Gary Whitta on The Walking Dead: ‘I don’t think of it as a zombie story, I think of it as a human drama’

We talk to Walking Dead writer Gary Whitta on penning Episode 4 of the zombie thriller.
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The Walking Dead videogame series has been going to strength to strength as its formula of classic point-and-click adventure, so brilliantly combined with a smart narrative and decision repercussion system, entices and beguiles players the world over. But what is it like to script, we ask Gary Whitta, who is currently working on the fourth episode of Telltale Games’ zombie drama.

Q: With the appearances of Glenn and Hershel Greene in The Walking Dead videogame, fans were able to experience their backstory for the first time, providing a concrete link with the comics – are there any more plans to involve familiar characters in the game?

Gary Whitta: People seemed to really respond to the characters from the comics that crossed over into the game so I think that’s something we’ll definitely want to continue to do whenever it’s appropriate to the story. It’s easy to be seduced into overdoing that kind of thing and it can come across as a gimmick or simple fan service; we’re more interested in doing whatever best serves the story.

Q: One of the things that struck me about The Walking Dead was the closeness of the art style to that of the comics – did the team consult with Tony Moore or Charlie Adlard on the style and characters of the videogame adaptation?

GW: I don’t know if we ever consulted with them directly but I can tell you that the comics are all over the office and they definitely served as a kind of visual touchstone for the game. One of my favorite things about the game is the visual style which really looks like an animated comic book.

Q: How do you decide which characters will live or die, is fan response to each episode taken into account, or has it been mapped since the beginning?

GW: The really big story milestones like character deaths were established early on and that’s not the sort of thing that fan reaction along the way is going to affect. But we do look very closely at the way players respond to the story as it develops and take that into consideration as we fine-tune other elements. It’s a fine line between wanting to please the audience and letting their reactions – which are often contradictory as everyone responds to and interprets things differently – cause you to second-guess your own creative instincts.

Q: The Walking Dead takes a different approach to other zombie games, focusing more on emotion, storytelling and decision-making rather than action, blood and guts. Do you think the fact that the comics have a strong fanbase allows you to make these decisions, and if you were perhaps operating independently of the franchise, on an original title, might it be harder to resist a more combat-focused approach.

GW: I think there are more than enough combat-focused zombies games out there already. WAY more than enough. That’s fun but it’s not what’s interesting to me. What attracted me to The Walking Dead first as a fan and later as a writer is the strong focus on the story. I don’t think of it as a zombie story, I think of it as a human drama that’s amplified by the constant threat the zombies project.

Q: Having adapted video games to comics in Death Jr., how does it feel now working the other way round converting source material from the comics into videogames?

GW: It’s all storytelling, the medium is secondary. I’m attracted to any opportunity to tell a good story whether it be in a comic, film, videogame, television show or novel. One of the strengths of The Walking Dead is that it has such a great dramatic foundation that it’s managed to do what so many other works of fiction have not; it’s shown that it can translate equally well into almost any medium. The comics, television show, novels and now videogame are all equally valid iterations of that fiction in their own right.

Q: With The Walking Dead reviving a much-neglected genre, the point-and-click adventure, I’d like to know if you and the team, like me, remember the golden age of LucasArts adventures and if they had any favourites from that era?

GW: Actually many Telltale employees came from LucasArts, which might explain why they’re now carrying on that legacy. And I’m so glad they are because there still isn’t enough focus on good storytelling in games and these guys are carrying that flame probably more than any other developer. I definitely grew up as a fan of those classic Lucas games like Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, and even before that with the great old Infocom text-only adventures like Zork and The Hitch-Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy.

There was actually more attention played to storytelling in those early formative days of gaming than there is today, but I think as we learn more about how to tell good stories within the unique parameters of the interactive medium it will play an increasingly dominant and interesting part in the evolution of storytelling as a whole.

Q: What was it like appearing in The Walking Dead TV show? Did your role as a walker give you a new found sympathy for the undead?

GW: That was a blast. I actually did it partly because zombies have always terrified me since I was a kid and I hoped that being in the middle of a big zombie horde might help cure me of my fear. It didn’t, but I still had an amazing time pulling Rick down off his horse and feasting on the horse’s intestines. Definitely a career highlight.

Q: In Series 2, will we be continuing on with Lee’s story, or is there a new protagonist planned?

GW: You’ll just have to wait and see!

Q: I saw on your blog that you went against the general consensus and didn’t hate the ending for Mass Effect 3. Do you think the hysteria over the ending of ME3 will affect games designers’ thoughts on what they dare to do with their game’s endings going forward?

GW: I think that was a storm in a teacup and I really hope that it doesn’t affect the way developers approach the way they tell their stories in games. Can you imagine if David Chase had second-guessed himself and re-issued a different ending to The Sopranos after people complained? That’s the road to creative ruin. You have to trust your instincts and tell the story you believe in; to do otherwise will only lead to even more homogenous, formulaic storytelling.

See our review of the The Walking Dead: Episode 3 here.