The Walking Dead

An episodic path to success

Telltale Games enjoyed a particularly successful year in 2012. It’s no secret that The Walking Dead served up a master class in storytelling. In fact, the storytelling and immersion was so strong, that reviewers literally showered the game in end of year awards, sneaking in ahead of competition such as Assassin’s Creed 3, Mass Effect 3, Dishonored, and Journey [1]. However, to claim the strength of The Walking Dead derives solely from story would imply that Back to the Future, one of Telltale’s ventures of 2010/11 also praised for storytelling, was worthy of game of the year awards. In reality, Back to the Future was as likely to win an award as No Luca No [2]. So what separates the success of The Walking Dead from Back to the Future? What impressions did they leave with their players, and were there any other contributing factors to their success?

Making mistakes in the gaming industry can prove fatal. For example, the game All Points Bulletin (known as APB) faced a slew of issues including turning a blind eye to beta testing, miscommunication of pricing models, and unstable servers. [3] Just 6 weeks after the release of the game, the developers Realtime Worlds entered administration.

Telltale Games formed in 2004 consisting of prior LucasArts employees, adopting a development style of releasing games in episodes. Critics from websites such as Gamespot and IGN herald Telltale Games as the one truly successful episodic games developer [4]. Carrying over 7 years of experience, the critical responses to Telltale Games releases have been progressively reaching more and more into the positive.

Starting back in late 2010 the first episode of Back to the Future was released, accompanied by a quite even split of pros and cons [5]. Starting with the strongest elements of this game, the dialogue exudes genuineness and in addition the humor is top-flight. Voice acting talent is as close to the original film as was possible, to the degree where the protagonist’s voice is in-discernibly different. The nostalgia generated by the 1st two episodes in the series provided the bait and hook.

Unfortunately for the fans, and ultimately the developer, it was let down by a faltering in the strength of the story, and it never truly recovered. Once the story dropped, the blur of nostalgia was removed, and thus the connection between the film and game was also removed. An unsatisfying and unconvincingly wrote ending was the final nail in the coffin for a potentially great game that failed to finish its race.

Further deterrents included presentation issues which for a long time have stuck to Telltale Games like chewing gum in hair. Issues such as frame rate, and audio glitches, down to the simplicity of the puzzles throughout Back to the Future all serve as valuable learning experiences. With that said Back to the Future is by no means a bad game, but a game that suffered from a few issues that can’t be ignored.

Near the end of 2011 Telltale Games released Jurassic Park; this game was rather plagued by negatives [6]. Having been released at roughly the same time as Back to the Future, any improvements made with the benefit of hindsight were non-existent. If Telltale Games didn’t have enough feedback on where to improve after watching the efforts of Back to the Future, Jurassic Park provided a torrent of mediocrity that was up to that task.

Unlike Back to the Future, whose first episodes are well written and engaging, Jurassic Park was unable to connect to its roots from the start. The story almost searched its way through a directionless arc. The characters were unable to develop to any degree. Without a main protagonist character control constantly changes. This naturally leads to no connection being formed between player and character, rendering all characters mostly forgettable [7].

The other main problems were the lack of a quality story, poor dialogue options, and the same graphical and technical issues that were present in Back to the Future. The level of these technical issues was intolerable at times in Jurassic Park.

Summing up the negatives from the previous two games, a framework for greater success can be built. When telling a story, give focus to a single character at a time. This way the relationship between characters can be better digested and attachment can be placed by the player. Keeping the writing as consistent as possible over all episodes will help keep players coming back. Technical issues should be non-existent, or as non-invasive as possible. Voice acting can bring a huge amount of depth to a story, but the story itself must still stand up to critique.

The second half of 2012 brought The Walking Dead, which at the time was riding a wave of popularity in lieu of The Walking Dead television series two finale. Immediately having such a large following, Telltale Games did their best to release on as many platforms as possible, and at the same time. This allowed players on the iPhone to talk to players on the Xbox 360 as freely as PC players talked with those on PS3.

The Walking Dead’s rise to game of the year was fueled by giving this wide player base everything they were expecting, and quite probably more than many were expecting. The acting in the game leaves nothing at the door. Where Back to the Future failed with the dampening of its story, The Walking Dead surpassed expectations. Telltale Games delivered a story that evoked more and more emotional attachment from its player as the story unfolded. Each episode expanded fantastically developed characters into a masterpiece that ended leaving players drained in a good way, having reached the end of the journey.

The realism emitted by the main characters, Lee the protagonist, and Clementine, rivals that of any of the most well received television series or movies. The sympathetic bond created by much of the player base bound them into sticking with The Walking Dead, episode after episode. The popularity has resulted in an eagerly anticipated second season of episodes, currently in production.

In a way, The Walking Dead breaks an important rule of adventure games [8]. Stylistically, adventure games rely heavily on a crutch of puzzles to provide a game play element. The Walking Dead casts aside game play in favor of its story and intricate character development [9].

The fine tuned process of character development in The Walking Dead comes about as a result of excellent use of dialogue options and weighted decisions. Simulating a realistic response by limiting the time to choose a dialogue option gives a sense of ownership to the way each player’s story progresses. Once the player is made aware that their decisions have immediate and far-reaching effects on the attitudes of the other characters, emotional responses become much easier to illicit.

There is one more element that contributed to the success of The Walking Dead, and it’s an inherent dynamic of television series’ [10]. This can potentially cause an adverse effect when the intended audience latches onto flaws. However, as seen with shows like Lost, word of mouth and fan generated excitement between episodes has an almost magnetic loyalty effect. The Walking Dead almost perfectly executes three ideals of televisual success, brand association, viewer (player) intercommunication, and an emotional connection to characters (as mentioned above).

Brand association of The Walking Dead was established by spring boarding off the wave of popularity the TV series of the same name had generated. Simultaneously, as a convenient design decision and another method of capturing more users, simple cell shaded graphics were used to faithfully recreate the feel of the original comic books. Fortunately for The Walking Dead game, the story captured the essence of its television counterpart. This proved to be a major sticking point for previous Telltale releases, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. Fans of the movies these games are based on often cite a disconnection between film and game as a reason for dismissal.

Player intercommunication is a major method of spreading awareness. It is present in most forms of entertainment and facilitated more than ever by online communication services such as Twitter [11] [12], and other social platforms such as Steam. The Walking Dead had approximately a one month waiting time between episodes. Whilst lengthier than a standard television series, this wait is still not overly long. The time between episodes allowed for fan theories, discussion of the previous episode, and the ability for new players to catch up or current players to replay.

The Walking Dead overcame the weaknesses of its predecessors. It also capably shows that an adventure game can proudly display its story and character development as its centerpiece, redefining the genre standards. The Walking Dead defines success of a television shows conversion to a video game.

References

1. Spike. Game of the Year VGA 10. 2012; Available from: http://www.spike.com/events/video-game-awards-2012-nominees/voting/game-of-the-year.
2. No Luca No. 2011 January 30, 2013]; Available from: http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-GB/Product/No-Luca-No/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d8025855090f.
3. Emery, D. Massive multiplayer game APB to shut down. 2010 January 30, 2013]; Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-11333582.
4. Norris, E. Making a Case for More Episodic Games. 2012.
5. Miller, G. Back to the Future: The Game Review 2011 January 31, 2013]; Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIBXNBAu2yw.
6. Miller, G. Jurassic Park – Video Review. 2011 January 31, 2013]; Available from: http://uk.ign.com/videos/2011/11/17/jurassic-park-video-review.
7. Petit, C. Jurassic Park: The Game Review. 2011 November 21, 201; Available from: http://uk.gamespot.com/jurassic-park-the-game/reviews/jurassic-park-the-game-review-6346470/.
8. Miller, G. The Walking Dead: The Game Season 1 Video Review. 2012 January 31, 2013]; Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYtBU-6aBvM.
9. McLaughlin, R. 2012’s most innovative game ideas. 2012 January 31, 2013]; Available from: http://venturebeat.com/2012/12/23/2012s-most-innovative-game-ideas/.
10. Hotchkiss, G. The Psychology of Entertainment: Our Connection with TV. 2010 January 31, 2013]; Available from: http://www.outofmygord.com/archive/2010/01/28/The-Psychology-of-Entertainment-Our-Connection-with-TV.aspx.
11. Whitta, G.; Available from: https://twitter.com/garywhitta.
12. TelltaleGames. Available from: https://twitter.com/telltalegames.

Keep collecting coins,
Keep making doors open.
–ccmdo

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