HOW DO YOU WRITE A TELLTALE GAME?
Featuring Eric Stirpe (Minecraft: Story Mode S1-2, Batman, Tales from the Borderlands, Walking Dead S2), Lauren Mee (The Walking Dead: The Final Season and Batman: The Enemy Within), Mary Kenney (The Walking Dead: The Final Season, lead writer of episode 2), and Stacey Mason (Lead on Telltale's cancelled R&D project) .
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Eric Stirpe (Minecraft: Story Mode S1-2, Batman, Tales from the Borderlands, Walking Dead S2)
“Silence is a valid option.”
It’s a piece of tutorial text that was in the first episode of every Telltale series post-Walking Dead. A reminder that, during tense situations or awkward moments, choosing to say nothing is just as valid as opening your mouth to chime in. When I first started writing at Telltale in the fall of 2013, it was one of the toughest things for me to wrap my head around - How do I make being silent, doing nothing, feel good in a conversation? The lazy version is writing a scene in which the player is an optional part - A scene that will play out even if the player wasn’t there. It should go without saying that this… doesn’t feel great. It looks like a big group of NPCs having an argument and coming to their own conclusions as players say things like “I agree with [x]” or “That doesn’t sound like a good idea.”
To ensure that silence actually is a “valid option,” you need to construct your scenes in such a way that silences are active and really noticed by the other characters. It doesn’t mean that every choice needs to be the player character answering direct questions or making decisions for a group, but the silence has to have active emotions tied to it. It needs to be Bigby Wolf choosing to silently glare as Mr. Toad blathers at him about his problems. It needs to be Batman looking away and saying nothing when he’s asked about someone he wasn’t able to save. You need to plan for the worst case scenario: What if a player chooses to say nothing through this whole scene? Or even through the majority of the scene? It’s a little more work, but having a different ending, or a few different choices throughout, to react to those edge cases can go a long, long way towards helping the player feel like silence really was a “valid option” and that their silences were noticed by the world.
This is knowledge that took me a couple episodes at Telltale to really absorb. I wrote quite a few early scenes that I look back on with embarrassment; Scenes with NPCs flapping their gums as the player character - the character who should have been the most interesting and dynamic one in the room - could just lean back against the wall and observe. But over time I learned that checking your silent options can actually be a great barometer for the agency and player involvement in your scenes. If a scene can keep going unimpeded, whether your player is pushing buttons or not - when your silent options are just “[Player character] says nothing” and no one reacts - it’s typically a symptom that your scene might need to go back to the drawing board to make sure that the player is a key, well, player.
Even though I didn’t always “get” silent choices at first, I’m really glad that I got to spend 5 years working on stories that had them. It was an extra challenge for sure, but it was a challenge that forced me to really think about how the player was involved in scenes and it made me admire people who could pull them off really well. I highly suggest trying out out silent playthroughs of Wolf Among Us. Or Tales from the Borderlands. Or either season of Batman. All of those games have some of the greatest silent choices I’ve ever seen. Check ‘em out, and then pour one out for the awesome folks who made sure that when we said “Silence is a valid option”, we really meant it.
Lauren Mee (The Walking Dead: The Final Season and Batman: The Enemy Within)
I’ll never forget the first time I cried playing a game.
I stared bleary-eyed as Clementine sat beside Lee, her hands and mine both shaking as she held the gun. The choice hovered on screen, and I remember thinking -- “I don’t want her to live with the guilt of having to kill me.”
And that’s where the magic starts. Because, while there are a lot of things that make Telltale games special: difficult choices, dramatic deaths, moments that make you laugh out loud or fall in love with a fictional character… What really makes Telltale games shine is much like what made Telltale as a company shine: the people. The characters you interact with. They’re not just pixels on a screen, they’re your best friends, enemies, partners.
Working on the final season of The Walking Dead, a major focus was: who are these kids? Not only to Clementine, but to each other, to themselves. What do they want? What are they afraid of? Do they have a favorite food? How do they spend their free time? They all had difficult, storied lives before she got there. The player should feel that and, more importantly, they should have the opportunity to earn moments where they can learn about that history, themselves.
The joy of a Telltale game comes from choice. Do I want to play into his joke or tease him about how lame it is? Should I share my food with her, or eat it in front of her? And what does that mean for our relationship from then on? How do they perceive me and what does that change about how we interact with each other? I know it can be tempting to mainline what you think are the “best” or “most interesting” parts of the story, but fight that urge. The best part of the experience is knowing that you had control over it. Don’t rob the player of that.
All that said, I’ll never forget the first time I cried writing a game.
It was late at night during the final stages of Episode 3 and I was finishing up a scene where a character who means a lot to me opens up about a heartbreaking moment in their past. They’re vulnerable in a way that they haven’t been in a long time. And what made this particularly special was knowing that not every player would see it. Only the ones who had earned this person’s trust.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, the best way to write a Telltale game is to just… Do it. Be fearless, be genuine, and be open to all of the roads a player could want to take. Share the stories of the characters buzzing around in your head. You’ll be surprised how many people are excited to be a part of it. I know I was.
Mary Kenney (The Walking Dead: The Final Season, lead writer of episode 2)
A great way to start a Telltale story? Character.
The characters in a Telltale game are often the biggest factor that brings players back, and they’re the most memorable part of a Telltale story. They ground the setting, establish the stakes, and reflect on the choices the player is making.
The people around the player-character have their own lives, issues, and needs...
Every character needs to be just as nuanced as the player-character; without that depth, the entire game feels flat. People need to have beliefs they adhere to, sometimes betray, fail to keep hidden, or shout from the rooftops. Those beliefs need to influence how they view the player-character’s choices throughout the story. The goal should be to make NPCs believable; not just to make them likable.
… but the player can’t be the most boring person in the room.
I love narrative games, and I play a ton of them. Console, computer, mobile, doesn’t matter— if it’s got a good story, I’ll get hooked. But a major problem I see in a lot of narrative games, and one that often happens when there are more writers than narrative designers on a team, is the Bland Protagonist issue. That is, the player-character is the most boring person in the room.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, particularly when writing a blank-slate player-character, or one with a wide array of roleplaying rail. You want to create a character who has enough flexibility, or “blank spots,” that the player has room to roleplay and make decisions. But when all the NPCs have complex backstories, emotions, and tie-ins to the plot, it can be easy to create a player-character who is comparatively dull— so blank and uninvolved, the player is left wondering, “Wait, why am I the protagonist? Why not one of these way cooler people?” Telltale devs used several tricks to avoid this.
Give them a job! Bigby Wolf was the Sheriff. Lee was Clementine’s protector. Bruce Wayne was Batman. By giving the player-character a clear role with action behind it (investigate, protect, bat-grapple, respectively), it made sense that NPCs looked to the protagonist for leadership.
Build relationships. By surrounding the protagonist with NPCs who had opinions about them and their choices, the player-character was clearly part of and influencing the world.
Separate roleplaying rails from “critpath” personality traits. Some personality traits were chosen by the players, through dialogue and action; others were part of the protagonist’s personality and couldn’t be changed. Take Clementine in season 4 of The Walking Dead as an example: Clementine could be compassionate, fierce, or sarcastic, depending on player-choice, but she was never cruel, vindictive, or bloodthirsty. Those options weren’t offered in choice spaces, because that would’ve betrayed her character. Having those distinctions creates a stronger protagonist.
Stacey Mason (Lead on Telltale's cancelled R&D project)
As the creative lead for the R&D team at Telltale, part of my job was to explore new forms of interactive storytelling and figure out how to integrate them into the story and gameplay paradigms that Telltale fans know and love. The last project I was working on for Telltale was in pursuit of that Holy Grail of reactive storytelling: procedural narrative.
“Procedural narrative” has become something of an industry buzzword. Lots of companies think it’s the future, even if they’re not sure what it means. It’s used to refer to lots of different storytelling paradigms, and often two people claiming to work in procedural narrative will actually mean very different things. How someone conceptualizes what procedural narrative means will naturally have a great impact on the kinds of stories they’re able to tell with it. I tend to think of it like this:
All interactive narrative is comprised of units of content and some way to get from one unit to the next. We can think of interactive narrative as a spectrum: on one end, we have more “authored” narrative, in which an author has specified how the player will transition from one bit of content to the next. But as we turn those decisions over to a computer to decide what the player sees next, the work becomes “more procedural”, that is, the story is increasingly a result of the system’s rules (procedures) and less a result of the author’s direct influence.
In practice, as work becomes more procedural, we need to give the computer more rules to ensure that the things it selects produce something coherent or dramatic or emotionally impactful. As a creator, you start to think of your story less as THE (one, true) story and more as a system of rules that produce the kind of story you want. At Telltale, a lot of my job was training writers and designers who were used to thinking of stories in lines or branches to think of them instead as LEGOs.
Writers will already be familiar with some of the ways we do this. We might know that we need, for example, a dramatic climax between our protagonist and our villain. So maybe we have bag of “dramatic climax” scenes, which we can think of as interchangeable LEGOs. In a procedural system, rather than trying to come up with the best climax, we would instead write a bunch of dramatic climax scenes, specify the conditions under which the system should select this one over that one--select a skyscraper scene if our player has indicated the PC is afraid of heights, select a bombing scene if the player saw bomb foreshadowing in scene 2--and let the system decide which scene is the most impactful one to choose for a given scenario. Thus our story is built from grabbing scenes out of a bag, and assembled like LEGOs coming together to make a whole.
The real trick becomes doing this in a way that scales without our authors having to hand-write 50 dramatic climax scenes. So then, what if our climax LEGO could itself be made up of different pieces? Let’s think about how we write this. Suppose we write a confrontation with our villain. As an opening line, our confident villain says something like:
VILLAIN: Ha! I knew you’d turn up! Don’t even try to stop me!
But wouldn’t it be cool if our villain weren’t necessarily confident? Maybe we don’t even know who the villain is! As a writer we want to break the line into what narrative purpose it’s serving. So we could also look at this line as:
VILLAIN: [ Expression of key character trait ] [ Implicit threat ]
An unsure villain might express that character trait differently. Maybe an unsure villain might react with fear at seeing the player character. Maybe their call to action would be different.
UNSURE VILLAIN: [(hands shaking) Please! Don’t come any closer.][ I’ll do it, I swear.]
Now rather than writing our LEGOs at the scene level, we’re thinking of them at the line or sentence level. We could abstract this further and combine these two legos into the more abstract [opening beat]. We could even write the whole scene abstracted to the function each line serves, while filling in the actual content of those beats with LEGOs based character traits, flags set by things the player did earlier, or other things about the world state. Our climax scene might now look like:
VILLAIN: [opening beat]
SIDEKICK: [witty quip]
VILLAIN: [reveals unknown aspect of the plan]
[Imminent threat demonstrates urgency]
SIDEKICK: [offers context-specific clue]
VILLAIN: [calls player to action]
We can continue to make our LEGOs as small as we want them to be, and each of these LEGOs might itself be made up of several LEGOs. In general, the smaller your LEGOs become, the more variation you get out of the narrative, but the more rules you have to put in place to smooth things over so that everything comes out coherently. It’s a very different way of writing than thinking in branching.
The upside is that with the right balance of LEGO size, number of variations, and variations that can only be specific to certain conditions, we can really get narrative magic--scenes feel incredibly tailored to choices the player has made, and choices really, deeply matter to the way the narrative is constructed on nearly every level.
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