Column: Telltale’s demise

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Whe­ther you like sto­ry-dri­ven adven­ture games or not, you pro­bab­ly heard about Tell­ta­le Games at least once in your life. Spe­cia­li­zed in point-and-click adven­ture games, their name never was that big in the eyes of the public until they did an expe­ri­ment that pro­ved to be incredi­b­ly suc­ces­ful.

I’m tal­king, of cour­se, about the first sea­son of The Wal­king Dead: the emo­tio­nal sto­ry of Lee Ever­ett and what would be the begin­ning of Clementine’s sto­ry will always be in the heart of the gamers around the glo­be for the gre­at sto­ry­tel­ling and the impact it had on adven­ture games. It’s unde­nia­ble that The Wal­king Dead is what tru­ly chan­ged the public’s per­cep­ti­on of adven­ture games. Now Tell­ta­le was not obscu­re any­mo­re, but began to be loo­ked and admi­red by most com­pa­nies and games taking hea­vy inspi­ra­ti­on from their works. And perhaps this suc­cess is what, ulti­mate­ly, cau­sed Tell­ta­le Games’ demi­se. Unless you lived under a rock for the last weeks, the word has pro­bab­ly arri­ved to you: Tell­ta­le Games is shut­ting down. The upco­m­ing pro­jec­ts (The Wolf Among Us 2 and Stran­ger Things) have been can­cel­led and the bare­bo­nes staff that remai­ned is only working on the Mine­craft pro­ject for Net­flix, as they had a deal that they need to still full­fill. But how did it come to this? How could a beloved (for the most part) stu­dio like Tell­ta­le Games be forced to shut down after they made such an impact? Well, let’s slow down, take a deep breath and try to ana­ly­ze their histo­ry.

Tell­ta­le was a com­pa­ny that, yes, more often than not reli­ed on other stu­di­os’ Intel­lec­tu­al Pro­per­ties (IPs) to expand on them, but was also wil­ling to take some risks and expe­ri­men­ting new ide­as. For examp­le, have you ever heard of the “Puz­zle Agent” games? I thought not. They are, like you would suspect, puz­zle games but with a gre­at humor behind them. Not that gre­at, but they still have their charm. Or how could anyo­ne for­get about Sam & Max, the point and click adven­ture games? Of cour­se, the­re were some mista­kes along the time, that most peop­le are try­ing to for­get (did you remem­ber that they did a Juras­sic Park game too? Me neit­her, until I star­ted wri­ting this pie­ce) but, for the most part, they see­med like a gre­at and uni­que team that ever­yo­ne couldn’t help but secret­ly admi­re. Then, as men­tio­ned above, their The Wal­king Dead game came along, taking the world by storm and being the real tur­ning point for Tell­ta­le Games. At this point, the staff rea­li­zed that games like the­se could be the future: they final­ly hit the jack­pot. They only had to spe­cia­li­ze in doing this kind of games and not­hing could go wrong… right? Well, right after The Wal­king Dead came The Wolf Among Us. Despi­te the tit­le that may catch you off guard it’s, once again, based on an exis­ting IP, the comic named Fab­les (by the way, go and read it becau­se it’s worth it). The game was beloved by ever­yo­ne who play­ed it but, in the end, that did not trans­la­te to sales. Again, this was a major tur­ning point for the histo­ry of Tell­ta­le Games. Let’s ana­ly­ze their first 2 games in this new for­mat: both of them are beloved, but only one of them sold well. And do you wan­na know why? Becau­se not only it was an inno­va­ti­ve idea at the time, but it was based on what was (and still is) a super popu­lar show (yes, I know that the game its­elf is inspi­red by the comics, but that’s not the point I’m try­ing to make here). At the same time, not only The Wolf Among Us wasn’t a reco­gniz­ab­le name, but the game wasn’t even based on a popu­lar IP, becau­se Fab­les had always been an under­ground comic, obscu­re to the eyes of the mas­ses. And that’s whe­re, I belie­ve, things star­ted to go south.

The key to suc­cess was simp­le, how could they not see it befo­re? You don’t need to grab IPs just becau­se you can. You need to focus on popu­lar ones, and the money will flow. It’s simp­le, bril­li­ant and effi­ci­ent. That’s what the heads of TTG must have thought at the time, I gather. And it’s not a coin­ci­dence that after The Wolf Among Us came (yep, you gues­sed it) The Wal­king Dead: Sea­son Two. While still a good game on its merits, the game didn’t feel as polished as the first sea­son and, most of the time, just loo­ked like a rehash of the same cha­rac­ters and con­cepts the first game had, but lacking the good sto­ry­tel­ling that Tell­ta­le had. The game still mana­ged to sell well enough, beco­m­ing soon enough Telltale’s most reco­gniz­ab­le IP. I’m gon­na address this other issue later, for now just keep this noti­on in mind. Then came Tales from the Bor­der­lands, a game that mana­ged to cap­tu­re the humor and the spi­rit of Bor­der­lands per­fec­t­ly, while also kee­ping the sto­ry­tel­ling charm that the com­pa­ny is known for. Now it see­med as they had found the right for­mu­la, but were still loo­king to repeat the gre­at suc­cess The Wal­king Dead had. Remem­ber how I said that it was based on a super popu­lar show? Now thin­king about it, what’s the most popu­lar show of which everyone’s wai­ting the con­clu­si­on for? That’s right, it was Game of Thro­nes (GoT). And Tell­ta­le just had to get their claws on it and expand it. The poten­ti­al was the­re, we can all admit that. At the same time, it’s no sur­pri­se that so few peop­le actual­ly remem­ber this game. Becau­se ulti­mate­ly it was disap­poin­ting and a sto­ry­tel­ling mess: even though you had important choices, you could feel that the­re was a pat­tern that the sto­ry­tel­lers alrea­dy thought of, and once you try and chan­ge things, ever­ything starts to make less sen­se and to fall apart. Over­all, I belie­ve that GoT is the most was­ted oppor­tu­ni­ty that this stu­dio had. And con­si­de­ring the suc­cess of the show, it did not help eit­her for what was about to come.

Becau­se you see, this is the point whe­re the idea was get­ting old. Tell­ta­le was star­ting to beco­me a huge meme and peop­le star­ted to see the “Choices mat­ter” mot­to for what it was: a lie. Becau­se most of the time, the­se choices didn’t real­ly mat­ter. The sto­ry was alrea­dy writ­ten, clear as day, and a few chan­ges here and the­re wouldn’t make a dif­fe­rence in the end. This is whe­re peop­le star­ted to beco­me skep­ti­cal of Telltale’s way of doing games. Mine­craft: Sto­ry Mode beca­me a huge suc­cess, but it did not pre­tend to be what the other games were and hea­ded in a who­le dif­fe­rent direc­tion. A suc­cess which, even­tual­ly, led them to a deal with Net­flix which didn’t qui­te go as expec­ted. But I’m kind of jum­ping the shark here, so let’s take a step back once again. Crea­ting Mine­craft: Sto­ry Mode took all of Telltale’s res­sour­ces in 2015, and that’s ano­t­her pro­blem along the line. The “hard­core” fan­ba­se couldn’t care less about Mine­craft. They wan­ted a return to the roots. More spe­ci­fi­cal­ly, they wan­ted more The Wal­king Dead. We’ve now come into 2016, which is pro­bab­ly the point in time whe­re Tell­ta­le final­ly began to start fal­ling apart with disap­poin­ting games and sales. The Wal­king Dead: Michon­ne was a spin-off and didn’t actual­ly con­ti­nue the histo­ry TTG was wri­ting up until then, focu­sing on a major show cha­rac­ter. Iro­ni­cal­ly, that didn’t trans­la­te well with fans. They wan­ted more Cle­men­ti­ne, and couldn’t care less about the show its­elf. The game was also not very good any­way. Bat­man: The Tell­ta­le Series also felt like a huge was­ted poten­ti­al: while bet­ter than GoT (not that much effort was necessa­ry), it was still not enough to keep the fans belie­ving. Still, there’s so much more to explo­re in the Bat­man uni­ver­se that a second sea­son would feel almost natu­ral, so natu­ral­ly that’s what hap­pen­ed in the shape of Bat­man: The Ene­my Wit­hin. But more on that later. The last game of the year was the long awai­ted third sea­son of The Wal­king Dead dub­bed A New Fron­tier (yep, 2 games in a year). Most peop­le would say that this sea­son was what ulti­mate­ly kil­led Tell­ta­le. I’m incli­ned to agree with them, but I think what it did was only deli­vering the final blow. Tell­ta­le, as you could see, wasn’t in exac­t­ly good waters for qui­te a while.

Remem­ber how peop­le couldn’t care about Michon­ne becau­se they wan­ted more Cle­men­ti­ne? Well, that’s what they got in Sea­son 3, but with a catch: her sto­ry would basi­cal­ly go nowhe­re and she’d just stand the­re as a sup­por­ting cha­rac­ter. It’s very clear that she only appeared the­re becau­se they wan­ted to plea­se the fans and just wan­ted to work on some­thing dif­fe­rent. Iro­ni­cal­ly, this only made them more angry. Now we’re almost at the end of their jour­ney, with Guar­di­ans of the Gala­xy once again pro­ving what the pro­blems of this stu­dio are and that just uti­li­zing a popu­lar IP isn’t good enough. Again Mine­craft: Sto­ry Mode Sea­son 2 expan­ded on what the first sea­son did but, like I said, had a dif­fe­rent goal in mind. Sea­son 2 of Bat­man is whe­re Tell­ta­le final­ly star­ted to lis­ten to their fans. Depen­ding on your choices (actual­ly it’s just one that real­ly mat­ters in the end, but the point is that the illu­si­on of choice works, like it did in the first sea­son of The Wal­king Dead) you can deter­mi­ne who the Joker will beco­me. The sto­ry­tel­ling is bril­li­ant and well done, and over­all I think that this sea­son is tru­ly a mira­cle, espe­ci­al­ly con­si­de­ring what the first sea­son was and what would hap­pen next… Tell­ta­le announ­ced that, by fan demand, Big­by Wolf would return in The Wolf Among Us 2 in 2018. Then it got post­po­ned to 2019. That was the first warning sign that we cho­se to igno­re. 2018 came, and the first epi­so­de of The Final Sea­son of The Wal­king Dead was released. Again, the pre­mi­se was gre­at and it tru­ly show­ed that they tried fixing their mista­kes: gre­at sto­ry­tel­ling, acting and a fee­ling that you would tru­ly deter­mi­ne AJ’s fate. In Bat­man you felt respon­si­ble for what, in the ori­gi­nal canon, is the gre­at neme­sis of the Dark Knight, here you feel actual­ly respon­si­ble for a litt­le kid’s future in an apo­ca­lyp­tic world. And it works, great­ly. And we’re final­ly in the cur­rent day.


Almost the ent­i­re­ty of Tell­ta­le is gone, and what remains will just focus on deli­vering the Mine­craft: Sto­ry Mode for Net­flix as pro­mi­sed. After that, they will shut down. This also meant no more epi­so­des of The Wal­king Dead: The Final Sea­son after Epi­so­de 2. The Sea­son Pass was, in fact, pul­led off the Steam Store and isn’t avail­ab­le for purcha­se any­mo­re. Tell­ta­le still said that they’re working on a solu­ti­on on deli­vering the­se final epi­so­des with poten­ti­al part­ners. And this is whe­re things start to suck. I’d like to see Clementine’s sto­ry com­ple­ted like ever­yo­ne else that loved the­se game, but not at the cost of kicking the deve­lo­pers in the butt. Tell­ta­le appar­ent­ly didn’t pay them extra­or­di­na­ries and not even the sever­an­ce after they were fired. And now they want to com­ple­te it with other part­ners? Not cool, Tell­ta­le. Not cool at all. Over­all this looks like a poli­ti­cal night­ma­re. It’s sad to see what once was a gre­at com­pa­ny go out this way and I wish the for­mer deve­lo­pers and voice actors the best for their future. They deser­ve it. No mat­ter what hap­pens for this sea­son, I’m sure of one thing. Cle­men­ti­ne didn’t deser­ve this ending. She didn’t deser­ve to have her adven­ture fore­ver asso­cia­ted with this dis­as­ter.

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