Interview: The Walking Dead writer on making a game with 'no good decisions'

The Walking Dead is a game about choices and the people they hurt. Plenty of games feature player agency in shaping the plot, but Telltale's adventure series has caught attention for making the options downright diabolical. I talked to Telltale designer and writer Harrison G. Pink at PAX 2012 about what it takes to build such a complex narrative. "It was pounded into my head very early on, there are no good decisions," Pink said. "There cannot be an optimal play-through. Every decision has to be fully justifiable by a human being. We would get into writers room discussions and would start yelling at each other. Like, "that's so stupid, why would you ever do that?" and then "no, that makes perfect sense and here's why." Okay, good, writing that one down. A lot of times if we couldn't decide if it was a good decision, we knew that it should be in the game." Pink said that Clementine makes those decisions even more difficult, since her presence forces the player to consider protecting her on another level. "It gets way more blurred when you involve Clementine," he said. "You have these decisions that are probably the right decisions for the group--she's watching, but then maybe she needs to understand this, but I might scare her because she'll think I'm a crazy person. There's no wrong choice, if you can justify it and it feels properly motivated to you, it's a valid choice."

A rare moment of serenity

Clementine serves as the emotional backbone of the game, but the team felt it was "risky" to include her because of players' prior experience with protecting helpless NPCs. "Would she be annoying? Would it feel like a big fetch quest? I think it came down to making her a really understandable, empathetic character. She has her own motivations, her own goals, and that keeps coming up. Lee and Clementine's relationship gets reestablished and that's really the grounds of the back-half of the season. What Clementine wants and what you as a player might want may not be the same direction." That believability was important in the player character too. "Everything that Lee says is something that a human being would say," Pink said. "We're not just making four crazy choices. Lee is a human being, he has real needs and real fears and real desires. So all of those options, while we let you customize the Lee you want to be, it's all stuff that Lee would say." And as the games continue, more and more of those dialogue options are coming into play. Pink noted that they're weighted differently, so a character's attitude may not shift on a dime from one choice that upset them, but they're all being factored. "There are many Excel spread sheets," Pink said. "It gets worse as it goes on, because Kenny could be mad at you for this one thing or this other thing. But episode 1 and 2 combined make Kenny's mood in episode 3. Then there has to be different options [based on who is alive], so it will explode into 10 [possibilities] and then come back again after that." Each episode ends in roughly the same place, but the relationships with characters have already grown more and more splintered. Telltale recently released the third episode, with two more to come in this season. The developer promises that another season is on the way, but the sense of dread hanging over the series makes it hard to predict what fate could await Lee and Clementine. Whatever happens, we know the choices won't be easy.