Walking Dead: Episode 4 writer discusses romance, death, and the imminent Season Two

The Walking Dead: Episode 3

In the course of reviewing the four episodes of Telltale Games’ adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead released so far, we hope that we’ve impressed upon you all just how much we’ve enjoyed this game. Episode 1 was surprisingly excellent, Episode 2 was even better, Episode 3 soundly trumped its predecessors, and Episode 4 raised the bar even further, throwing twists and turns at players so rapidly that Twitter is still bursting with short missives from fans playfully decrying Telltale for generating so much genuine emotion via the game’s razor-sharp storytelling.

That said, there’s only so many ways we can describe how well the company has captured the dark, oppressive tone that has made Kirkman’s ongoing series such a favorite among fans of both horror, and well written, complex characters. Thus, immediately prior to the release of Episode 4, we decided to send off a list of questions to Gary Whitta, a writer who had served as something of a story supervisor on earlier episodes before scripting this latest episode himself.

Though we were stonewalled on a few of our queries — Whitta spent years as the Editor In Chief of PC Gamer magazine, so he knows a thing or two about how to diplomatically field a journalist’s questions without actually revealing any pertinent information — Whitta was surprisingly candid in his responses. Not only do we find out what goes into crafting an emotionally affecting story like that seen in The Walking Dead, we also discuss why protagonist and objectively attractive guy Lee Everett doesn’t jump into bed with every pretty lady he meets, and we get firm confirmation that Telltale plans to create a sequel to its biggest hit to date.

walking dead episode 4 writer gary whitta discusses romance death and the imminent season twoFair warning: Those of you who have yet to play The Walking Dead may want to skip over this interview. It contains spoilers for the series, and while they’re relatively minor, we urge everyone to discover this game’s plot for themselves. It’s just that good. After you’ve played through the four episodes currently available, you can come back and read the rest of this article. We promise that it’s not going anywhere.

Over the past three episodes it feels as if the tone of the game has been growing increasingly dark. That seems apt given the increasingly dark tone of the comic series it’s based on, but how far are you going to take this? How terrible are things going to get for Lee and Clem? It’s probably too late to hope for a happy ending here, huh?

If you’re familiar with The Walking Dead comics you probably already know that happy endings aren’t really part of Robert Kirkman’s tonal palette. It’s a bleak, bleak world. Having said that, I don’t think the way to stay true to Robert’s vision is to be relentlessly grim all the time. That’s one-note storytelling and I think it would become old quite quickly. Even the darkest stories have occasional moments of humor, and certainly in Episode 4 I tried to do some things that would give the audience the opportunity to exhale a little bit and actually have some fun. It’s probably the biggest episode so far in terms of action and old-fashioned crowd-pleasing moments. But even then we’re always conscious of staying inside the overall tonal parameters that Robert has defined and in that sense, yes, anyone hoping for a traditional Hollywood-style happy ending should probably adjust their expectations. That’s just not how The Walking Dead does things, in any medium.

Episode 3, despite being darker than its predecessors, seemed to feature more blatantly humorous moments than we’d seen previously. Was that an attempt to alleviate the emotional impact this “darker” episode might have on players?

As I said, you can’t tell a story within just one single tone. The best stories can make you both laugh and cry, often close together, and we do try to pull off that kind of thing with The Walking Dead

For that matter, are there any moments where either you or your colleagues at Telltale worry that you’ve crossed over into territory that is too dark?

No, quite the opposite. In our early story-breaking sessions — and ever since then — we’ve always embraced the darker ideas. Any time we might initially worry if a certain idea or moment might be going too far because it made us uncomfortable, we quickly realized that that meant we had to do it!

Having said that, again it’s not just about trying to come up with the darkest, most punishing stuff possible — that would quickly become boring and cynical. We’re looking for the most interesting ideas within the tone of the series. We’re always asking ourselves, “What Would Kirkman Do?”, and in that regard, based on Robert’s own feedback, I think we’ve been pretty faithful to his vision.

You’re racking up a pretty impressive body count during the course of this series, but have you regretted any of the deaths you’ve written because you’d grown so fond of a certain character?

There’s an old saying in writing — you have to kill your babies. In The Walking Dead we long ago made peace with the notion that we can’t have any sacred cows; characters that we would never consider killing just because the audience or we ourselves might be very fond of them. One of the great things about working with an original cast of characters rather than the same ones from the comics is that we have complete freedom to kill anyone, whenever we think it’s appropriate for the story, and that keeps the audience on its toes!

Is Clem ever going to see her parents again?walking dead episode 4 writer gary whitta discusses romance death and the imminent season two twdinterview1

Episodes 4 and 5 of The Walking Dead will be available on PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, Amazon, Gamespot, Gamefly and the App Store at a very reasonable price!

It’s refreshing to see a game where a male lead interacts with multiple lead female characters without the whole situation immediately devolving into some kind of forced romance minigame. Was that intentional, or are you just waiting for Episode 5 to reveal who Lee falls for?

I’ve never really thought of The Walking Dead as the kind of world where romance blooms easily. These people are too busy trying to survive to worry about falling in love. So romance hasn’t been a strong element of Season One so far — although certainly we’ve hinted at it — but who knows what the future might hold?

We’ve seen characters from the comics in the game already, but it’s been a while since any familiar faces have popped up. Will the remaining two episodes feature any characters from the comic (or the TV show)?

We’ve had discussions among ourselves and with Robert Kirkman about what the opportunities for involving other characters from the comics might be. We have some interesting ideas but nothing is set in stone yet.

I’ve always been impressed at how well you avoid clinging to stereotypes with the game’s characters. It would be easy to simply assign the expected character traits to each person, but the story is improved massively by the realistic complexity of each individual in the game. What would you say is the key to writing human beings in an outlandish situation that still seem like real people you might encounter in your daily life?

I think it’s just remembering that they remain real, everyday people, just put in an impossible situation. The key to writing The Walking Dead is knowing that you’re writing a human drama first and a zombie apocalypse story second. It’s not about the zombies; they’re just there to amplify the human drama.

Is there anything you’ve written for the game that, given the chance to do it again, you’d write differently?

Maybe here and there, but that’s always the case. I’m never completely satisfied with anything I’ve written.

How does the game’s ability to tailor its experience to a player’s choices change your job as a writer?

It makes it much more complex and challenging, but much more satisfying too. Writing a fluid narrative that the audience can redirect can be a terribly difficult and sometimes migraine-inducing balancing act, but it’s great when it really works well and you see players comparing notes on an episode they just played, and even though they technically played the same episode they’ve actually had very different experiences based on the choices they made.

How much input does Robert Kirkman have on what you write for the game? For that matter, has he played the game? As far as I know the man is a fan of video games, so it would seem likely that he’d want to have some involvement in the project.walking dead episode 4 writer gary whitta discusses romance death and the imminent season two twdinterview2

Robert has been a guiding influence from the beginning and approved the overall creative direction but he’s been very hands-off beyond that because he trusts us. He’s been playing the games and has been incredibly complimentary of the work we’ve been doing; I think he’s genuinely proud of this iteration of his universe, as much as the comics or the TV series.

How do you feel this game’s episodic nature has affected its success? Would being a full, retail boxed release have changed how the game has been received?

I think the episodic model has really worked for us. The Walking Dead has always been episodic. The comics are episodic, the TV series is episodic, and now the game is too. It’s the best way to do this kind of long-form, ongoing storytelling. And it’s great to be able to end an episode on a cliffhanger and have the audience discuss where the story might go from here while they wait for the next episode. Having said that it’s also fun to “marathon” a TV series, and I think people will definitely enjoy playing the whole season of the Walking Dead game back-to-back once the boxed version is released.

In total, how many separate paths are there through The Walking Dead?

I have no idea; it gives me a headache just thinking about it. 

How long is the full script for a single episode of The Walking Dead?

Episode 4 was about 250 pages, so about the equivalent of two feature-length films.

Assuming The Walking Dead is as much of a finacial success as it has been with critics, what are the odds that we might see a Walking Dead Season 2 from you guys at some point in the future?

Season Two is definitely happening; it’s a matter of when, not if.

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