definitely grown and is adapting in the same way that it would over time.
Telltale was an established name before The Walking Dead, but the series brought you your greatest accolades ever. What's it like trying to build on that?
MD: Terrifying? Exciting? Challenging?
DL: It actually is really cool because, I mean, we're all huge fans of Clementine from working with her in Season One. I think we all as developers built up a really strong relationship with her. So it sounds weird, but getting to work with her and watch her grow is a really appealing thing, exciting for us, and getting to put some of that in the players' hands is kind of a huge core principal for Season Two.
It's really about the opposite of Season One where you're coming in and Lee already has lived a long life and had his own backstory, and Clementine is much more fresh to the world and obviously it's a terrible place to grow up. Basically it's fun to continue to get to grow with her and as the player character basically, put her control in her hands, getting to help continue her growth - but on a much more direct response kind of way.
MD: As a designer and writer, when I'm actually heads down working on this game, I'm really not thinking about living up to the hype or success of Season One. It's really just all about crafting the moments that mean something in the game and the things that get me excited about writing. I'm just completely focused on that. So while there's a pressure there to live up to, that's not what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to meet hype, I'm just trying to create awesome experiences.
Season One design and story lead Jake Rodkin and lead writer Sean Vanaman departed Telltale for Campo Santo in September. How is that affecting development? Were they involved with the pre-conceptual effort?
DL: There was a lot of talk while we were making Season One planning what would be cool for Season Two. Season One was definitely, I think even if you ask them, they would say it's a huge collaborative effort. And we have 150 in the studio, so all the rest of the leads are all still on the project and are just as involved as ever. I mean, we're all still cool, we're friends and hang out all the time and they're fantastic.
Would you recommend new players come into Season Two, or would you say they should start with Season One first and 400 Days?
MD: You don't have to have played Season One to enjoy Season Two, but you'll definitely get more out of it. You'll know more back story, you'll know the characters. And you'll see how your decisions from Season One play out and feed into Season Two. But with that being said, you can jump into Season Two and enjoy it as its own story.
Roughly how many variables are you importing from Season One?
MD: It's hard to pinpoint; we kind of do it organically as we're creating the story and the gameplay, we see what moments warrant callbacks. And there's a few things we have in mind going forward, and then those things create new opportunities as we go.
What players do and what players are talking about also influence what we're going to bring back, that's part of why we do things episodically and that's kind of what we call our live development because we're always talking with the players and seeing what they like and what's important to them and we make sure that that's part of the experience as well. So it's kind of an ongoing thing, we don't have a locked down set of numbers for the way we create these games.
DL: It's usually the bigger pieces, a lot of times they're things that we sort of seeded earlier or were planning to do for a while. And then when we're actually in development, the writing and design, then those pieces, a lot of the smaller things, kind of the feel of the world really, just emerge organically from that process.
"You don't have to have played Season One to enjoy Season Two, but you'll definitely get more out of it."
Will Season Two's Episodes have a similar turnaround time as the first Season (every other month)?
DL: Yeah, I think that the rough release window is the period of time that everybody feels comfortable with. It's sort of enough time to talk about it and wonder what the hell's gonna happen next, but not too far to where you're waiting and not having it.
Do you have any plans to bring Season Two to PS4 and Xbox One?
Telltale PR Job Stauffer: Telltale will be on [PS4 and Xbox One] at some point in the future. We haven't announced when or what, we're very platform agnostic here. The games that you play on Xbox and PC are the very same games as what we put on your telephone and iPad. And that's what really what's worked for Walking Dead and for a lot of our stuff in the past and moving forward.
When Telltale is on Xbox One and PS4 you'll know about it. So we haven't announced any plans for Season Two just yet, or anything else just yet, but we're looking at everything. Where gamers are, and players are, and our audience is, we will have content there at some point.
How would you handle players migrating saves from old systems to new systems?
JS: There's just a lot that we're still looking at and that our tech team is looking at. They've got to talk to Microsoft and Sony and see if something's possible if there will be a Walking Dead version on those platforms as well. It's something we're looking at but it's nothing we can say officially or off the record. It's truly just stuff that we're excited about and we're hoping to figure out. Our games are coming wherever you play them! Which games, we can't say what or where.
What's one of your favorite moments from the first season?
DL: So in Season One in Episode One, everyone was just calling for Larry's blood after [he clashes with Lee], everyone just despised him and thought he was a threat to the group and just wanted to get rid of him. Then in Episode Two we said, alright, here's this situation where you get to kill Larry if you want. And watching people get the controller in their hands and then just sit there frozen, and then not try to kill him, even though they all said they wanted to, was just a fascinating kind of social experiment to us.
That made us think differently about how we were approaching the characters, and really see that when it came down to it people wanted to kind of do the right thing, or not do what they would see as the evil thing, a lot. So going forward that's a note that we've kind of carried into Season Two, and we're really always thinking about that, not just planning a choice and saying, "Oh, everyone is probably going to hate this guy."
And really just saying, honestly, if a human were in this situation, which is how people play our game, they would probably be thinking this or that. And then we try to really balance those choices as much as we can, based on the actual person playing as themselves, which we've found a lot of people do.
That's a good lesson, to always have that in the back of our minds. We're treating people not as how common video game players are treated, where it's like if you put a gun in their hand they're gonna shoot someone. We've found in our games people take relationships with the characters very seriously and often treat them as living people, so we're trying to design with that in mind.
One of my favorite moments from Season One was fighting Kenny in the attic in Episode Five. At one point the screen flashes red and you can grab a stone bust, presumably to strike him. In God of War, I would have gone for it without hesitation. But instead, I took a breath and thought "I'm infected, if he kills me it's for the good of the group." Will there be more moments like that in Season Two?
MD: That's exactly the kind of stuff that we like, when you stop playing like you normally would play a video game and start playing like a human. That's where it's really gold for us too.