Gary Whitta / Dabe Alan
The Walking Dead’s Gary Whitta talks gender bias, Clementine’s role, and hints at Episode 4
Before he was brought on to be the story consultant and writer of Episode 4 of The Walking Dead adventure game, Gary Whitta was one of the zombies who pulled Rick off his horse in the first episode of the Walking Dead television show. “It’s my proudest IMDB credit, as pajama zombie,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. Whitta, who also wrote the screenplay for The Book of Eli and the upcoming Will Smith film After Earth, got to know Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, and was ultimately offered the job of working on The Walking Dead game. He was skeptical about writing what he assumed would be a shooter, but jumped in once he was told it would be an adventure game created by Telltale. Whitta sat down with Telltale, who had an outline for the first two episodes and the characters of Lee and Clementine, and worked on fleshing out the story and defining the characters, story, and detail of the first season of the game. We spoke with Gary Whitta about player choice, Clementine as a narrative device, and how the world of The Walking Dead should never get “better.” [WARNING: the following article includes spoilers for Episodes 1 through 3, but none for Episode 4. Enjoy!]
Making sure the choices are equally terrible
Each episode of The Walking Dead features a number of big choices for the player to make, and you’re told at the end of each episode how many people made each choice. It’s rare that Whitta is surprised by how a choice pans out, and in fact they spend much time trying to make the choices are evenly desirable, or horrible, as possible. The goal is to get the players evenly split between each choice. “This is one of the biggest conversations we’ve had, looking at the five or six critical choices, and trying to set the needle as close to 50 / 50 as possible and through play-testing and through our own experiences playing the game, seeing that the needle is not where we want it,” Whitta explained. If more people are attracted to one choice other the other, that’s a hint that something needs to be adjusted. The results that surprised Telltale, but not Whitta, was the decision of who to save in the first episode: should Doug or Carley survive into the next episode? “It’s a big choice, it determines who you carry forward into the next two episodes,” Whitta said. It’s one of the bigger choices in the game for that reason, and Telltale was convinced that the spread was going to be even between the two characters. They designed it that way: Carley may have been good in a tight spot and a good shot with a gun, but Doug was talented with electronics and tech. “They had presented what they felt were even cases for saving either Doug or Carley… depending on what the player thought would be useful moving forward, [Telltale] thought they had made an equal case,“ Whitta said.Of course, that’s not how it turned out. “I said guys, players are going to save the hot chick over the fat tech support dude, every time. I don’t think this needle is going to be near as close to 50 / 50 as you think.” Whitta said 75% of people decided to save Carley over Doug. “I’m not sure what the demographics of the Walking Dead playerbase are, I know there’s a lot of female players out there, but I have a feeling that players were going to go for what they felt might leave open some possibility of romance, or… I think there was definitely some gender bias in that decision.”
When Clementine does, and what she sees
The idea that decisions are designed to split the audience down the middle was interesting, but Whitta also described how Clementine has become much more of a narrative force than they had anticipated. In some ways it has changed how the future episodes are written, and how the character is used to affect the player. He described the first time they began to understand how much Clementine could change how the player viewed the game. “When you kill one of the St. John brothers and realize that Clementine was there and she saw it. People really freaked out when that happened! It’s affected now the way we look at future choices,” Whitta said. “People seem so allergic to doing anything bad and they worry that Clementine might witness it, and it’s pushed them much further towards wanting to play a good guy, they’re very, very protective of Clementine. Not just physically, but psychologically. They want to feel like a good parent, a good role-model. They don’t want to expose her to anything horrible, and they really want Clementine and Lee to have a good relationship.” This changed how they deal with the character moving forward while balancing the choices presented to the player. “In Episode 4, when we looked at some of the choices we made, we thought if Clementine is in the room, is that going to throw the needle way off? Because no one wants to do anything bad if Clem may witness it. There’s all kinds of things we considered from how people reacted to previous episodes that we carry forward into the way we think about some of the choices and narratives of the episodes moving forward.” Clementine may have been created to engage certain emotions, but her effectiveness took the team back.“Even though this is by design, I think everyone has been surprised at just how strongly people have responded to Clementine. Video game characters, and kids in particular, it’s easy for them to be dislikable, and for people to be turned off by kid characters. Yet there’s something about Clementine, and the Lee-Clementine relationship, that people have responded to in a very emotionally genuine and real way,” he said. “Going forward, we feel a tremendous responsibility to honor that.” The team at Telltale understands how powerful that relationship is, and they’re very careful about how she’s used in each scene; Whitta claimed simply moving Clementine into or out of the room to change player behavior would be a lazy way to handle the story. “We want to use the impact she has on the story very sparingly.” Kenny is another character where players tend to be protective of the relationship, and when all three characters are in the room Whitta describes the situation as a “puzzle box” as they try to figure out what the player is thinking. “And then use those elements to really put the screws to the player as much as possible and then present them with the most agonizing choice without them feeling like they’re being manipulated.” Whitta claimed that many people simply assume they’re always going to go for the darkest possible choice, when the reality is that he shoots for interesting decisions that honor the bleakness of the game’s world. That assumption that darker is better is something that may lead players astray as they try to second guess what’s going to happen next in the series.“A lot of people in the game audience use that and try to predict what they think we’ll do. They know that this is a dark world, and they know we’ve done some things that are hopefully as fucked up as they’ve done in the comics,” he explained. Of course, assuming the worst may not be a terrible strategy. “Oh and by the way it does get a lot worse. If you think Episode 3 was bad, you have no idea.” The fact that the game features characters and situations that are distinct from the comic and television show was attractive to Whitta, and was part of the reason he took the job. “We have the luxury of doing anything we want with our characters. The only thing we have to beholden to is the general tone and the rules and cadence, we want it to be tonally true to the comics,” he said. “Robert [Kirkman] has established over the 102 issues of the comic that this is a very, very dark world and it’s never, ever going to get better, or end. And that’s kind of liberating in a way,” Whitta explained. “Nobody wants to see the cure or society come back; this is an interesting world to be in, and it’s just an ever-increasing device, the pressure cooker that we drop these characters in and see how long it takes them to pop.” The Walking Dead: Episode 4 will be released this October.