Talk the Walk: The Walking Dead Universe became a Google Voice Action
How Breeder and Josephmark created Google’s latest interactive voice narrative game
With a phenomenal 11 season run, the enduring empire that is the The Walking Dead franchise proves that indeed, zombies are very hard to kill. After over a decade of gracing our screens with post-apocalyptic zombie horror, The Walking Dead’s series finale premiered February 20th on AMC+. Following the acclaimed series finale, we interviewed the team who brought this zombified world across to the emerging frontier of Google Voice.
There’s a lot of pressure when you take a pop-culture juggernaut like The Walking Dead franchise, add on a rabid fan-base who’ve been watching from day one, and bring their story into an entirely new realm. But Breeder and Josephmark knew they were up to the challenge, with an acclaimed repertoire in expanding high-value IP like Jurassic World, The Expanse, and True Detective into new formats of storytelling.
In a mammoth undertaking between production partners AMC, Folklore, Xandra, TalkVia, together Breeder and Josephmark led the creation of a Google Voice Action experience that would test and tease the boundaries of voice as a promising new platform for interactive storytelling.
The Walking Dead–Pathways is an original scripted interactive Google Action that places you in the middle of The Walking Dead Universe with an entirely new story and new characters. It’s up to you to pick a team from a small group of outsiders, and make the right decisions as their leader on a mission to help the main settlement at Alexandria. If you succeed, you gain entry to the settlement. If you fail, things can go very wrong. Like, overrun by walkers kinda wrong…
The experience is story-driven and uses game mechanics to ensure the combination of choices within each scenario were truly consequential. Conversation design, audio design, and visual design were all treated as equal and integral to the way the audience experiences the story. The team wanted Pathways to be a natural extension of the franchise and for players to feel fully immersed in the experience.
We sat down with Breeder, the key creatives behind the project’s development, to hear just what goes into giving a voice to the undead.
Designing interactive stories is complex enough without the added layer of voice. How did you go about structuring a narrative gameplay in this unfolding format?
In order to deliver an experience that would meet the expectations of this audience, we recognized there was just going to be a certain amount of work that had to be done. That’s why we progressed with 6 whole different storylines– which for this format is a lot! It felt like we needed more meat on the bones, more choices that would have impacts on the actual narrative endings, as well as the ability to rediscover the same locations.
Without getting too detailed, we used a diamond structure so effectively the players would have a choice of one of two things. There’s six fully unique storylines there, and I mean fully unique, there’s nothing repeated between the six, so players can repeat the game again and again for new outcomes. Depending on what choices you make, you get a different ending. It’s oftentimes situations where you think you’re making a good moral choice but that might end up leading to a negative ending. So it’s very ambiguous. We liked playing with this bitter-sweet tension between pragmatic and moralistic choices, which feels very on-brand to The Walking Dead Universe.
The experience is also completely different depending on what characters you chose, because they all have different relationships between one another. Early on in the game you get the choice of these three people; you pick two to take with you, and their interactions then change the gameplay. We were trying to echo the importance and weight of character relationships from the show: it’s so much more than just killing zombies, it’s about who likes who, and who’s dealing with who, and in what ways. Sometimes our characters bicker rather than work together, and all of that has a knock-on effect in the unfolding story. We deep-dived into the narrative structures and it made for a really strong creative in the end.
How’d you find working with the storyworld of The Walking Dead?
One of the fun but equally challenging things with working with an IP this large is that the Walking Dead is such an expansive show. They have two spin-off series, webisodes, games, and all of those have their own plans for what’s going to happen next. So at some point you run out of new contexts that zombies and humans can interact within. We’d be like “What about this…” and someone would pop up with “Oh no, we can’t do that because of this episode arc”, and so then we’d come back with “Well, what about this…” and we’d hear, “No, we’ve got a version like that already out there: come up with something new!” So that was an entertaining challenge to try and find something that was undone in the massive, intersecting narrative streams of The Walking Dead universe. We’re really proud to have created something completely unique.
How was working with a voice format?
It actually reminds me of long car trips when I was a kid, and Mum would put the story tapes in, and it feels like someone’s talking to you and reading you a story. With this, you just get to have more active-play in terms of a choose your own adventure story; it’s like an interactive radio play.
We had to tell the stories in a way that sounds like the main character, the narrator, has enrolled the player as herself. So we used second-person POV (the player is ‘You’) and active present tense, and mastered the audio as a kind of internal monologue separate to the environment the character was in.At the same time, interacting with the other characters around her is much simpler dialogue — and mastered to sound diegetic (in-environment). It was a peculiar needle to thread, but it felt like having the player be an actual person in the world would be the most engaging mode. We mock recorded the entire script just by ourselves before bringing in professional voice actors. We used those dummy VOs in the prototype system so we could start hearing what it sounded like: there was a lot of internal trial-and-error in trying to figure it all out.
We can’t get this far without calling out Folklore; they’re the team who did all the sound design. With this being a voice app, they were our unsung superheroes. We did the writing and recording, and then threw our files to them saying “Please just make this good!”. And they did. It’s an incredible amount of work to edit together 600 pages of dialogue, editing audio line-by-line, plus all the beautiful sound design. They were amazing humans about it all. It was really fun working with such a collaborative team on this one. It was a massive undertaking… voice performance recordings, reading through scripts, checking off audio files, consolidating feedback. We’re just so excited to finally have it out in the world.
And the final touches of illustrations?
The Google Nest Home has the distinct feature of a screen, and so with Google as our partners, we were eager to work with an illustrator to leverage this additional layer for storytelling. For the creative direction, we gravitated towards an illustrative style that was both grungy and textural in aesthetic yet soft enough to compliment the atmospheric and eerie feeling of the sound design. We were also able to bring the illustrations to life by adding subtle animations, although with interactive stories you’re dealing with so many possible pathways, we needed to be able to customise a whole set of ranging emotions. We worked on a big plan of all the emotions we would need to react to the different outcomes and responses, and we worked out that if we added a single extra emotion, that would be like another 30 illustrations or something like that. In this interactive format, there’s a big knock-on effect everytime we add something new, so we had to keep it really simple because there were already like 200 variations for the illustrations. The visuals are a great compliment to the voice gameplay.
Is voice the next frontier?
I think what we’ve created is an interesting demonstration of voice recognition as a way of improving player agency. Voice recognition as a gameplay technology has applications that are currently underutilised in traditional games — mainstream gaming hasn’t really bitten onto that as a useful tool of interaction; yet.
How interesting would it be if voice could be used as another way to interact with an immersive game world? Rather than just physically doing something or responding to a text box, you could verbally tell a character what you want them to do. It’d be like adding voice as another tool in your belt alongside physical interaction. I think ultimately you’d end up with a different relationship to the characters too. It’s that kind of stuff that really interests me in how this technology might be applied in more sophisticated contexts.
Any secret nods to a path we should start with?
I’d recommend going with Tamiki and Tyler for the Operations Centre storyline. That one should leave its mark!
The Walking Dead Pathways is available to play on Google Nest Hub and your Google Assistant app by saying, “Hey Google, talk to the Walking Dead Pathways.”
Behind-the-scenes case study of making Pathways Google Action.
Executive Producer: Google in association w AMC | Executive Producer: Zach Johnson | Producer: Stephanie Walsh, Val Moon, Blake Wassenaar | Lead Writer / Director: Dominic Crisci | Creative Director: Alex Naghavi | Writers: Craig Bentick, Richard Labrooy, Gianni Balatti-Hill | Illustrator: Darya Shnykina | Motion Director: Dan Rice | Additional Motion Design: Ryan McShane | Audio Production: Folklore | Production: Josephmark, Breeder | Voice App Development and QA: Bryce Woods, Paige Harkness, DJ Tusler (TalkVia) | Voice Over Recording: California Music | Narrator: Courtney Williams, Lien: Lauren Gaw, Tyler: Kyle Gold, Tamika: Teisha Wheaton, Eugene: Cody Tesnow