Interviews

Telltale Games Co-Founder And Former CEO Dan Connors Talks “Walking Dead”, The Future Of Interactive Storytelling Games | Game Developer Interview

Recently, Telltale Games made a series of exciting announcements on social media. For one, the revitalized titan in the interactive storytelling subgenre will be exploring the “Expanse” series soon. Additionally, the long awaited sequel to “The Wolf Among Us” didn’t receive an official update, though the company did state news on the sequel would be coming forth “very soon.”

I was able to speak with the former CEO and co-founder of Telltale Games, Dan Connors, who spoke about the company itself, touched base on a few specific strategies the company used to write one of their most popular franchises (“The Walking Dead”), and talked about the interactive story subgenre as a whole. Here’s how it went:

Andrew Baillargeon: When you and a select few others founded Telltale in 2004, what were your original goals for the company? Do you feel as though you managed to meet them?

Dan Connors: When we were founded in 2004, Telltale was really positioned to do three things. For one, take advantage of digital distribution as a way to own our own publishing and transfer content from retail markets to digital markets. Our idea was to deliver content not as a huge experience, but with multiple installments as an episodic model. Finally, we wanted to change what was possible from a narrative standpoint with games. We felt the story was often lost or made no sense in games as they made it more about the mechanics. We tried to help people who liked the story, keeping people coming back for more. I felt we met and exceeded our goals. What we did was independent publishing. It wasn’t about feeling better than action necessarily. We felt that emotional moments hit the player harder.

AB: As you know, Lee Everett from “The Walking Dead” was an incredibly memorable, influential character who left a very long lasting impact on the fans. With his backstory being so precise, with a large redemption arc, did you and Telltale games base his character off of any real-world influence?

DC: I don’t think he was based off of a real world influence. I feel like Lee’s character development was based on some personal experience of our writers to some degree. Lee’s character was designed to fit in well with Clementine’s character, and it was the two of them as a pair that was what we were thinking about. The story team worked together to really figure out his character. Lee kind of grew with Telltale Games as we figured out what was possible. The best thing about him was that he was available for the players to leave their imprint on. A lot about him was, as a character, he created a lot of thematic opportunity. The beauty in crafting Lee was that the player could empathize and root for him.

AB: For years, as I’m sure you’re aware, fans were clamoring for a return for many beloved characters, such as Lee, Carley, Doug and even Lily. It was never really made clear if these were possible, which begs the question: How far in advance did Telltale Games make story-based decisions? Did you guys always know Lily would return in Season 4 and Lee would be gone forever, or is it more of a ‘do it as we go’ arrangement?

DC: We didn’t know how much The Walking Dead would take off in Season One. The first season was where we really threw everything into it. Even at the end, when Lee dies and becomes a walker, that was a huge decision at the time. That was a pretty intense, amazing time at Telltale Games and gave a lot of anticipation for what happens next. We felt like we were producing the final episode of a huge show and we knew we were onto something. I think that, from a franchise perspective, having Lee around in Season 2 and Season 3 would’ve been easier, but from a storytelling perspective, it would have been more powerful to remove him. The first season caught us by surprise, because we weren’t as mature and didn’t know how the gameplay would work. We didn’t start figuring it out until Episode 3.

We were still figuring our stuff, and it felt like anything was a good idea and anything seemed dramatic, so we said ‘let’s do it, let’s try it.’ Season 1 was over, we had to make Season 2 with a mindset of “who’s left, where did everyone get left at the end of the season, how do we handle the next group of characters?” It presented a challenge — how do we build the whole story around and give agency to a young girl in the outbreak with all the fighting mechanics and leadership requirements that came with all the expectations of the time? For everyone else, we looked at who we had, and we built extra characters to bring them back in.

We left characters available that couldn’t come back like Kenny. I remember the scene were Clementine sees Kenny for the first time (in Season 2) and the player was given the option to give him a hug. My dream was that players would press the (button option to hug Kenny) as hard as they possibly could. It was a success for attracting emotions.

Out of all the different characters, Lily was a part of our discussions each season when we looked at who was still left. I made a pitch in Season 4 I wish we went with to bring back Lily, but have her be with her uncle, Larry’s brother, someone who would be more intimidating. Lily would have basically recouped with Larry’s brother to reinvent the experience that Larry created in Season One, when he was universally hated among the player base. I loved Larry’s interactions for how he needled the player and Lee.

AB: In Season 2, Michael Madsen makes a celebrity appearance as the voice of William Carver, a major antagonist in the game. Can you take me through the process TellTale Games underwent to gain a big name like that?

DC: Well, we had David Fennoy (voice actor for Lee Everett) win multiple awards for his performance as Lee, as him and Melissa (Hutchinson) as Clementine brought quality voice acting from Season 1. In “Back to the Future,” we had Christopher Lloyd, Michael J Fox did a part as well, and people really loved it.

Voice acting was so front and center, so dramatic in delivery and we felt voices were so critical. We felt that the process of recording a hundred death grunts (for other roles) gave them bad experiences, and so agencies told voice actors ‘hey, this is new, this is exciting, go to Telltale Games.’

We had (Scott Porter, voice actor for Luke) appear on Friday Night Lights and had Hollywood contracts already. We had (Michael Madsen) recorded last, and we had him here while everyone else was voice acting. We wanted to make Carver feel like somebody that you’d be really intimidated by. Michael Madsen had a really scruffy voice, and I thought at some points he seemed tired. When I asked him about it, I was told by him to never get a root canal in Vegas at 2 AM. He had a blast. We had our voice actors read their lines crazy, read them upset, read them with charm, read like the voice line was a response to the player. We had Carver for two episodes, and I’d say he did a good job and earned recognition for that type of bad guy.

Connors finished off by mentioning Kumail Nanjiani, who voiced Reggie in season 2

AB: Another notable name throughout Season 2 was Sarah. It was never confirmed if she definitely had a mental health condition of any particular sort, but it is widely speculated she did due to various in-game dialogues. Did Telltale Games write Sarah to have such a condition?

DC: I don’t believe we did write her to have a specific condition. (We wrote her) with the trauma of what happened with her losing her mother, growing up in the apocalypse and Carlos with his overprotective nature — whether he knew of a diagnosis and wouldn’t say, or just because he was overprotective.

(Our writing team) said they wanted to show the difference between Clementine and what she’d gone through, exposed to the apocalypse and having seen all of it with Lee showing her things and how to grow, compared to Carlos and Sarah. There were a lot of questions about how you need to get the room to trust (Clementine), why they wouldn’t trust her, along with a father with a very impressionable daughter he wanted to protect and did not even trust a 9 year old girl around. Sarah was crafted in a way that she was eventually built around by the player. I asked Pierre Shorrette, who wrote a lot of the dialogue, if there was anything specific (Sarah may have had) — and he wanted to leave it up to the player, to get them to ask what’s going on with her and why she was so hard to get along with. She could’ve been a lot of things and it wasn’t made clear.

AB: With Telltale Games seeming to come back together again, issuing updates on the sequel to the cult classic The Wolf Among Us, even though you don’t work with them anymore, where would you say the company might be five years from now?

DC: It’s hard for me to say since I don’t know the inner workings of the company. I’m happy they’re investing in The Wolf Among Us, and they’re working with friends of mine who were originally with Telltale Games. I’m happy they’re doing their trade, putting efforts into Wolf and I trust the team to handle it. Nick Herman, Dennis Lenart, Michael Choung, Pierre Shorrette are guys I trust and I’m glad they’re back at it. There are a lot of people there who care enough for Telltale Games, who care enough about the franchises, want to keep them alive and the goal, our products are still relevant with people still wanting to play them. I think Wolf will give them good momentum, they have a good basis to build from, good chance for success. I saw Expanse just signed on with them; that’s a franchise we thought about going after when we built the company. It has dramatic elements they look for at Telltale Games, and it will probably get a good start.

AB: With you having moved on to a company called Skunkape Games, which seems to have gotten off to its own fast start, what do you believe the future of interactive storytelling games is, between yourselves, Telltale Games and other producers of the subgenre like DONTNOD Entertainment?

DC: I think more companies are going to start learning how to do interactive narratives. When I think of it, the bigger picture, the user is taking actions inside the story that change the trajectory in some way, or illicit a variety of responses from characters based on the user’s choices of where they want the story to go.

When Telltale Games first did it, I felt people underestimated the work and history that went into The Walking Dead and other games, so we looked at it and said ‘we’re just going to do that.’ I feel DONTNOD figured it out and has really great things. Quantic Dream, who did Heavy Rain, they’re a company we looked at. They interestingly enough announced a Star Wars storytelling game recently. Dramatic Labs decided to do a Telltale Games spinoff with Star Trek, Kevin Bruner and other Telltale Games people are in on that. You’ve also got Telltale Games doing Expanse, which will lead to more interactive narratives being made.

(The possibility of) Virtual Reality interactive narratives is very real, they’ll be in quite a few worlds. So much about game development is asking yourself ‘how do I trigger the AI to shoot me, or do I shoot at them first?’ We wanted it to be a visceral thing to do. That doesn’t really work in Virtual Reality; I don’t want to get shot, I’d rather interact with this interesting character, have them present themselves in a more complex manner using the technology in game space.

Regarding platforms, developers take advantage of how much platforms offer from a storytelling perspective. If you have talent, a critical mass, with a platform that is offering new ways of doing it, it is going to continue growing and getting better once people find the formula.

(I believe) winter will be the winter of Virtual Reality headsets. I think it is going to be super interesting.

Stay tuned on InReview for a formal review on The Walking Dead by Telltale Games, coming soon!

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