Before the announcement that a heavily narrative focussed Walking Dead video game was announced in 2012, Telltale games was a development studio that not particularly well known. Despite putting out other similar properties with Back to the Future: The Game and Jurassic Park: The Game, the products were largely met with a very mixed and ultimately tepid response from the public. The rampant acclaim and runaway success reached with The Walking Dead launched the developer into one of the most anticipated and favourable studios out there with one revolutionary product.
The relatively small-time development studio struck gold in 2012 with The Walking Dead, reinventing what the adventure game represented to modern gamers, moving past the tropes of frustratingly difficult puzzles and illogical problem solving present in games like The Secret of Monkey Island or Grim Fandango. The Telltale era of adventure games no longer expects players to work out that you’re supposed to look for the map fragment inside the cereal box, or combine the rope with the staple remover to make a scud missile. The Walking Dead, along with the other recent Telltale games asks the player to simply follow prompts and pick dialogue options. Fail states are rare, if present at all, and usually restart the player immediately before their failed prompt took place. Traditional difficulty is subverted, and the challenge and appeal of these games comes from following and understanding the world, and making calculated decisions based on what you think is best for the characters and world around you. You do nothing other than fuel drama, and even the least thought out response to a problem will launch you into the next act of the gripping narrative. And wouldn’t you know it? That’s just what a lot of gamers have been waiting for.
However, the sudden and breakneck transition from small time PC only adventure game developer that had just about managed to carve out its own unique niche on the steam market, to popular nominee for video game developer of the year seems to have been understandably bumpy for the studio. Two particular titles by Telltale have recently drawn flak for not meeting the high standards that fans expect from the studio, in The Walking Dead Season 2 and the more recent Game of Thrones the absence of polish, both from creative and technical aspects of development is clear, and in no small part disappointing from a developer, that for a while at least, seemed to be incapable of wrong.
This dip in quality is no doubt the result of Telltale’s new rigorous development schedule that has the staff developing two games at once, both being released nearly every year since The Walking Dead came out in 2012. At the end of the development cycle, one of the two games put out is targeted for misrepresenting Telltale’s golden standard. Last year it was The Walking Dead Season 2 that was under fire, whilst The Wolf Among us received multiple nominations at The Game Awards and The Golden Joysticks at the end of 2014. It seems this phenomenon is occurring again, with Tales of Borderlands getting the pick of the talent at Telltale and Game of Thrones being handled by less experienced folks.
This isn’t at all to suggest that Telltale is putting out one knockout title and one bad one every year, far from it. The studio is producing excellent content that is critically acclaimed by press and gamers alike at a breakneck pace and a few rehashed narrative threads and predictable, overplayed tropes mixed in with a graphical or animation fault every now and then doesn’t mean the end of Telltale era is nigh.
This is only the beginning for Telltale, and the small company is clearly just finding its feet, stretched thin and heavily expanding, the staff are learning to cope with bigger budgets and larger production demands than they’re used to, occasional mistakes and conventionality are par for the course for now. In a recent interview with Dan Conners, former CEO of Telltale Games, it was reported that “We’re already working on some of the biggest franchises in entertainment … And when you add our unannounced partnerships and upcoming original IP, it’s clear the most exciting time to be at Telltale is now, and there will continue to be more and more opportunity to innovate ahead of us.” This combined with news of Telltale’s involvement in a Minecraft story mode expansion are all great reasons to keep an eye on this remarkable developer.