The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct
Interview with Glenn Gamble of Terminal Reality
By Bill Jones
The upcoming The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct game — licensed specifically by AMC, published by Activision and developed by Terminal Reality (Ghostbusters: The Video Game, Kinect Star Wars) — has seen its fair share of bad press. Already at the disadvantage of coming on the heels of a stellar episodic Walking Dead series based on the Image Comics property and under the cloud of an indirect comment by series creator Robert Kirkman — who called the idea of a Walking Dead FPS “pointless,” though Terminal Reality insists the game is first-person “survival,” rather than a shooter, strictly speaking — the game got some less-than-impressed reactions from fans when footage from an early version of the game was cut into a trailer that some press sites picked up as legit.
To make matters worse, despite Terminal Reality insisting that the footage is far from indicative of the final product, the studio had little else to show until the recent release of a one-minute gameplay trailer, leaving many fans wondering what to expect with the game’s Tuesday, March 19, release date looming. Still, as a Walking Dead fan, it’s hard not to be intrigued by what the game — designed as a prequel to the TV series featuring the stories of the TV-specific brothers Merle and Daryl Dixon — will hold. We chatted with Terminal Reality’s Glenn Gamble, principal FX artist and system designer, earlier this year about what it means to his team to work with the property, what surprises they discovered in the show’s bible, the unique style of the game, the Wii U’s special feature and what happened with that controversial trailer.
From what I understand, you’ve been with Terminal Reality for roughly a decade. And in the last few years, the studio has had the opportunity to work with licenses like Spy Hunter, Ghostbusters and Star Wars. What does it mean to be given titles like those, and now that you’re specifically getting your hands on The Walking Dead, what does it feel like working with a property like that?
Well, most of us are all fans of the properties we work on. I know, pretty much since I started here, everyone’s always wanted to work on an undead game of some sort. Given the chance to work on Walking Dead — we were all fans of the show, fans of the comic, and it was one of these things like, “Hey, you want to do a Walking Dead game?” — we were all just like, “OK!” There’s a lot of pressure. It’s really funny — you get so excited because you get a chance to work with something so cool, and then afterwards you’re like, “Oh, crap.” It’s so much pressure. You want to get it right. You want to get everything right. You want to make the fans happy. You want to make everyone happy. It just means you have to work 10 times harder to get it all right. So it’s very daunting, when you actually get into it, you realize that what you just agreed to. That’s what I love about this job. It keeps things challenging, and I’m always up for a good challenge.
How does your approach to Walking Dead differ from some of the other titles you’ve done recently? Obviously, it seems like you’re really switching gears going from something like Star Wars to Walking Dead…
It’s definitely a new thing because of the first-person camera, but that was a very conscious decision, because overall we wanted the game to feel more personal and like an up-close type of thing. And we’re actually doing some cool, funky stuff with the [field of vision] to really make it feel in-your-face. We’ve done a lot of third-person games, and this is one of those cases where you reach into your bag of tricks and try to figure out what conveys the most punch for the feeling you’re trying to get. The big thing we wanted the player to feel is uncomfortable and uneasy in this weird world. We never wanted you to feel safe. That’s one of the reasons we went that direction.
You mentioned that a lot of people from the studio are fans of the show and the comics…
I don’t think there’s a Daryl action figure left in Dallas at this point. We all ran out and bought the Daryl action figures.
Well, with this obviously being based on the AMC television license, does the team still look to the comics for inspiration as well? Are there things you’re allowed to pull from them, or does Terminal Reality need to keep strictly to the show?
We’re pretty much strict to the TV show, because, after all, AMC has put their name on the game. That said, we pull from the comics about as much as the TV show pulls from the comics. Everything we wanted to do and everything we did got approved by AMC. There’s a treasure trove of things you can pull from — both from the comic and the TV show — so we were at no loss for inspiration.
Is an approval process like that sort of restricting to the team? I’m assuming there are a lot of rules you have to follow…
Yeah, there is. It’s kind of interesting. We got the immediate plans, but then there’s the whole bigger plan. It’s a lot of — “Hey, can we do this?” And they’re like, “Sure.” And sometimes we go, “Hey, can we do that?” and they’re like, “Nope.” They’ve got a definite plan. Most of the stuff you’ve already seen, as far as the rules of the show, they have no problems opening up their show bible to us and letting us peruse over some of the cool rules that they have concerning the walkers — what they can and can’t do. That’s kind of laid down the groundwork for our AI. There were a few things we had ideas for, and sometimes they’re like, “No.” And then we wanted to do something with the crossbow, and they were more than happy to let us do something to tell the story of how Daryl got the crossbow. It’s weird, because you never know what it’s going to be. It’s kind of like playing Go Fish, in some regards, but it’s pretty cool. Overall, everything we’ve wanted to do, I really can’t say – anything they’ve come back with has all been minor stuff. And usually you go back to the mill and come up with a better idea when you’re done, if that makes sense.
And I would guess it has to be cool having access to that show bible and how everything works. Is there anything you learned in the development process you were just surprised by — things you might not realize as a viewer?
Yeah, this one kind of surprised me — the whole teeth scenario. We actually had a situation where some of our walkers were missing teeth, and that is apparently not a thing in the show, because they want them to be real mouthy, gnarling — you know how they flare their teeth, kind of that shark syndrome. They’re kind of like walking sharks. It’s one of those things — once you find out about the rule and you watch the show, you go, “That makes perfect sense.” But when we were designing characters, that was one of the things they came back to us and said, “Oop! They need all of their teeth.” It’s something we weren’t expecting.
Obviously, Telltale Games has just earned itself a Game of the Year recognition with its series based on the comics. Do you look at all to what they did as inspiration or possibly in a competitive way, or do you simply see these as different types of games?
When you’re a designer in the game industry, you really do look at every game possible. Even an iPhone game can inspire you to do some cool mechanic in the game. So absolutely we look at their game. And if I had a chance to shake any of their hands, I would. They really knocked it out of the park. They were really awesome with what they accomplished. The thing is, we were already knee-deep in development. We didn’t know ahead of time that they were doing something. We literally found out the same time the rest of the population did that there’s another Walking Dead game coming out. It was really cool. And as a fan of the show — I know this is kind of nerdy to say — I’m excited I could actually live in a world where there are two Walking Dead games at the same time that are completely different genres, tones, and complementary styles.
Well, speaking of the style. Beyond the first-person element, it seems like your team has been reluctant to call it a shooter. How do you define what type of game this is and what players are going to experience?
The term we’re going with is first-person survival game. FPS, over the years everybody just thinks it’s one genre, but if you think about it, Portal helped define a puzzle FPS, or a first-person puzzle game. So we want to focus in on the survival aspect. You can’t just go around running-and-gunning. The idea behind it is our enemies are the walkers. They’re not exactly the most cerebral enemy out there, and they can’t exactly go running behind a table and jumping at you like you see in other games. We watch the show, and if you remember there’s an episode in Season 2 where Rick almost gets killed by three walkers. So that immediately became our target point, where three walkers is something you should really consider not going headstrong into. You should probably try to pull one away. You should probably try to distract them and get around them. Once we came up with that really strong number, the game took on this whole new life. It’s a very difficult game. You can’t just go through firing your gun. The walkers — AI, they’re very stupid, but at the same time that doesn’t make them not challenging or not engaging. We have things in the world called human sounds. A walker will investigate anything that has the potential to be food. And once they see you, that’s like ringing the dinner bell. They’ll do a lot of things just wandering in the environment, looking for something to eat. If you break a window or shoot your gun, that’s the equivalent of, “Hey, that’s something a human may make.” So they wander over to investigate. And there’s nothing worse than breaking a window to get into a store just to find out that you pulled three walkers in to investigate the glass breaking. Now you’re hiding in the store with three walkers outside. Now you have to figure out how to get out of the store. You’ve all of a sudden created a situation for yourself. This is not something we scripted; this is just stuff that will happen based on the player’s actions in the game. Everybody seems to develop their own style of gameplay. I’m one of the guys — I only pull out my gun if there are three or four walkers in front of me. I will do everything I can to stick to my hand-to-hand weapons or distracting them. Other people, they try to go in and get every walker they can, which usually ends up badly. There are people who are getting good at it around here.
You mentioned player actions or choice. It seems like Walking Dead has always been very story-focused. Is the story in the game linear in nature, or is there a lot of open-world player choice going on?
I wouldn’t say the game is open-world. Let me give you a breakdown of a game turn. Essentially, you’re on your map. You usually get a choice. I want to go down Road A or Road B? Road A may take you to a town, and Road B may take you to a campsite. As a player, you get a choice of which direction you want to go. As you travel there, we have these random events that happen along the roadway called Road Events. And they can be anything from, “Hey, you found a barnhouse. Do you want to go and investigate?” or “Hey, the highway is blocked with cars. Do you want to spend extra gas to drive around or do you want to get out and push the cars out of the way? These are smaller, more directed levels. The idea is you’re open and more exposed in these levels. They tend to be a little faster paced and you have to be more aware of your surroundings. We want to get you in that open area. You have to be worried about the walkers seeing you, because you don’t have a lot of cover. Once you get to your location, you have more of an open level to wander around. Some are more linear; some are more open. Some of them focus a little more on action; some of them focus a little more on stealth. It just depends on the level you encounter. You may encounter these survivors in the levels, and they range the gamut of “Hey, you’re stronger than I am. Can I join your group?” to “You’ve got to prove to me you’re stronger. Can you get me something, and I’ll go with your group?” or “I’m waiting for somebody. Can you help them out?” Or there’s even events like, “If you help me out now, I may help you out later in the game.” But you don’t know that up front. A big component to The Walking Dead is that story. We’re a little more open-ended, where the players actually define what kind of story they’re having by what survivors they take with them. They can actually change events in the game based on what they’re doing.
I’m also just thinking with all the threats that you mentioned are out there — just three walkers can be an issue for you. What’s the death or failure mechanic in the game? Is it a get bit once and you’re done sort of thing?
Since it’s a prequel — when you first encounter Daryl, he’s healthy and happy — our failure state is pretty much you get torn apart and eaten by walkers. A bite is considered death in our game, because we kind of do have to line up with the start of the show.
With that in mind, as the story is a prequel to the show, is the plot you’re creating considered canon in the show’s universe, as well?
I’d like to think so, but I’m not sure. I don’t know what the magic switch is someone has to switch to make it canon…
Right. I guess I’m just wondering if things that happen in the game may pop up in the show as plot points…
I know we’ve taken a lot of our cues, a lot of the things we put in our game, [considering] Daryl’s change in Season 2. When you first encounter Daryl, he’s kind of a less savory character — him and his brother both. In Season 2, he really makes this huge character change overall and really comes into his own. He really became a fan-favorite and everything else. So we tried to address all that aspect of it. But I don’t know what officially makes the game canon. I think that would be somebody at AMC.
With the game obviously focusing on Daryl and his brother, how important was it for you to get the actors from the show on board for the voices?
It was really important. To me, it’s always icing on the cake when you can actually get the actors to reprise their roles as characters in the game. That’s always a cool thing. We wanted them from the get-go.
As an FX artist, what work did you do, specifically, on this title?
My official title is principal FX artist, so I’m pretty much responsible for most of the FX in the game. And since I completed most of my work early, I switched over to system design, helping out there and kind of polishing off combat and everything else. So I’ve kind of got a dual role here. As far as doing FX goes, it means making things squishy and bloody. When you stab a knife in a walker’s eye and you pull it out and you get that little string of blood, that’s actually my direct involvement there. It’s funny, because being a designer, I actually have this great ability of — I talk to some of my friends at other companies who are like, “Man, I’d really like to do this effect one day” — me, I can actually influence my ability to do that effect. An example is, I wanted to do some crazy explosion in the game, and I actually helped work on one of the levels in our game that actually has an explosion just so I could do the whole big propane tank exploding type of thing, throwing debris out and walker guts going everywhere. I can kind of influence the artwork I want to do sometimes by doing that. Ultimately, I boil it down to a lot of gunfire, shell ejections, any of the campfires, bugs you see in the environment. There’s a lot of subtle work you do, but there’s a lot of that in-your-face stuff as well. There’s a saying in the FX world that if you do it bad, everybody notices it, but if you do it right, nobody tends to notice.
You mentioned that Daryl and Merle will encounter some other characters. Are these all strictly original, or can fans expect some other favorites from the show to pop up near the end?
They’re all original to the game.
Obviously there were some issues with fans judging the game based on some old footage that was out there and a false trailer. Can you talk a little about how far along the game is now, what changed and when fans might actually get to see more of what’s to come?
The official answer is “soon.” It’s kind of sad that the fans are judging based on old footage, because — I don’t know if you’ve ever seen behind-the-scenes of The Lord of the Rings movies, where they might shoot several different shots over several different days. Because New Zealand’s climate is really, really cloudy one day, and really, really sunny the next, they have to do the post-processing path on everything, or color correction to get everything evened out. You do the exact same thing in the game industry. In fact, whenever we’re adding new things to an environment, we have to bake, which optimizes everything down, and then we have to do a light-map path, which is the cheap way to light. We have dynamic lights on all the cool stuff, but there’s also the lights that are always on on the set. That adds all the ambient occlusion and all the cool stuff — basically makes the lighting look real. You do it as you go, but at the same time, you tend to be more strict about it the closer you get to the end of the game. We were still working on our post-processing filter, which is one of the last things you do, to just lock everything in place and make it this big, cohesive whole. So, we were still working on the levels, still getting everything done. All things considered, a lot has to do with — whenever we capture video and stuff, we’ve got computer with the best monitors and graphics cards, or we can record right off the Xbox, which I know is not something everybody has access to. It’s one of those things when you get a copy of a copy, and you don’t know the source, you can say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Because the longer you work on a game usually benefits the visuals overall. So commenting on that — just wait. We’ve got a trailer coming, and when you see it, it will hopefully blow your socks off. We’ve had some gameplay playthroughs in the U.K. and in San Francisco recently. People who got to see those were like, “Yep, night and day difference.”
A Wii U version was announced. Can you say anything about how it’s being adapted for that platform and the unique controller it offers? Similarly, should fans expect anything with Kinect and Move on other platforms?
No. With the Wii, it was kind of one of these things of we didn’t want it to be obtrusive. We didn’t want to throw Wii U stuff in there, just for the sake of having it. Looking at what we had, we felt the backpack was a really big area. So the big difference between the PS3, 360 and the Wii U is you actually have access to your backpack at all times in the Wii U version, and because your backpack is finite, sometimes you may be in a high-stress scenario and are like, “Oh, crud. I’ve run out of backpack space. I’ve got to swap out some items.” Well, on the Wii U, you just kind of flick them out and they’re gone, or you touch the button, and then you can flick them out. Or if you want to equip something, you just tap it, versus the interface of the 360 — you actually have a button press and then you can select it from a radial menu. We just tried to streamline the menus and the UI a bit in the Wii U version.
The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct is slated to be released Tuesday, March 19, on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U and PC.