The Writer's Job: If Breaking Bad Became a Game...
It's a truism that in most video games, the world is the most important character. The player spends more time interacting with the physical environment than any NPC. So world development is more important than character development. (That is a devastating sentence for most writers, by the way). Make a list of the Breaking Bad environments and ask yourself which ones the player will want to explore.
To get the conversation going, make a three-column list. In the first column, list as many show locations as you can. In column two, list seminal show events that happened there -- like Jesse's basement, where Walt killed his first victim, or the pool where Skyler pretended to drown herself. Those are the ghosts that will come up for the player in those environments, and that creates emotional resonance. In the third column, list things the player COULD do there, based on your game mechanics. Before long you'll see which environments lend themselves to your game design -- and which ones won't.
Let's say that there's not much in the way of gameplay that could happen in the White family home. So you either limit the home events to cinematics -- which, of course, most players will skip -- or you eliminate the house altogether. But that means taking Walter White's home life out of the game equation.
How does that impact the emotional core of the experience? What do you lose? Walt's family is his justification/rationalization for all the crimes he commits. Without that, where is the moral center of your game? Maybe you shift the Walt/Skyler conflicts to phone calls that take place while the player is driving around -- but then Skyler is reduced to the nagging wife, a stock character the player will most likely ignore.
That's not to say that you should shoehorn in Walt's house for story reasons. But recognizing what you're sacrificing, early in the process, will help you to make smart creative decisions during the chaotic crunch of production.
Some locations, like Los Pollos Hermanos, are tied to specific seasons. Which brings us to the next question...
Where does your game take place, in relation to the show's timeline? This question matters more than it does for most TV shows, for a simple reason -- Walt changes. This is unusual for a TV show, which is a medium that usually showcases character depth over character change. To illustrate the point, watch the first and last episode of The Sopranos. Has Tony changed? Well, he's gained a lot of weight. But otherwise, he's the same guy he always was. He never overcame his core problems, despite all that expensive therapy. The difference is in us, the audience -- we know a lot more about Tony in the end.
In his pitch for Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan promised to take Walter White from Mr. Chips to Scarface. In other words, Walt goes from good guy to bad guy -- from protagonist to antagonist. At this point in the series, a lot of viewers have turned against Walt -- even though they still love the show.
So which Walt will you deliver to the player? The family man, facing his mortality? Or the Walt of today, Heisenberg -- the Tony Montana of Albuquerque? Walt as hero, or Walt as villain?
One way to answer that question is to decide what kind of a relationship you want your player to have with Walt. Enemy? Friend? Sad sack? Cipher? That relationship will help define the emotional resonance of your game.
Finally, how do you connect with the material? Bring your own passions to the project in order to find the story you want to tell or the experience you want to create. In a recent kickoff meeting I attended, the lead designer drew on his experiences growing up in the UK, listening to American hip-hop. That music changed his ideas about what life was like in America. Those memories fed right into his game design and brought it to life.
Your willingness to commit -- and to reveal yourself -- can have a ripple effect throughout the team. In a recent interview, Vince Gilligan said, "It does seem to me wisest to not be too much of a quote unquote 'auteur,' but to let these wonderful directors, these actors, these writers and our wonderful director of photography and our production designer, all have their enthusiasm for the show to give their all to it."
Your Final Conclusion
At the beginning of this article, I showed my hand and told you that I thought a console game based on Breaking Bad was a terrible idea. When I ran through this analysis myself, I concluded that the losses outweighed the gains.
But to be honest, I'd love for you to prove me wrong -- because I am really going to miss this show.