In light of the recent Telltale layoffs, I have been thinking a lot about my history with this company. My third post ever for my little IGN-based WordPress blog, I decided to write a quick thing about the game I was really into at the time. Little did I know that this piece would end up being featured on the front page of IGN, and it was what really kept me going as a writer even 5 years later. However, IGN Blogs have been shut down, and I managed to recover this piece and subsequently see just how much I’ve evolved as a writer since those high school days. I really wanted to edit all of its little flaws, but instead I wrote a new piece quickly looking at episodic releases in the modern day that you can find here when you finish this one. So, in all of its unedited glory, is this very old piece.
Why Story Matters is a series of analyses of plot lines and storytelling devices in video games, and why they stand out, are effective compared to other experiences, and how they may have influenced gaming as a whole. This series may contain both minor and major spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
Telltale Games has come into the limelight in the last two years through the massive success of their adaptations of The Walking Dead comics, and more recently, the Fables comics (The Wolf Among Us). Before The Walking Dead Season 1, Telltale was known for their ambitious ideas that were bogged down by massive technical issues and lackluster storytelling. But they changed that when they got the chance to make a game based on The Walking Dead. Telltale crafted a masterful and dramatic story with characters we cared about, and with the recent release of Season 2 Episode 3 (which blew me out of the water), instead of the obvious multiple paths, I decided to talk about Telltale’s strategy of releasing games episodically.
Telltale is known for making huge IPs into adventure games. They’ve worked on properties ranging from Jurassic Park to Back to the Future. What they’ve done with each game is they’ve crafted their games one part at a time, for a total of five parts, instead of making players wait for the game to come out. Telltale’s strategy is to complete a fifth of the game and release it to the public so that they anxiously anticipate the next episode, and have time to spread the word about the game and discuss it with friends. It’s a genuinely solid idea.
The problem a creator has however, is that each episode must play as if it was its own game, with its own plot twists, experiences, and tense conclusion. The games must still tie together, but you can’t just cut the game into 5 parts at random points. Each episode must be crafted into a single overarching theme and plot that is there from the start. Back to the Future and Jurassic Park both suffered from, besides technical issues, a lackluster story. The characters did not mean anything to the player, and the stories did not take nearly as big of leaps as The Walking Dead did. They didn’t feel significant. The Walking Dead allowed Telltale to work in a popular world and setting, but craft their own characters how they wanted, and that’s what was needed. Their creative juices flowed as they were given the chance to craft interesting people whom the player wanted to keep alive.
This leads into every choice becoming a tense internal argument. Will this keep this person alive? Will that make them angry at me? Do I want to piss them off at this point in time? We genuinely cared for Lee and Clem. Every death was painful. The split-up season let the creators focus on making each episode feel distinct and meaningful. They could make sure everything had a purpose and the player felt involved. The short bursts also keep a player interested. All too many times, I’ll buy a game only to put it down because it didn’t hook me long enough. Two hours episodes are manageable if done well. And to the gamer who is not easily distracted, purchasing the full season when it’s all out gives them around 10 hours to enjoy.
Telltale’s genius strategy has its flaws, however. Even with recaps before each episode, it’s hard to remember the last few episodes without watching or reading summaries. The waits are also agonizing and sometimes make people lose interest given how long they can be (3 months is the average). And then the obvious technical issues with framerate and glitches which always seem to stay around in every Telltale game. But otherwise, The Walking Dead games are masterfully crafted pieces of art that should be experienced by fans of good storytelling, The Walking Dead show or comics, or even just adventure games in general. The Wolf Among Us takes the same tense and creative route as The Walking Dead and it is also worth a look. The episodic release schedule that Telltale follows is a great move on their part, and would be a welcome addition to other games as well.