There was a time where every announcement of a new Telltale game had me incredibly excited. I jumped on the train for The Walking Dead a bit late, but it meant that I could play through the whole series in a matter of days before being destroyed emotionally by its finale. Similarly, while The Wolf Among Us didn’t resonate quite as strongly, it was still a competent title with an engaging plot - well worth the time I put into it.
Then, something happened. Titles like Game of Thrones were met with far less praise than the games at the start of the “Telltale Renaissance”. Exceptions such as Tales from the Borderlands dotted the company’s release schedule, but by the time they started announcing interactive adventures based on Minecraft of all things, many fans shook their heads and simply moved on.
Recently, I had the “pleasure” of reviewing both seasons of the aforementioned Minecraft: Story Mode, as well as Telltale’s take on Guardians of the Galaxy. The games ranged in quality, but none of them managed to capture the magic of earlier titles from Telltale’s rebirth. The gameplay remained relatively unchanged, as did the visuals (minus some minor improvements in overall technical prowess), so what exactly had happened?
I think that’s the problem: nothing really changed. Telltale found a winning formula and stuck with it, allowing the reputation of the licenses they acquired to carry the games attached to them. Unfortunately, this meant that the once-incredible nature of their “choices matter” system gradually became stagnant. Not only that, but the writing seemed to take a nosedive in many instances; I frequently wondered why I wasn’t just rewatching the Guardians of the Galaxy movies instead of playing Telltale’s game for them.
In some ways, I think this speaks to a problem in the industry at large. Battle royale is the latest trend, so everyone’s jumping on board to cash in. A few years ago, it was online multiplayer and/or co-op modes, to the point where games that were once focused solely on single player felt a need to shoehorn them in to meet some fictional consumer demand. However, video games are an ever-evolving, ever-changing medium, and while you can definitely get by on duplicating a winning formula a handful of times, a lack of innovation eventually causes companies to fall behind.
This was a large part of why I was cautiously optimistic about Telltale’s layoffs a few months ago. Obviously, people losing their jobs is never good news, but from an objective standpoint, having fewer employees likely means fewer projects on the go. In turn, this gives more space for polish and innovation on the projects that are being developed, helping to ensure that each is an exciting event instead of “just another Telltale game”.
Regardless of whether this is the direction Telltale ends up going in, I am pleased to say that other companies seem to be taking strides to succeed where they’ve failed. Life is Strange has become a hugely popular title, though having not played it, I can’t really speak to how it compares gameplay-wise to Telltale’s work.
What I can discuss in more detail is the recently-released first episode of a game called The Council. I was drawn to it mainly because it appeared to be a Telltale-esque game that wasn’t developed by Telltale. It turned out that, while it does include many of the same features, The Council throws in a bunch of RPG-lite mechanics that add far more variation to each playthrough. Certain characters can resist tactics such as manipulation or intimidation, while others will be vulnerable to them - if you’ve put enough skill points in to acquire them, that is. Plus, the choices you make frequently have meaningful consequences, locking off plot threads, visually changing your character, and so on; a far cry from the “say the same thing, but in a slightly different way” approach taken by many recent Telltale games.
I want to love Telltale’s titles again. Odd as it sounds, I’d love for one of their new games to turn me into an emotional wreck like the end of The Walking Dead did. Unfortunately, if they continue down the path they’re going on, I doubt that’ll ever happen. The one thing I can take comfort in is that - even if Telltale fades into obscurity - other companies are looking to not only take their place, but to branch out and evolve the genre in new and intriguing directions. Either way, interactive, narrative-driven experiences don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon; Telltale can’t tie them down forever.