On the heels of its critically acclaimed Walking Dead game series, Telltale Games is now taking on another Hollywood property and adapting it into an interactive experience: HBO’s Game of Thrones. The first title will be released in 2014. The news has incited much buzz in the games world, given Telltale’s track record of borrowing the best from TV—focusing on characters and strong story lines, and even releasing games in episodes—in order to create an immersive experience that goes far beyond your typical shoot-em-up adrenaline rush.
Telltale is proving to be something of an anomaly in the games industry, where there are far more disaster stories than successes when it comes to adapting TV shows and movies—for every Harry Potter there a dozen misfires like The Matrix. One of the biggest problems is bringing Hollywood creatives together with video game designers and uniting them in a single vision. As Evan Hirsch, founder of Engine Co. 4, a games consulting company, explains: "When the linear guys come over to interactive, they think it’s all about story. Well, the truth is, story matters. But in games, it’s not about their story, it’s about the user’s story. And that’s why the whole transmedia world is littered with dead bodies. That’s why very few movies get adapted into games."
But with its dogged focus on storytelling, and its collaborative work relationship with Hollywood, Telltale is proving that entertainment and interactivity can, indeed, co-exist. We recently spoke with Telltale CEO Dan Connors about the company’s game development strategy, and how it would like to eventually take on a variety of genres—yes, there may even be a Good Wife game down the line.
Here are his four golden rules for creating games that are every bit as engaging and emotionally wrenching as a TV show.
I think what Telltale is able to do is to create an experience where it’s all about the storytelling. Once the conversation becomes about storytelling and injecting interactivity into storytelling, then you get the best of both worlds. Then people in Hollywood are excited about, 'How do I add interactivity into my product? How do I make great stories?'
When we meet with a creative, we come in with the utmost respect for what they’re trying to accomplish as storytellers and people who have created great stories. We try to figure out how to capture that experience for people that love their franchise in a brand new way. That brings us to a point where the player is immersed in a world on a new level that can’t be achieved in traditional entertainment, but can only be achieved in interactive entertainment."
We’ll engage writers from Hollywood. Our tools are built in a way to execute writing and execute cinematography in a way that’s very consistent with what someone from Hollywood would expect. Then our experts come in and help them on the interactive side. (The collaboration) helps bring our people and our team up to speed on important things about the language of visual storytelling. At the same time, we’ll enable writers and people from Hollywood with that experience to create content that can be interactive.
With The Walking Dead, we worked with the screenwriter Gary Whitta, who did The Book of Eli. He came on site and worked with Telltale on scripts and story beats with us. Then Robert Kirkman (the creator of The Walking Dead) was more overseeing it and approving the direction, the art direction and the emotion.
If Robert Kirkman has a big smile on his face after playing one of our episodes, we know it’s going to succeed because we know we’ve executed something that Walking Dead fans are gonna love.
I think we’re most proud of the fact that people make an emotional connection with the world we’ve created. People care about the characters in the world, they really want to see them again the next month. So we’ve created characters and interactive characters—we call them NPC’s, or non-player characters—that are compelling enough that when people see them and have a conversation with them, it means something to them. We always say, we’ll be successful with Telltale if people see a character in their world and would rather not shoot them.
So the fact that Walking Dead creates characters in a world that players care about so much that they’ll cry when something happens to them, I think that really pushes the boundaries of what games can do.
We believe we’re going to continue to evolve the craft of interactivity—make it richer, deeper, and create more experiences. So a franchise about politics would have a more political feel. A fantasy franchise would have more mystery. And if it’s about the apocalypse, that’s yet another feel. So we could use the same interactive tools that we used on Walking Dead on something like The Good Wife. Obviously, they would feel completely different, (but) it would be something that the players wanted to feel that they had control over. That they could be part of and participate in—that’s the key thing.
As the audience evolves, and more and more people are exposed to what we do as interactive storytellers, it is going to be something where people—everybody, all different demos—are going to want to experience this. Because it’s a new way to do it, it’s not just about shooting. It’s not just about jumping. It’s not about blowing up my bros and telling them to go "F" themselves. It’s a real immersion experience inside the world that I love.