"Violence will befall children in this game, without a doubt."
Sean Vanaman, lead designer and writer on TellTale's upcoming "Walking Dead" game, is in the car on route to work when I call him up. He's easy-going – the kind of guy you actually look forward to interviewing, because his genuine enthusiasm for the project shines through every response. As he drove, we talked about the San Francisco-based studio's attention to Robert Kirkman's canon, the thought process behind the game's original story, and the team's straightforward approach to a world where extreme violence is the norm.
"The Walking Dead" wasn't always destined for life outside the inked page.
There was a time – years ago, now – when Robert Kirkman seemed adamant in keeping his then fledgling zombie apocalypse series solely in the realm of comic books. Of course, it's hard to know whether or not he could have foreseen the property's eventual fame, the series now well-known everywhere, thanks to an AMC television adaptation. This month, "Walking Dead" receives the episodic videogame treatment from TellTale.
"I think the show is really tailored for a TV audience, the same way the comic is tailored for a comic book audience. But I also think the episodic format at TellTale was really intriguing to [Kirkman]," said Vanaman. "I pitched the story to Robert at lunch, in San Francisco, about a year ago, I guess. And he really dug it. He's been pretty wonderful the whole way through."
TellTale has found success in the episodic game format, sometimes straying away from traditional, boxed retail releases. "The Walking Dead" will span five episodes – via PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, and PC – each chunk of narrative-based gameplay lasting around two hours. Unlike the television series, TellTale's game provides some exposition to the zombie armageddon, and an original story intertwined with the comic series.
"Episode one is definitely a prequel episode; Rick is in a coma the entire time. But we actually jump ahead about 3 months in episode 2," said Vanaman. "The time when Rick is finally with Shane, Lori, and Carl. It hasn't really snowed yet, but it's deep fall. That's where the 2nd episode takes place. The first days of the apocalypse are so much about people thinking, 'when is this going to be over, when is this going to be over?' What really feels like 'The Walking Dead,' is when they all stop wondering when it's going to be over. When they all just stop and deal with it. The conflict between characters that want to stay, or characters that want to leave, or a character that has a crazy long-term plan versus one that's more pragmatic, is definitely all the way through our story."
Major characters will make a small appearance in the game, but instead of just finding a new way to look at the events of the comic series, Vanaman and crew tried desperately to flesh out the stories of lesser-known figures. That's not to say those characters are any less important. If you're a "Walking Dead" fan, you may remember one such character, Lilly.
"The character we found that we thought was really, really interesting was actually this woman from Woodbury who works for the Governor...her name is Lilly," said Vanaman. "I wanted to tell the story of someone who just starts as this regular woman who you're going to empathize with in the game, but then by the end of her story, you can make the leap to what happened; why she ends up with the Governor. I think comic fans are going to really dig that. Lilly is a really weird, enigmatic character, with only three panels, but completely changes Rick's story with one action."
Vanaman was the lead writer on two of the game's five episodes, while providing support on the other three. Gary Whitta ("Book of Eli") is writing the fourth episode. The story focuses on the trials and tribulations of a man named Lee, just on his way to prison before the world goes to hell. He'll eventually meet up with a young girl named Clementine, and as you might expect, you'll have the opportunity to attempt to protect her from the crumbling reality around her. What you may not expect, is TellTale – well-known for cartoony adventure games – is refusing to back away from graphic violence existing in the same airspace as a child.
Kirkman's comics never shied away from the subject, either. The books are filled with horrifying events that completely disregard age or gender. In short, it's what one would expect from an apocalypse.
"Violence will befall children, that's all I really know what to say," Vanaman reiterates. "I don’t really prescribe to the 'what video games are allowed to do' thing. For video games to grow as a medium, they need to be able to tell stories as plainly as the 'Walking Dead' comic tells the story. The zombies – at the end of the day – they're not even the worst thing in the world."
According to Vanaman, the TellTale team has learned a lot from past experiences, including its foray into more action-oriented territory, "Jurassic Park." The "Walking Dead" game will clearly include some action elements, but I got the impression from our chat the game is still heavily focused on character-based, narrative-driven gameplay. That said, there's still plenty of opportunities to bash in zombie skulls. Apparently, the game even enters a first-person mode for high-tension scenes.
"We have a pretty clean reticule system now, where you are doing a lot of targeting on things, like in a fight or in action moments," said Vanaman. "You know, you see a board, and you say 'give me that.' Lee picks it up and he's got it in his hands. A zombie is coming over a fence, so you can hit a zombie with the board. It feels more organic to me, to be grabbing and targeting."
"The Walking Dead" game is due out on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and PC later this month.