GDC 2013: 9 Takeaways from ‘Saving Doug: Empathy, Character, and Choice in The Walking Dead’

By Miguel Concepcion

The element of player choice was one of the features that made Telltale Games’ “The Walking Dead” one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2012. It was an even more meaningful achievement when this choice-driven game essentially reached the same conclusion for all players. The game succeeds in the choices during the journey and less on the anticipation of the outcome of the choices. One of the more significant choices was during the game’s second episode where you had to decide on the fates of Doug and Carley. It was the starting point of the GDC 2013 talk, ’Saving Doug: Empathy, Character, and Choice in The Walking Dead’, hosted by “The Walking Dead” creative director, Jake Rodkin and director/writer, Sean Vanaman.  Here were the nine major takeaways from the panel:

  • Jake and Sean began by making the distinction between proaction games like “Minecraft” and “Grand Theft Auto”, and reaction games like “Spec Ops: The Line” and “The Walking Dead”. In proaction, you make stories happen, while stories are happening to you in reaction games. “The Walking Dead” flows in a feedback loop of context and reflection, where the player is generating meaning from their own emotional goals.
  • When it came to saving Doug or Carley, 75% of players chose Carley. Yet Jake and Sean weren’t convinced that players simply chose her because she was a girl who knew how to use a gun. After much thought, they realized that Doug and Carley’s opportunities for context building were unbalanced. Despite Doug’s ability to fix remotes, he was more of a passive observer. Carley, on the other hand, connected with the Lee Everett  on her knowledge of his criminal background.
  • This segued to how Lee was developed. Firstly, he was not designed as a leader. Not having a controllable camp leader was a conscious choice. It nullified a lot of potential tension and it became more interesting for Lee to act as either the tipping vote or the underdog.
  • Other design choices about Lee: 1) They made him old enough to want a family and not have one as the same time. 2) He is physically able but not imposing. Having tools of authority would limit the scope of the ensemble cast. 3) His difficult past would help the player build a relationship with him, making Lee someone you could root for.
  • Regarding Lee’s race, “The Walking Dead” is not a game about race, but race does play a role in the character politics in order for the game to be honest.
  • When creating each character, the team at Telltale asked, “What rocks do they have in their backpack?” Even before you properly meet Clementine, you get a good idea of who she is, from the treehouse, the drawings, and the knowledge she had a long-term babysitter. Her missing parents gives Telltale a narrative well they can possibly draw from in the second season.
  • Believe it or not, Telltale considered cutting Clementine before production started. The pragmatic creation of Clementine hinged on one question: “Why would you not leave this group of assholes?”. The result was in making a child you could care about.
  • When delving into the topic of sympathy versus empathy, the two panelists shared an enlightening stat. During the food distribution problem in the second episode, Larry placed 4th, only behind Lee, Clementine, and a newly introduced character. This is significant since Larry was, too many, the least liked character in the game, but he still managed to elicit empathy.
  • They considered the potential of a choice-driven two player game, that friends arguing over choices affecting Clementine would be incredible.

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