Any gamer that’s pointed, clicked, and adventured for more than two minutes in their lives has experienced the fun-crushing frustration of getting stuck. Given that Telltale Games resurrected the point & click adventure with games like Sam & Max and Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures, Telltale Creative Director Dave Grossman knows a thing or two about getting stuck. While talking with Dave at GDC 2009, I learned about his efforts in the good fight against this odious demon.
Is there anything you’d like people to know about who you are or what you do?
DG: What I do… wow. It’s hard, what I do.
Respect the writer, huh?
DG: Yeah. The writer’s job is difficult in the industry as a whole.
Writing for Telltale must be somewhat different than in the industry as a whole though, I’d imagine. What changes about the writing process for episodic gaming from other types of games? Naturally, the script has to be shorter, but more in terms like – you want players to finish each episode so that when the next one comes out, they’re not stuck on the last one and buy the new one. What special differences do you make for easy flow versus the old style of adventure games where you have to scare a cat past a piece of tape to make a fake moustache?
DG: That’s where the puzzle design meets the righting, right there. We’re making a game that is designed to have some challenge for the user, because it’s not very interesting otherwise. They need something to think about, and yet we do want them to get through it by the end of the month and not have too hard of a time. There is more coming, and we want them to get all the way to the end so the next episode makes sense. You get right down to one of the toughest things about storytelling in games which is pacing.
Normally you don’t really control the pacing when there is a player involved. They can do whatever they want to, they can get up out of their chair and go get a sandwich, and they can get stuck on stuff. That is the worst enemy, having them get stuck on stuff and get frustrated and give up. We’re always fighting the good fight against frustration. We’re not trying to specifically make things easier, but we are trying to identify the points where a player might get in to trouble and make sure all the information is there to puzzle their way through.
The machine is actually watching you play and trying to decide if nothing’s happening. If you’re just wandering around not finding anything new, and you didn’t see that lamp on the table, the game will respond and start highlighting that lamp when you walk in the room. Really, we want you to notice this lamp – go over there and get it. Characters will start piping up and slyly dropping more information in your lap. It’s kind of like The Truman Show where everyone around you is conspiring to give you a good experience and to get you from point A to point B.
So how are scripts written at Telltale? Since you guys put one of these episodes out a month I imagine there must be a creative solution in place.
DG: We actually borrowed a model from Hollywood which is the writer’s room. In the beginning, when we were doing the first Sam & Max series, it was two guys and while we were writing the script we were designing the next episode and managing the production of the one before it, and we just went completely insane.
Must be impossible to maintain a train of thought on anything too, since you’re designing this episode, then switching over to this completely different script…
DG: And I still have to do that – but I’m the only one who has to do that so it’s good. What happens now is there’s a group of guys who are designers for the season. For Wallace & Gromit there’s three guys: Andy, Joe, and Sean. Each one is taking command of an episode in turn, and we all brainstorm together, them plus me. We work out a puzzle structure for the first episode and then Andy goes off and writes the script. Then we start Joe’s episode. Andy’s now spending an hour with us a day designing Joe’s episode, but he’s spending seven hours a day writing his own episode. Then we start working on Sean’s, and by the time we’re done with that, Andy’s first episode is out and now we can start on a new one. We’ve got a rotating thing going on, and we have one of those for each of our series.
I get to pay attention to six or seven different things in the course of a day, but for most people it’s relatively sane. The writers get a little focus and each episode has the loving care of a parent going through the whole way, and a little individual character.
When I imagined Telltale and the fact that you guys make games so quickly, I imagined some sort of rotating structure where one guy would come in, you’d pow-wow for a little bit, and then he’d walk out and high-five the next guy coming in on the way out. Planning would be like, ok, we’re doing this for this episode, and this for this one, but multiple steps are done at the same time.
DG: Yeah, and it’s really great to have these guys talking to each other every day, for an hour at least. Then, that makes all kinds of great stuff possible. Like, ooo, we just got this great idea for the third episode, but you’re still making the first one, so let’s put this and this in there so that when people see it later, it matches up – even if we don’t think of it up front.
Ah! I’ve seen some of that in the games.
DG: Plus that helps them keep cohesion with the style of the game.
I’ve noticed that as far as game players go, very few of them appreciate writing – even though they can definitely tell when it’s gone wrong. Are there any underappreciated difficulties with what you do? Things that you can point out and say ‘If this happens’ or ‘If this doesn’t happen’ that means someone was doing their job, and that should be appreciated just as much as an explosion or excellent looking decapitation. Obviously players getting stuck is one…
DG: Players getting stuck is a big part of it. The challenge is this – you’re trying to tell a story, but you do not control the actions of the protagonist. The player has to do this – you have to do this in conjunction with the player, it’s a collaboration. That would be hard enough if you were sitting in the room with the audience and you could talk to them. I have to do my whole part up front. Basically what I have to do is think of everything that makes sense for you to try to do, and try and respond to it. I build this great big machine that you’re going to knock around in and hopefully I seal up all the cracks before you get there, because I don’t get the chance to do it after.
Yeah, that’s when gamers get really vicious and blast you on forums everywhere.
DG: My thing is this. I want the player to feel like they have free will, because nobody likes to be told what to do all the time. I also want them to feel like there’s the comfortable hand of fate guiding their actions. To feel like their actions have meaning in some story context. Perhaps that’s why religion’s so popular. It’s nice to think that this all means something and someone has your best interest in mind. I try to be that guy, to not be too controlling but let you feel my hand.
To be protected and guided, but not completely sheltered and oppressed.
DG: Yeah! Go! Play! Have fun! Explore!
Do you prefer the challenges of guiding people through an interactive story to normal writing for TV or movies?
DG: In a way. I’ve done some of the ordinary non-interactive screenwriting, and that is fun. It’s liberating, to not have to worry about what people might or might not do. The words on a page are all you have to worry about.
If they don’t like it they’ll just put the book down.
DG: But I will say that writing interactively is a lot more interesting. It’s not really a well-explored territory. The tropes and the paradigms we use are still being developed, so it’s kind of the wild west of writing. It’s exciting!
Oh yeah, I’m very excited to see what people come up with.
DG: Me too!
Alright, is there anything else you want players or developers to know?
DG: Uh… wow.
Yeah, very broad question. It can be like – I like bagels.
DG: I do like bagels.
Who wouldn’t like bagels?
DG: And you know, I’m missing my bagel to be here today.
DG: Well, I would encourage developers to take more stabs at episodic development. It’s a rewarding thing to do, but it’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination. To our audience, I would say buy everything we ever make!
Hopefully they will.
Our thanks go to Dave Grossman and Marketing & PR Representative Emily Morganti for talking with us. If you’re intrigued about episodic gaming, please check out Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures or Sam & Max. If you’re intrigued about Telltale Games in general, and how they can make games so damned fast, check out part 1 of our interview here.