Telltale CEO Dan Connors explores the benefits of episodic gaming and live development and their impact on player-character relationships and interactive storytelling in his D.I.C.E. keynote.
Can games create a character that someone would love? According to Telltale Games CEO Dan Connors, the talented development studio behind game-of-the-year darling The Walking Dead, they certainly can.
“I’ve heard it said in the game industry you can’t make characters that people can connect with. It just doesn’t happen,” said Connors. “And I have a huge differing opinion on that, because in my mind the characters in the Walking Dead are not just people that you meet that maybe you see one tender moment you say ‘oh wow, that’s a nice guy.’ Instead you’ve traveled with them through a zombie apocalypse. You’ve decided on who gets to eat and who doesn’t get to eat. You’ve fought about things. You’ve disagreed with them. You’ve made up with them. You’ve developed a relationship with them.”
“I think with Walking Dead, with Clem and Lee, certainly by the end of the game there had been a journey that had happened and a connection that happened between Lee and Clem that also became between the player and Clem,” he continued.
The relationship that Telltale fostered between players and Clementine went so far as to impact the games development. Connors says that the benefit of the episodic format and developing each episode with player feedback in mind let them adjust the game to account for players attachment to Clementine.
“We’ve learned the value of live development. So when we were releasing the Walking Dead with episode two, there was a scene in the game where you meet a cannibal who was going to eat you, or who would like to eat you but hasn’t eaten you yet. But he might. And the player has the opportunity to take it out on that cannibal and finish him off at that time. And the player can, but when he finishes he looks over and there’s Clementine, the girl that he’s been protecting this whole time that’s super special to him. Well, after we released the episode and people started talking about that scene all they could say over and over again was ‘I felt so bad that Clementine saw me behave that way.’ Every episode from that period on when we were talking about choice and talking about making it challenging on the player, we were thinking ‘who’s in the room, what are they thinking, what does the player think they’re thinking and what are we doing by putting this player in the room.’ So we were able to learn this thing about our game and use it as a tool to improve the experience for everyone going forward.”
This is the great thing about interactive media, specifically interactive storytelling of the sort that The Walking Dead employs. Because the player has agency in the story, even if it’s limited, they feel an ownership of the story and characters. They feel a real relationship with them. It plays into the players decisions and gives weight to each of the consequences. It’s something The Walking Dead did to great effect that I highlighted in BeefJack’s write-up for our GOTY articles.
Connors believes that this is the benefit of their format compared to other forms of media. Instead of the game industry trying to be like them, he says “they need to be like us.”
“I saw Old Yeller and it was very similar. I was very emotional, I got to see that boy and see that dog and connect with that dog. But in that movie I never got to pet that dog, and I never got to throw that dog a ball, and I never got to go out and hunt a rabbit with that dog,” said Connors. “Nor did I ever have that dog piss on my rug or bite me. Or did I ever kick that dog? So imagine at the end of that movie, I have the gun up to the dog. Either that is the dog I love more than anything because we play ball together or I hate his guts. It’s a completely different experience depending on what the user imprints upon it. And that’s very similar to what happened [in the Walking Dead.]”
If you’re interested in hearing the rest of Connors D.I.C.E. keynote, you can find the full video here.