Telltale have built their reputation within the video game industry on the back of some ambitious licenses. Back before The Walking Dead propelled them into the gaming mainstream, the company had a reputation for taking on board forgotten franchises and turning them around. From Sam & Max through to Jurassic Park – their work brought attention to some of gaming’s forgotten classics.
Yet in recent times the company has moved away from this policy. Instead of picking up these franchises, the company has shifted to focusing on more lucrative offerings. No longer are they picking up the cast-off’s, they’re dealing with some of gaming (and wider medias) most premiere franchises. From Game of Thrones to to the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy – there’s certainly no shortage of AAA-titles being pumped out by the studio.
Yet despite this, the ambition of the games themselves has become incredibly stagnant. For the longest time Telltale have been riding on the strength of their licenses, not on core game play or improving the package overall. Instead of revolutionizing their niche, the company has been content to push out titles that barely change things. Sure the characters and settings shift, but the fact is that when you’ve played one Telltale experience, you’ve basically played them all. It’s frustrating to the highest degree and it seems that with some of their biggest licenses about to land; things aren’t going to change anytime soon.
Part of the problem is how formulatic the entire thing has become – we all know how a Telltale game works. We’re introduced to main character who can’t die until the end of the game. We’re then introduced to a cast of secondary characters, who’s expiration depends entirely on how you react to choices thrown your way. These choices seem lofty, but the reality is that the game has to continue so there’s no long immediate threat. There’s a few quick-time sequences thrown in to spice things up, and the odd “hunt for item x” puzzle to drag things out. Rinse and repeat until the games ending, where it becomes obvious no matter how evil you were or how terrible your decisions, you were always destined to reach that point. It’s a false illusion of choice, and while it was fun the first few times to kill of characters – it becomes incredibly predictable when you can begin calling out the twists well ahead of time.
It’s hard to blame the developer though. The original Walking Dead was such a monumental hit and such a shot in the arm to their reputation that it made sense to have everything that followed behave in similar fashion. But as the likes of Wolf Among Us and Games of Thrones have come and gone, it’s become stagnant and dangerously close to uninteresting.
Take the recent Walking Dead: New Frontier. If you played The Walking Dead: Season 2 all the way through, you’ll know that the ending for that game has some wildly different variants. The choice you made there was incredibly difficult and actually had some real weight. “How could Telltale follow through on this?” I wondered afterwards, excited that we might get an interesting Season 3. Yet despite this, no matter what you choose to do at the end of the game, Telltale managed to negate every decision and funnel you into one path. It was incredibly frustrating and while the flashbacks were a nice touch, it doesn’t help me to escape the feeling that my choices ultimately meant sweet-FA. Why give that choice to gamers if you’re going to hand wave it away in the first two chapters of New Frontier?
If it’s so much of a chore to have choices and decisions that matter carry over, why offer it? It demeans the entire premise upon which Telltale bases its games if the very choices that force the game play to be so lackluster are themselves so lackluster.
I’m not saying Telltale need to create endlessly sprawling labyrinths within their games, but the point and click genre needs another boost. There needs to be a fresh influx of ideas to help reinvigorate the genre. It’s the same complaint many gamers level at the likes of EA with their sports franchises – change is necessary to avoid burnout. With so much attention on a genre that doesn’t get much AAA-love, Telltale need to keep things fresh. Otherwise they run the risk of sending the entire genre backwards.
Storytelling has never been a weakness for Telltale (except for the Minecraft outing, but that’s another story entirely). Gamers need to see the game play rise to match the lofty ambitions that the licenses promise. Otherwise there’s no real excitement for upcoming episodes of Batman or Guardians of the Galaxy, we already know how they’re going to go.
I’m hopeful that sooner or later, Telltale will find it in themselves to deliver the changes needed to prove they still have that creative spark. Rather than being an outlet for interactive storytelling, they could excite and bring new dimensions to the tales they’re telling. If only they had the ambition to reach that goal.