By Nathan Grayson on May 16th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.
To hear Telltale tell the tale, The Walking Dead wasn’t built to be a wildly acclaimed game of the year award magnet. A good game? Yes. A great story? Clearly. But not a bowling ball catapult into zombified super stardom. With all eyes suddenly on the once-unassuming developer, “that Fables game” has an incredibly tough act to follow. But The Wolf Among Us is a) about a gruff, nicotine-addicted werewolf detective and b) not about gazing sullenly out the window while protesting, “No, it’s just the rain/my allergies/this waterfall we’re standing under.” It takes place in a mad fantasy reality where anything can happen – except, um, the undead apocalypse. It’s maybe a bit different. So, where does Walking Dead’s DNA end and Wolf Among Us begin? What about Fables-specific issues like mystery-solving, a pre-established main character, wolfed-out combat, and a somewhat controversial creator? I spoke with Telltale president Kevin Bruner about all of that and more.
RPS: The Wolf Among Us takes place in pseudo-modern times, but under a premise that’s far more surreal. Walking Dead was at least grounded in…
Bruner: Real people in a zombie apocalypse.
RPS: Whereas this is a lot more outlandish and crazy. How are you embracing and leveraging that? What are the biggest changes?
Bruner: In a lot of ways I think Fables is the hardest thing we’ve ever done to date. In Walking Dead, Lee and Clem were inventions. They could be things that were convenient for the game world. Their backgrounds, their personalities, the way they react to things. We could craft those characters in a way that was fun to role-play as and fun to interact with. With Fables, you play Bigby Wolf. He has to be Bigby Wolf. Snow has to be Snow. The world has a stricter set of rules than Kirkman’s zombie world. The role that you play, as a kind of detective and the sheriff of Fabletown, isn’t as life and death as “I am protecting Clementine from being eaten by zombies.” The bar is set a lot higher for us as far as how we make all that work.
I think Fables is the hardest thing we’ve done to date.
But we really have embraced it. We’ve come up with new storytelling techniques. We call it the evolution of choice. A big thing in Walking Dead was going where the story took you, and we would throw these choices at you, but you couldn’t really determine what was going to happen next. Whereas in Fables, the choices you make in the moment are all there, like in Walking Dead, but there are places where it branches timeline-wise.
Two events are happening at the same time and you have to choose which event you’re going to interact with. When you get there, you make the same kind of in-the-moment choices, but there’s stuff happening somewhere else at the same time. Not only do you get to choose what to say and how to treat people, but you also get to choose when and where you’re saying it. If you go one way, people will be like, “Where were you? We were over here and we could have really used you.” You have to explain why you weren’t there. These are all new role-playing aspects that we’re using as tools to help us stay within the bounds where Bigby Wolf can be Bigby Wolf and the Fables universe can stay consistent.
RPS: Is that how you’re handling the issue of ownership of a pre-established character? Like you said, Lee was your own invention. Bigby’s an animal of an entirely different (and literal) sort.
Bruner: It’s interesting. He’s the sheriff, right? Your first instinct is that it should be a crime-solving game. We’ve done a bunch of forensics games at Telltale before. Where we landed was, he’s the sheriff of Fabletown, and there’s a crime, and it’s a story about a sheriff figuring out what’s going on with a crime, but the gameplay isn’t [necessarily crime].
That’s the backdrop. That’s what happens. But the gameplay is about relationships. It’s about how Bigby and Snow start to come closer together. There, in canon, Snow isn’t the deputy mayor yet. You can see how Crane treats her. You can start to form some opinions about… Bigby can express to Snow, “Well, don’t do that,” or “I’m gonna go and kick his ass.” Those kinds of things. We let you explore that level of detail, in the context of this narrative of this crime and this event that happens in Fabletown. That’s the backbone that you ride along. The gameplay is about something different.
It’s not like an L.A. Noire crime-solving game. But the story is about investigating and interviewing and things like that.
RPS: Aside from those moments where you can choose to go to one event or another, is this story by and large fairly linear? Or is there more exploration to it?
Bruner: There’s more non-linear areas in each episode than there are in Walking Dead, but certainly early on in the episodes, they all end in the same place that you can share with your friends.
RPS: You recently mentioned that Telltale sort of “begrudgingly” adds adventure game-y elements to its stories. You’re trying to,er, tell tales first and foremost. Compared to Walking Dead, is this even less puzzle-heavy?
Bruner: Yeah, I’d say it’s less puzzle-heavy, but that’s because the core narrative, being a mystery, has more intrigue built into it. I think some of the same questions that a puzzle, in a more traditional adventure games, might pose in your head, like “How am I going to do this?”, it’s more like, “What does this information that I have right now mean?” In some ways it’s like a whodunit kind of thing. I think you feel a lot of the same things you might feel if there were more puzzles, but it’s not a puzzle game, in the same way. I think it’s mentally challenging in the same way as a puzzle game, but that’s more because of the whodunit nature of the tropes.
RPS: How does the whodunit part function? Can you make a wrong call? Can you accuse someone who’s entirely innocent?
Bruner: A big part of the choices that you make is how you interpret the information that you know right now. That’s one thing that’s going to be a lot of fun. The game certainly isn’t set up in a way where it rewards or punishes you for making a call. If you say, “I think all the events that I saw mean this, or this other thing,” it just allows you to express that. The world comes back and says, “Well, if it means that, then this follows.”
But it’s very non-judgmental. The story allows all that space to exist. It feeds that kind of detective story whodunit intrigue. Okay, you saw this, what does it mean? What we want is for you to say, “I don’t know what it means.” Narratively you don’t have enough information to know exactly what it means. You could say, “I think it might mean this,” and then the story will start telling itself. If that’s what you think it means, we’ll give you a bit of information that reinforces that, or maybe a bit of information that will make you question that, and we’ll take it from there. I think that makes it really engaging. It feels cool.
RPS: Bigby is also, at heart, a gigantic wolf monster. He fights, right? How are you approaching combat in this one? I’m guessing you’ve evolved it quite a bit from Walking Dead.
Bruner: Yeah, the fight sequences are completely over the top. They’re fables, right? They’re hard to kill. One of the things we didn’t want to do was make it feel like it turned into a superhero game. When fights break out, we want you to get excited. You feel the fight coming and you have the controller in your hand, and then the fight gets so over the top that you’re like, “Whoa, hold on, that’s not exactly what I was going for there.”
Bigby, when he becomes the wolf, he’s out of control. We want to convey that to the player. The level of control and the things that you can do when Bigby is the wolf aren’t exactly the expected things. You’ll be like, “Yeah, I’m totally going to be a big badass right now and punch that guy in the face.” So you punch that guy in the face, but you punch his face off. There’s blood everywhere. It’s totally brutal. As a gamer, we want you to be like, “OK, that’s not exactly what I meant. I meant I wanted him to be a big badass hero. Then I obliterated this guy in a horrible way.” That’s kind of like Bigby being out of control and when he wolfs out, he doesn’t always do [what you're expecting].
Bigby’s a wolf – not a superhero. He’s being his DNA, what’s inside him.
He goes a little overboard most of the time. It’s a reflection of the Fables thing. They’re not Superman and Batman fighting. He’s not a kung fu master. He’s a wolf. It’s very animalistic. He’s not being a superhero – he’s being his DNA, what’s inside him.
RPS: With the combat, how direct is the control for the player? Is it just a few little QTE button inputs, or are you fully moving him around?
Bruner: It’s cinematic combat. It’s kind of QTE-ish. More like what we did in Walking Dead. It’s not like an Arkham Asylum kind of combat, where you can target people and things like that. The sequences are scripted in a way so that they’re timed and dramatic. You shouldn’t feel like you’re getting scored. There’s not a power meter or anything like that. It’s still very cinematic. We want to be telling stories all the time. Coming back and putting a power meter up, for us, is not narratively the right thing to do.
RPS: But I saw in another report that you can get beaten up, and people will actually react to your battered appearance.
Bruner: Yeah, you can succeed to varying levels when you’re in a fight. You can lose fights. Sometimes you can intentionally lose a fight, if you think that’s the right thing to do. Then, if your face is all beat up and bruised and you go back to Snow, she might be like, “What the hell happened to you? I thought you were a tough guy?” Or she might say, “What the hell happened to you? C’mere, let me warm up to you a little bit, get a little closer.” You can kind of use the fighting narratively as a tool if you want to. That’s more what getting beat up is about.
RPS: It’s interesting that you’re approaching combat from the narrative perspective first and foremost. Combat is one of gaming’s main means of interaction, but gratifying violence is always the end goal. What’s it like reinventing a very common game trope for an entirely different purpose?
Bruner: It’s pretty hard. How do we do it cinematically? How do we look at really great fights in the movies and more linear mechanisms? Why are they compelling? Why do you care what’s happening in a fight? We’ve been working on it all through Jurassic Park, all through the zombie attacks and the different activities you do in Walking Dead, and I think Fables is our next iteration of it.
But the fighting in Fables is definitely a result of different combat prototypes that we’ve done over the years. It’s hard, because in games, in skill-based gaming, you have arena fighting games, which is all about dexterity and memory and button combos. They’re really compelling to play. The line gets really close between video game fighting, for skill-based rewards, and a fight in a story-based game that is narratively important. That’s a really fine line to tread, a difficult line to tread.
RPS: For all its fantastically brutal emotional and narrative beats, Walking Dead didn’t look so great. It moved really robotically, and the art style kind of clashed with everything else. Wolf Among Us is quite a looker in still shots, though. Is fluidity and animation getting a similar treatment?
Bruner: We get pretty maniacal about making things look the way that they’re supposed to look when we get into various IP. We have what we call a “living ink” look for the game. When we released the first round of screenshots, there was a lot of, “Holy crap, is that concept art?” It’s the game. The game really looks like that when it’s moving. It’s not cel-shading in the more traditional cartoon cel-shading. It’s a very flat look that looks more like inked comic books.
We’ve invested a lot in some technology to make it look like a comic book, like a newsprint comic. Then we keep iterating on what our actors can do, trying to make our animations look better. But we’re always challenged by the amount of content that we do. Every game is like trying to do an animated feature film, a five- or six-hour animated movie on a very small budget in a very short amount of time. We have a lot of tricks up our sleeves to do that. We keep trying to get better at it. But on this one, I think the art direction is very bold, very cool. The overall look that comes out is very unique. I haven’t seen anything that quite goes to the extent of looking like a regular printed comic the way Fables does.
RPS: Are seasons of Wolf Among Us and Walking Dead going to run concurrently, or will it be one and the other alternating?
Bruner: We’re not announcing any release dates for anything other than Fables right now, but certainly we’re gearing up to have multiple games or shows running simultaneously. We’ll have an episode of one thing coming out at the same time as an episode of another thing, which we’ve never done before. We’re definitely getting prepared for that.
You talked about the technical problems. One of the things that we want to make sure of is that, before we get two games going simultaneously, we get one game going without people having saved game problems and technical issues like that. That’s our immediate goal, to get Fables out there, get it clean, feel confident that if we have two of these things going simultaneously, we have the bandwidth to support it properly. We feel pretty confident that we’re there, but the proof’s in the pudding. We’ll have to wait until Fables launches.
RPS: I’ve only recently gotten into Fables myself, but I keep hearing of controversy attached to its creator. He’s said some things about Israel apparently, and he even alluded to it in the comic once. But do you think that stuff’s really an issue – especially for your game and your story?
Bruner: I don’t think our story is overly conservative or has any kind of personal political slant to it or anything like that. Bill [Willingham] has been great to work with. I’ve heard similar things, but in our interactions with him, he doesn’t seem like he has an agenda or anything like that. He just seems like he wants to tell a great story with these characters.
RPS: It’s always an interesting thing to see, when people just will not remove a creator’s work from the creator themselves. In some cases it’s maybe warranted. Case in point: Orson Scott Card. But is that at all a concern for you guys?
Bruner: It hasn’t really come up so far. Fables is a comic book. Fables doesn’t have a TV show. The really hardcore Fables audience is still relatively small. We feel like one of the things that we’re trying to do is to get a lot more people introduced to Fables. So I think everyone’s aware that, for a lot of people, the Fables game is going to be their first contact with the franchise. We feel like we have a lot of heavy lifting to do, just about Fabletown and the Mundies and all that.
When we get to that level of, “Is there an agenda to it or not?” you have to get pretty deep into the IP. Most of our effort is focusing on people who are new to the franchise and explaining why these fairy tales live in New York and how long they’ve been there and what the relationship is with the mundane world. We have an enormous amount of expositional ground-level work to do.
RPS: Especially relative to The Walking Dead, because even if it’s its own universe, it’s still like, “This is the world. Now there are zombies in it. That’s pretty much it.”
We’re gearing up to have multiple games or shows running simultaneously.
Bruner: If you say it’s a zombie story, you have a big head start, whereas the Fables universe is really sophisticated and really complicated. Getting people up to speed with enough of it that they understand how the game is working has been a real challenge. We’ve deliberately focused on just a few aspects of the world to start with, because if you try to go wide and explain everything – which we did contemplate at one point, having a big speech at the beginning of the game where we figured out a way to dump as much information as possible, like at the Remembrance Day festival or something like that – [it's too obvious]. We’ll talk about the Mundies. We’ll talk about glamours. We’ll talk about how they got to Fabletown. And we’ll leave the rest of it for episode two [laughs].
RPS: Personally, I think that’s probably the better way to go. Usually, when there’s an exposition dump, most people can pick up on it. People are pretty story-savvy.
Bruner: Yeah. We want to be clever about it. The Remembrance Day is a great time to talk about the past. Can we squeeze that into two minutes and feel like people understood what they were doing, though? We explored that for a little while, and we said, “No, let’s just start small.” Start small, start intimate, try to get people engaged in what they’re doing, and let the story get bigger as it goes along.
RPS: For better or worse, I think all eyes are on you right now, because Walking Dead was such a success. Admittedly, the follow-up to Walking Dead is Walking Dead season two. But a lot of people will look at Wolf and say, “That’s the follow-up to Walking Dead,” because it’s the next thing sequentially. When you have that kind of comparison, how do you manage it? How do you manage the fact that a lot of people are going to be coming to your game because they liked The Walking Dead?
Bruner: You do two things. You continue to do the best work you can possibly do, and then you run in the corner and hide as much as possible [laughs]. It’s tough coming on the heels of such a successful and an important game to people, saying, “Hey, do you want to try this other thing?” We think a lot of people who played Walking Dead will really like Fables. It may not be for all of them, because it’s a different context. Maybe some people who never played Walking Dead, Fables will be their thing.
But we believe that Fables is the right kind of world for us to play with. It works really well for the kind of games that we want to make. We didn’t know Walking Dead was going to be what it was, so hopefully, as long as we stick to our guns and the same things we thought were important with Walking Dead… If we’re doing that with Fables, hopefully it will resonate the same way with people.
Check back tomorrow for part two, which digs deep into Telltale’s super-duper secret (and very interesting) experimental projects. Complex non-combat AI, being able to say whatever you want to characters, atypical games that bridge the gap between seasons – those sorts of things. Also, we talk about why King’s Quest ended up falling by the wayside.