The Evolution of Telltale Games
As I picked up Back to the Future on the PlayStation 3, I would have never guessed that I would go on to play multiple games from its developer. I hadn’t ever heard of Telltale Games, but that first experience was the one that introduced me to adventure games and the potential they had of telling directed, linear stories – that was in 2011. I enjoyed Back to the Future’s first few episodes before moving on to whatever released next, but Telltale would return a year later with a game that I, and the industry at large, simply could not ignore. The Walking Dead was about to change everything.
Say what you will about the slight overreaction to the game’s level of quality, but that first season felt like the launch of a new Zelda title. I hadn’t seen a game like that garner such attention, and following the adventures of Lee and Clementine from April of 2012 to the following November was not just a story I experienced alone. With the release of each episode, the gaming community at large reacted immediately to whatever sick fate befell the weary pair of travelers. This was an episodic title that paved the way for that style of game to this day, with triple-A games like Hitman even getting in on the action. The first season of the Walking Dead would also lay down the framework of the studio going forward in their stories that moved away from zombies and survival. Telltale was just getting started.
The Wolf Among Us and a second season of The Walking Dead followed, turning the small studio into a sizeable developer overnight. The acclaimed title based on DC’s Fables series proved that the studio wasn’t just a one-trick pony, and the announcement of a second season coming in 2018 is further proof of that. But it was 2016’s surprise hit in the form of Tales from the Borderlands that really took Telltale Games to the next level. As much as I enjoyed Uncharted 4, Titanfall 2, and the other titles that were nominated for Game of the Year, the episodic adventure from the world of Borderlands deserved far more praise than it received as it sits on an 86 score on Metacritic. This was, and still is, very much so Telltale’s best work to date.
That second evolution, one that saw them take on multiple IP’s, has now been brushed aside to usher in another. Two seasons of Minecraft and another game based on Game of Thrones proves that the California-based developers have enough clout to take on some of the biggest properties in the world, so what is there left? Another rise in overall quality? That can only go such a long way. The next evolution must be in making games based on properties that make sense as a Telltale episodic series. However, while the other stages of Telltale have come and gone without a moment’s hesitation, it seems as though this final hurdle is going to take some time to vault.
From all accounts, and from my own humble perspective, Minecraft and the recently wrapped up Guardians of the Galaxy projects simply don’t meet the high standards that the studio has set for themselves. But there is another title that has unfathomably not been given enough credit. One that has the chance to lift the developers into the pantheon of storytelling greats. That, of course, is Batman: The Telltale Series. While the second season is gearing up for its third episode, season one of the Telltale series is, at times, the pinnacle of their storytelling. Without going into spoilers, the ending of the first episode, in particular, is as good as the ending of The Dark Knight. Telltale has taken a tried and true character and flipped his story on its head while executing it with brilliant directing, editing, and writing. While the other episodes never hit the height of the first, this is certainly the most thoughtful series Telltale Games has developed, and season two continues from where the first left off. The impact of its ending isn’t the only thing that it shares with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy though, as the developers implement the very important themes of fear, hope, identity, and the moral dilemma of necessary evil.
How far is Batman willing to go to protect Gotham? The choice-based approach of adventure games is perfect for the moral quandary the caped crusader finds himself in time and again. While there are some moments here and there that feel cheap and end up turning out the same outcome despite a different choice, there were several moments where I made a split-second decision only to fall into a bout of disappointment as I chose the option that Batman may not have. But that’s the beauty of it all! Batman’s first season constantly puts players in the position to mold their own Bat when it comes to his moral philosophies. One segment forced me to make a quick decision as Bruce Wayne that would allow me to escape the clutches of bad fortune, but ultimately put the lives of Gotham’s citizen’s at risk. Even though it only turned out to be one person and not the entirety of the city, I never let myself forget the hard and morally incorrect decision I made during that scene. That is what it must feel like to truly become the Batman!
The choice-based approach of an adventure game and the nature of Batman as both a hero and a villain makes for the most emotionally engaging narrative experience I’ve played through in quite a while – and the recently released Nintendo Switch port is definitely the best way to play. That is where this next evolution must take place. Telltale must focus on properties that make sense for the type of games they make – and IP’s like Minecraft and Guardians of the Galaxy just aren’t appropriate in this case. Superman is an obvious candidate or even a move away from comic-book characters with something like a game based on the Blade Runner universe or a similar world where clear delineations of good and evil are hard to come by. The importance should not be whether an IP would make for an interesting game, but instead whether or not said IP works as a Telltale Games title. Batman’s focus on the themes of good and evil and the way he skirts the thin line between hero and villain is the reason his story works as a Telltale project. The plot twists and revelations that the player unravels in the first season changes the way they see good and evil, thereby forcing a change in their choices. That is why Batman works as a Telltale Games project, and the studio must play to their strengths if they’re to continue their evolution or risk heading back to the past.