By Ben Grandis
I awoke Saturday morning September 22nd, 2018 to devastating news. As I sipped coffee and scrolled through my news feed, I came across a story that made my blood run cold. Telltale Games had laid off most of its staff and had cancelled all planned future releases. Despair overwhelmed me as I digested this information.
Telltale Games had been like a cool, artsy, and nerdy older brother to me in the gaming industry. They made art that blurred the line between video games and television shows. They opened up a new world of gaming for more casual players who didn’t have the free time or reflexes that many hardcore story-rich games demand. They provided fresh and interesting takes on some of the most popular franchises in modern media. But most importantly, they taught me to think critically of my own moral compass and how games can challenge our own ethics.
I am saddened to hear that Telltale’s demise was plagued by financial woes, mismanagement, an abusive work environment, and that its staff were fired without severance pay. I am also saddened that the fate of The Walking Dead: The Final Season may be in jeopardy and that the final two episodes may not see a release date.
Despite all this, I want to celebrate the joy Telltale gave us while it lasted. I want Telltale to be cherished and remembered by gamers so that their unique brand of storytelling can be carried on by future developers.
What Telltale did for video games was no small feat. At a time when the point and click adventure genre was beginning to fade away, Telltale bought it back from the dead (pun intended) with their well received take on The Walking Dead.
With difficult decisions, clever puzzles, and top-notch writing and voice acting, The Walking Dead made the over-saturated zombie game market surprisingly fresh and brainy (pun intended, again). No longer were gamers faced with the cliche of mowing down hordes of the undead with powerful weapons like in the popular Call of Duty: Zombies or Dead Rising franchises.
Instead, players were forced to face the more human side of the zombie apocalypse. We had to deal with the morally grey choices we must make with our fellow survivors when fighting for our lives and of those we love. By centering the narrative on new characters outside of the established The Walking Dead show and comics, the game raised the stakes by making the fate of each character always at risk. Players couldn’t rely on the source material to guess what would happen. It was only a way of setting up the world and narrative rather than a road map for what would happen in the game.
This fascinating format for storytelling was a hallmark of their following titles. Each one found new and creative ways to improve on the existing formula, while still staying true to their “interactive movie” roots. Telltale was bringing Hollywood magic to video games like never before.
However, consistent commitment to this style would ultimately lend to their downfall. With the high costs of licensing fees for each franchise they adapted, Telltale’s sales struggled to maintain a meaningful profit to recoup these expenses. Had they taken more creative risks and made original stories outside of preexisting franchises or tried out more variation in game genres, they very well may have survived as a studio.
But there is hope for the future of cinematic episodic gaming. Netflix is carrying on its work with the remaining Telltale staff to release Mine Craft – Story Mode to its millions of subscribers, while also taking its first forray into a “choose your own adventure episode” in the upcoming fifth season of Black Mirror. With such a powerful streaming juggernaut pushing for this kind of storytelling, who would have guessed that the potential savior of Telltale-style games would come from outside the gaming industry?
Whatever may come, I give thanks to everyone at Telltale Games who put their blood, sweat and tears into making such incredible games. You all deserve better than this terrible situation. I am grateful for all the emotional, clever, and occasionally heartbreaking stories you have shared with us. This moment in time may signal the end of your season, but I choose to believe in the future of gaming you have built through your work. And I will always remember that.