‘Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners’’ project director on the sequel, the changing face of VR and virtual reality violence

Mark Domowicz, project director for 'The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners', on the challenges of bringing a hardcore gaming experience to virtual reality

For anyone who dismissed the Meta Quest 2 (née Oculus Quest) as a novelty incapable of playing ‘real games’, The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners proved to be the perfect rebuttal — not something you necessarily expect from games burdened with a big TV licence on its shoulders.

That may be in part down to the trust that Skybound, the comic book IP holders, puts in developers Skydance Interactive to plough its own furlough, and that trust was repaid in glowing reviews across the board. Now we’re getting a sequel — the somewhat awkwardly punctuated The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners — Chapter 2: Retribution. I think we’ll just call it Saints & Sinners 2 in the interests of brevity.

“They’ve given us an area of The Walking Dead universe that we can really call our own,” Mark Domowicz, project director for the game tells me ahead of the game’s official unveiling. “Anything we want to do, they never really say ‘no’ to that. If it’s anything along the lines of ‘no,’ it’s more ‘no, but we understand what you’re trying to do, so here’s how we can bend that idea in the direction you’re going for’.”

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.

So what exactly can we expect from the follow up? Domowicz is limited in exactly what he can say right now, but he rattles off a series of items that’ll be on most fans’ shopping lists: new weapons, items, upgrades, materials, missions, characters, locations and, of course, a whole new story. “Even with the old locations, there’s ways to revisit those in ways that will feel very, very fresh,” he teases.

The trailer doesn’t give much away, devoting less than half the 1:57 running time to gameplay footage, but it certainly ends on a high for fans of ultra-violence as the protagonist known only as ‘The Tourist’ revs up a chainsaw to deal with the oncoming zombie horde.

Things are going to get messy, in other words, but that should be no surprise given the original game allowed you to put screwdrivers deep into undead eye sockets. Yes, they’re zombies, yes it’s stylized and cell-shaded cartoons: but given the intense nature of VR, how much is too much when it comes to violence? Unsurprisingly, this is something the studio has collectively thought about a lot.

“There’s a difference between hitting a button and having that chop off somebody’s head and you doing the motion that decapitates somebody,” Domowicz agrees. “And because VR is new, we don’t know what the established conventions are: the language hasn’t been set in terms of what’s acceptable and what isn’t socially in games.”

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.

The key for Domowicz was about making Saints & Sinners’ violence as intense as possible, without making it gratuitous. That means that while you can think of any number of creative ways of culling the undead, you can’t do the same to your fellow human survivors — no matter how hateful they are. “It was a weird line to have to walk: get as visceral as possible without crossing the line and making it gross or distasteful.”

That said, the team has a near-instant way of gauging feedback that the mechanics introduced in Chapter 2 haven’t lost their edge. “During development, we have these meetings where we present our progress to the stakeholders,” Domowicz explains. “Without exception, every time we show some of the new weapons we have, there are people in the room who have to cover their eyes.” Some even cover their ears, because the audio design is sufficiently squishy to make people feel squeamish.

But crucially Saints & Sinners has never been a VR violence simulator. It’s a lot more sophisticated than something like Gorn, say, because of The Walking Dead’s key lore: human nature is the real monster, not the zombies. Domowicz describes the zombies as like the weather. “You can think of them as like a thunderstorm that you’ve got to deal with,” he explains. “You can’t ignore it, but it’s not the real thing you’re worried about at any given moment. It’s the human stories, it’s the trials and tribulations that you have.”

In that sense, the discomfort of violence needn’t just be from the visible, but the emotional too. “It’s more about the concept and the human stories of being made to make tough decisions: being forced into violent situations and violent choices,” he continues.

“In a million video games you’re shooting and killing people, but does it have meaning? Are you sawing off your friend’s arm because they got bit, and they’re saying ‘please don’t do this to me, I’m fine.’ Can you do that? So I think there’s more to explore, not necessarily in the visual violence of it, but more in the context about which violence happens if that makes sense.”

Nonetheless, the tactile and weighty feel of the weaponry really brings the world to life in a way that simply shouldn’t be possible with VR controllers which are designed specifically to feel featherlight and unimposing. Was that difficult to pull off? Oh yes.

“You have no idea of the intricacy,” he laughs. “It’s all physics driven and physics is famously fiddly stuff, even in the simplest cases”, he says, noting that even static in-game objects have a tendency to wobble and fly away for no apparent reason. “Think about the player’s arms that have to handle holding something that’s heavy that itself has moving bits or itself might have weight on it,” he continues. It could be single or double handed, and it has to interact with other zombies or humans that have their own physics equations to deal with.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.

“That’s a super complicated thing and it’s got to feel good too.” It’s a testament to the game that the developers make it look so easy.

It’s hard enough pulling this off using a high-end PC with a high-end GPU and CPU, but amazingly the same equations are built into the Meta Quest 2 version. And it’s really hard to overstate what an achievement this is.

“Internally when we were talking about bringing it to Quest, we didn’t believe that it would happen,” Domowicz recalls. But “somehow, by some magic, technical wizardry and all that” the team pulled it off.

“One of the things I’m proudest of overall is the Quest version of the game, because it is so complete. You don’t have to feel like ‘oh well, I played the mobile version, but I should really go and play the PC version’ — no, you don’t don’t have to: that’s the experience.”

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.
The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners. Credit: Skydance Interactive.

It even made it on to the discontinued original Oculus Quest, albeit with a few graphical reductions, but notably the sequel announcement only mentioned Quest 2 and PCVR in the supported hardware. Is this the end of the road? “I don’t know that we formally have decided that,” he says, sounding a little unsure. “We’re only announcing the Quest 2 right now, but other platforms we’ll announce in the future.”

So it’s doable? “Anything’s doable: that’s the thing that we learned,” he responds, reminiscing on the miracle of getting the original ported. “Maybe I’m just overly confident,” he adds, but “there’s nothing in Chapter 2 that I would say ‘this is not doable’. It just hasn’t been decided.”

This is one of the many challenges of working in a young medium that’s advancing at an incredible speed. The original came out in January 2020 and had been in development for months before that, when wires and external cameras to power HTC Vive and PSVR were the order of the day.

“In a lot of ways, when we started, VR was a different space from when the product ended,” Domowicz says. Compared to the company’s first VR title — an on-rails shooter called Archangel — it’s night and day, and things that Domowicz and his team were concerned with then such as motion sickness and performance just aren’t issues any more.

As Chapter 2 of Saints & Sinners shares the same DNA as the original, the company hasn’t taken advantage of virtual reality’s move to wire-free play, but it’s something that is “definitely on our minds”, he says. Given the jump in ambition from Archangel to Saints & Sinners, we can’t wait to see what the company has in mind next, once The Tourist’s gruesome story is resolved once and for all.

The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners – Chapter 2: Retribution launches later this year for Quest 2 and PCVR, with other platforms to be announced. 

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