Video games adapted from original works tend to produce ghastly results. Not The Walking Dead, Telltale Games’ episodic title based on the graphic novel series by Robert Kirkman.

In the game, you play Lee Everett (foreground) and try to stay alive while helping Clementine (behind) search for her parents.

“The game isn’t about zombies,” says Kevin Bruner, who founded Telltale with partner Dan Connors in 2004. “It’s about relationships, surviving, and all the difficult, horrible choices you have to make.”

“Our Lee is vulnerable, a kind of antihero. He’s scared a lot and he’s in an everyman horrible situation,” says Bruner.

The game blends an interactive, Choose Your Own Adventure–style narrative with a serialized structure: Five episodes with two to three hours of game play were released about a month and a half apart, starting in April 2012.

The episodic model presented its own challenges. A tight production schedule was one of them. While an episode is “live,” Telltale is already at work on the next.

When episode 2 had to be redone in its entirety—in only two weeks!—Telltale hunkered down. “It was pretty traumatic,” says Bruner. “We never had the entire studio working on one project in the history of the company.”

The studio, at the time, consisted of about 125 people.

A unique feature of the new format: Telltale can track the choices players make during early episodes.

Telltale uses those data to tweak upcoming episodes for maximum impact. So far, game data from more than 2 million players have been gathered.

The series has been a critical and commercial hit, and a sequel is planned for release this fall.

70. Kevin Bruner

President, CTO, Telltale Games

The Zombie Torchbearer

Kevin Bruner’s game version of zombie thriller The Walking Dead rolled out last year in five installments. Telltale has tallied more than 8.5 million downloaded episodes, thanks in large part to story elements that evolved based on data it compiled about player choices. Bruner’s tenets for narrative development:

Make decisions difficult: Bruner didn’t want characters in the game to be obviously good or bad. “Occasionally we would see choices land all on one side, so we would make things more nebulous,” he says.

Write for any plausible scenario: Oh, no—you stranded a fellow traveler on the road with roving packs of zombies! Ack—how do you captain this train!? “When people are really role-playing, they buy into the stories and characters,” says Bruner.

Let gamers compare zombie notes: At the end of each episode, Telltale shows players a statistical breakdown of how their choices stacked up. Were you crazy enough to cut off your arm to stave off infection from a zombie bite? So were 71% of all players. The results inspire repeat play-throughs.

[Images Courtesy of Telltale Games]

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