Talking about the Dead

Sean Vanaman, a leading designer at Telltale Games, talks to Steven Balbirnie about their adaptation of The Walking Dead, the importance of narrative, and digital distribution


Zombies are everywhere in gaming these days; whether in popular franchises like Left 4 Dead and Resident Evil, or in add-ons for titles as diverse as Red Dead Redemption and Yakuza. So what can be done in the zombie genre that hasn’t been done before? The forthcoming adaptation of The Walking Dead from Telltale Games seems to have the answer.

The Walking Dead graphic novels and television series have become a massively popular phenomenon, and it’s not hard to see why. Creator Robert Kirkman has breathed new life into a genre that risked stagnation. Kirkman’s success has been due to his focus on characters and their relationships, rather than simply action or horror, and Telltale Games’ Sean Vanaman is keen to point out that this narrative focus will be at the heart of the videogame adaptation; “I wouldn’t call this an action game. The game is really more of a narrative horror adventure. You walk around environments exploring and meeting characters, making dialogue and story choices and then reacting with your gut (instead of a gun, usually) when death is imminent. You’ll shoot zombies. You’ll axe their heads off. But the emphasis in the game is narrative experience – it’s about navigating through a character story.”

Fans should be pleased that rather than copying the storyline of Rick Grimes in the comic books, Telltale are giving their audience an entirely new story, which compliments the main series while allowing the player to explore the wider world of The Walking Dead. As Vanaman explains, “the game starts on day one of the zombie outbreak in the comic books and takes place in and around Atlanta, GA and Macon, GA. Anyone familiar with Rick’s story knows that Georgia and its surrounding rural area plays a huge role in the story, especially early on. In our game though, you’ll be playing as Lee Everett – a guy who was on his way to prison on the day of the outbreak. He struggles to survive before running into an orphaned little girl named Clementine. The two, realising they are both without families now, link up and survive together. You’ll be going through the story as him and with her, making narrative choices as the world crumbles.”

These choices form a core dynamic in the game; according to Vanaman, “choice impacts the story to varying degrees. Sometimes it determines who is in your camp for the rest of the season. Other times it’s more ambiguous and paints the picture of the type of guy you’ve chosen Lee to be.” Vanaman also states that “because Clementine is an eight-year-old girl, the choices you make in the game begin to imprint on her, which should have some drastic impacts on the end of the game.”

While the game’s focus is on Lee and Clementine, it will remain faithful to the look and feel of the comic books; the comic’s writer, Robert Kirkman, and artist, Charlie Adlard, have been involved in the design process. “Robert Kirkman has been really hands-on. He was incredibly receptive to my initial pitch of the story and has made sure the game and the writing feel like The Walking Dead. Charlie actually did the first piece of art for the game.” Vanaman reveals that players who’ve read the comic books will also recognise plenty of familiar faces in the game; “right out of the gate you’ll meet Hershel and his son Shawn (alive this time! Not trapped in the barn as a zombie as you might remember from the comics) on his farm. You’ll pair up with Glenn. And something we’re super excited about is that Lilly, a lesser-known character from the comics, is a main character in our group. If you’ve read the books and know who the Governor is, you might remember the woman who is essentially his right-hand. Well in the game, she’s part of your crew.”

The Walking Dead is also unique when compared with the rest of the zombie genre because it is a major title which will only be available via download and will be released as a series of five episodes rather than a single title. Vanaman believes that the benefits of this format and approach outweigh the challenges. “The challenges are just staying on schedule – you make a promise for the game to be out and you have to hit it. And with a game as complex as The Walking Dead it can be tricky. The benefits are huge – you get to hear the fans digest the story; you get to see what’s working and not working. We get to engage our fans on the forums and know from the moment the first episode drops if the ending we have for the season will be satisfying, and if not, we can of course correct – but I have a hunch it will be.”
Vanaman won’t be coaxed into revealing the future of the franchise, but his indications are positive, “we have nothing to announce as per the future of The Walking Dead at Telltale but I can say I’ve written a story that can support it – and that’s pretty exciting.”

The first episode of The Walking Dead will be released on XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac, Steam and iOS at the end of April. For more information on Telltale’s pre-order contest visit