Kevin Bruner, the Co-Founder/CTO/Executive Producer at Telltale Games, kicked off the 2012-13 academic year with our first IFOG: Speaker Series talk of the Fall! A veteran of LucasArts, Kevin founded Telltale Games in 2004, and has worked on games such as Sam & Max, Monkey Island, Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People, Wallace & Gromit, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and most recently - The Walking Dead.
Traditional video games tend focus on physical simulations, mental challenges, skills and repetition, points/badges/scores, and the mantra of "easy to learn, hard to master." Film, TV, and Books are conversely narrative and character driven, emotional, escapist, and reflect/project social scenarios. Telltale asked themselves, "How do we modernize the genre, and how do we make stories truly interactive?" without simply making a mash-up. As Kevin points out, the failing of James Bond games to portray the character as anything other than "James Bond - Mass Murderer" is a good example of how putting video game elements into a narrative does NOT equal interactive entertainment! Interactive entertainment should involve strong characters, strong episodic narrative, strong role playing, and interaction that stems from meaningful player agency.
Kevin's experience in various games shows how successes and steps back have all contributed to where he and Telltale are today. Comedy Poker was a good example of how it is difficult to break into an already existing market with a unique idea, but also showed that a player's game mechanic brain and entertainment-focused brain can run parallel and on different tasks. The dinner sequence in Bone (also worked on by UCSC Alum and current Lecturer and Researcher Heather Logas!) showed that a meandering, conversational experience completely devoid of goals or challenges can be both enjoyable and a meaningful integration into a game. Other lessons learned include working with expectations for preformed audiences (Strong Bad) and experiments with great narrative but not enough agency (Jurassic Park).
All these experiences have led up to Telltale's stellar success with The Walking Dead. The game is far more about people than zombies, as it is narrative driven and completely dependent on the player's sensitivity to violence. The game presents no-win conditions and choices (and as Keven states, the same things you'd do in GTA and be giddy about are now intense decisions given some narrative context). The Walking Dead doesn't invent any new game mechanics very intentionally - instead they choose to ground the player with familiar gameplay so they can put weird and interesting stuff elsewhere. Players are often confronted with no-win choices, made under duress and with time constraints, which are then recorded behind the scenes to be referred to later. Such reflection of choices is the player reward - it is deeply satisfying from a character agency standpoint. The game builds enjoyment and experience without points, achievements, or awards. The simple agency of the player becomes the reward in itself. The key is in limited and well-placed agency, as it means much less if a character can always do whatever they want. Therefore when hard choices (or lack of) are presented, the narrative makes that experience meaningful.
It's always enlightening to see the thought and experience that goes into successful games, and Kevin's insight was a great peek into The Walking Dead. Telltale Games is also hiring, including the all-important internships! www.telltalegames.com/company/jobs.