Unless you’ve been living in the middle of nowhere or just don’t know what video games are, it’s likely you’ve heard about the recent closure of renowned developer Telltale Games – especially considering that all of your social media platforms have most likely been destroyed by posts, comments and article links regarding their shutdown.
Now you may ask “What’s the big deal, why should I care?” if you haven’t really experienced any of their games. So here’s why you should:
Telltale has been a major part of the gaming industry for quite some time now; they were the studio to go to if you wanted linear story-telling games with often well written characters and an emotional narrative.
They made the kind of games you’d play on weekends that would scratch the itch to marathon your way through a physically relaxing yet emotionally intense game; there was no other way. You played an episode, and stuck with it till the end. You were confused with this emotional rollercoaster coursing through your mind and body, so you would immediately begin the next episode, just to satisfy your curiosity after that shocking plot twist threw you off. Or you back out for a couple of days, process what really happened and then go right back in, all buckled up for another ride. That’s Telltale’s games in a nutshell.
Some back-story here:
Telltale Games was originally formed by ex-LucasArts Games members (popular for their Monkey Island, Star Wars and Indiana Jones games). However the company is known as two separate “Telltales” within the gaming industry, the old one and the new one.
The older studio made point & click games with some fun puzzles thrown in, like the Sam and Max series, that boasted a little bit of comedy, some brainteasers and was overall a good ol’ wholesome game series. The point & click genre worked wonders for them so they tried their hand at some more games which gained average to above average success. This describes “old” Telltale in about 4-5 lines. Furthermore, they also made a card game featuring the Heavy from Team Fortress 2, called “Poker Night at the Inventory”.
The line separating the two divisions of Telltale’s past was created by the Back To The Future: The Game, an episodic adventure title with point and click elements, as the game design was still working well for them and was their strong suit. The game featured a timeline with Doc and Marty 6 months after the last film. It was a good game, although time hasn’t been it’s ally when it comes to visuals; the story is gripping, cracks you up here and there but isis mechanical simplistic as a whole, since it still was a point & click game.
This way TellTale paved a new path, to go out with the old and in with the new.
Telltale, by now, had set their mind on just one thing: as a developer, can they create better, fleshed out episodic games that can keep the players hooked till the end and always make them come back for more? And they actually did.
The wildly successful The Walking Dead (based on the comics of the same name) followed soon after BTTF, and it changed everything – for them, for us and for the industry. They got a major breakthrough as TWD Season 1 was popularized by YouTube Let’s Players, thus essentially providing free advertisement for them. The clip of PewDiePie crying during the game’s more stressful or emotional cutscenes is still used in ironic memes. This happened in way back 2012, as a reminder – and the game is still praised, proudly boasting a 96% positive “overall user reviews” on Steam right now.
Now, what did the game get right that made Telltale a household name?
The answer is quite simple; the bond between the player and the charming then-8-year-old, Clementine. This was just enough to get it perfect. Add fleshed out characters like Lee & Kenny, throw a post-apocalyptic zombie theme into the mix and we have a recipe for a story so heart-wrenching, that it made the manliest of men cry.
Think about it – the game starts with Lee going to jail after his wife was murdered, and gets into an accident while en route; he then chances across Clementine and decides to stick with her, to protect this lone child from the zombie hoarde. Why would he do that? He had no reason to do so as he had nothing to lose, no family- he was a loner now, with everything and everyone he loved, gone. But Clem gave him hope and also the chance to redeem himself again by protecting her as he was already accused of his wife’s murder.
This narrative was interesting enough for me to play the entire game in one sitting, wondering every moment about what would happen next, and all those traumatic, gut wrenching moments throughout the journey are now etched in my memory.
Season 2 of TWD followed in the footsteps of its predecessor in terms of narrative finesse. In S2 you play as Clementine herself and watch her grow and survive out in the wild all on her own, with no mentor for half the game until Kenny comes along (and some additional characters whom I forgot). There are different endings this time around, and they are also varied in how they stir your feelings – all in all, a great sequel for fans.
As good as the first two Walking Dead were, the third season was the most disappointing game I had ever played. You had followed these 4-6 characters for years, formed a bond with them and what did Season 3 do? It came along and wiped the entire slate clean. Yep – everyone of them except Clem and AJ had been replaced with a new cast; all these new side characters stole the spotlight from the star of the show i.e. Clem. If that was not enough, they also got rid of Kenny in the most braindead way possible (not gonna talk about it, it makes me sad and angry at the same time till this day). Add the amazing amount of glitches and bugs, this one really ended up being a stinker.
Apart from The Walking Dead, Telltale also worked on other renowned IPs; as you must have noticed by now, Telltale did not have any IP of their own when it came to these episodic games, they usually paid royalty to other companies/publishers to get these licenses and made QTE-based narrative games off the respective series’ lore and world. Coming back to the point (Sorry for the little side track), one of the other major games they made include, Fable’s The Wolf Among Us.
Now this – this is something what you get when you mix equal parts of aesthetics and storytelling:
TWAU had you become the sheriff of Fabletown, Bigby and just getting invested in the world as the game progresses through it’s dark and mature theme that’s been inspired from the Fabletown comics. The gameplay was the same as their The Walking Dead games but where The Walking Dead was all gray, brown and dark, The Wolf Among Us was completely opposite with a vibrant color pallete, and similarly, a fitting soundtrack – it’s whacky enough that it may not even feel out of place in a fever dream. I can’t think of any other Tellltale game as underrated as The Wolf Among Us.
Another thing Telltale had going on for them is connections in Gearbox and 2K, thanks to commercial hits due to which they were now the main players in linear, story driven games. After the huge success of Gearbox’s FPS/RPG hybrid Borderlands 2, that lasted nearly 2 years, Gearbox and Telltale came to an agreement about an episodic game set in the Borderlands world.
This gave birth to Tales From The Borderlands, a game sharing the game’s world, set before and after the events of Borderlands 2 that helped add a ton of new lore and characters to the franchise. And the characters- TFTB definitely lives upto the Borderlands name, with the whacky humor and artstyle fitting the Borderlands lore as smugly as a glove; it felt at home like a part of the Borderlands universe. Good writing and characters, minimal bugs – the game had it all.
So, making a name for themselves in the industry and providing us with some unforgettable stories, Telltale had reached a point where they had massive following, fan base, and most importantly REACH.
This lead to two things; one good and one bad.
The good thing first: with a reach now spanning throughout the industry, Telltale had little to no obstruction in acquiring new licenses of pop culture hits in any form of entertainment, be it TV Series, movies or other games (like Minecraft).
That should have been good. Right? More content for us and that too with so much variety, no less. But this is not what happened – an unfortunate demise befell Telltale, which lead up to the “bad” part
TellTale still had only about 250-300 people employed, now divide that by the amount of projects and IPs they took – and applying some common sense it should be obvious that not all of the 300 people develop games, the team per project number is actually countable on one hand.
This lead to, by no surprise, games being rushed and unpolished, hence the final product recieved below average scores. Then there’s the ancient in-house game development tech, the Telltale Tool Engine which proved to be a burden on the development schedule due to lacking quality-of-life features that would ensure quicker and better development and optimization measures – and it didn’t see a revamped revision till 2016’s TWD Michonne (which was still reported to be buggy and got mixed reception from critics and gamers alike).
The amount of games they published and made after Tales From the Borderlands (Nov 2014) is around 13-14 to this day. Here is a list:
- Game of Thrones
- Minecraft: Story Mode
- The Walking Dead: Michonne
- Batman: The Telltale Series
- The Walking Dead: A New Frontier
- Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series
- Minecraft: Story Mode – Season Two
- Batman: The Enemy Within
- The Walking Dead: The Final Season
And these are only the major ones, not even counting their little indie projects.
Now guess how many did they put out before Tales From the Borderlands in their new phase? Around 7, in the span of 4 years. Moving on, the games they would have released this and next year, if this closure didn’t happen.
- Untitled Stranger Things
- The Wolf Among Us S2
- Game of Thrones S2
Coming back to the point at hand, you may start noticing the issue here: small staff, huge contracts with multimedia houses and deadlines right on their throats, 24/7. From one huge project to another, the work never ended at Telltale studios, just like the developers said in their tweets after this close up – and to make matters worse, the internal management was a mess too.
Some of these games were good on their own (like Batman: The Enemy Within) but when you compare them to the gold standard they set with their popular ones before the studio’s expansion, it wasn’t even close. And even fans started noticing this: the engine was reused despite problems, the bugs were never fixed after launch and the games keeps getting shorter with The Walking Dead S3 clocking in at 8 hours or even less if you rushed it compared to 15-18 hours of S1.
2018 was the year when they showed progress, or at least they tried – they teased The Wolf Among Us S2, changed the management, they used a new engine and it started to pay of with The Walking Dead Final Season getting a whopping 98% positive reviews even after 2 months, just before the review bombing started to happen.
Now what happens to the Episode 3 and 4 of the final season though? Will we never see the end of Clementine’s Story, the character we grew along since 2012? What about the people who bought this last season and are now stuck between a rock and a hard place? Well, the answer is not looking positive at this moment. A recent insider info said that the 25 people who still are at Telltale will work on what the Stakeholders feel best or to appease them (i.e. Netflix adaptation of Minecraft Story Mode), then may look to the possibility of releasing Episodes 3 and 4 as soon as they are ready.
Telltale’s management, in recent years, acted like that 6 year old kid who, after coming to a realization of what money is, starts to manage all the 9$ he saved up but fails miserably by spending it all on ice cream.
No one is to blame for this closure, which lead to 225 people losing jobs within 30 mins – no one, but the management. They dug their own grave by letting greed overtake them, losing focus and blew the passion burning within them.