In 2012, Telltale Games, previously known at that point as the developer of the Sam and Max series and licensed games based on the CSI television show became the talk of the town when they developed The Walking Dead, based on the comics and television show of the same name, and deservedly so. The Walking Dead was effectively the jolt in the arm that the long thought dead point-and-click adventure genre needed, due to its simple and easy to understand gameplay, outstanding story and fascinating characters, rendering it the standard that the genre was and still to this day, just over four years later, judged by. For all it’s successes, though, The Walking Dead’s unforeseen legacy might be the precedent it set for the company.
In the four years that have passed since TWD’s launch, Telltale has released seven games in that format, and has an eighth, coincidentally the third season of The Walking Dead, set to release in November. With each subsequent release, particularly with Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead: Season Two, fans began to take very vocal notice of a striking pattern in the games, in what is now commonly referred to as the Telltale Formula. Though the formula isn’t exact from release to release there are certain tropes that are prevalent in each game, largely due to their tone and the nature of adaptation games. Game of Thrones and both seasons of The Walking Dead are all darker in tone than other Telltale titles and the most guilty of the formula; there’s always a choice to save one person over another, there’s always a gray area moral quandary presented as a black and white decision that will lead to one character being angry with you, and there’s always the eventual realization of how little the decisions you make over the course of the game matter as it applies to the overall course of the story, despite the constant insistence that it does. You are told again and again that the story will branch according to the decisions and again and again you are shown that outside of a few dialogue choices, it doesn’t. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing: Tales From The Borderlands is one of the most fun games I’ve played this year and that story very much chugs along, regardless of your choices, but it’s fun is driven by it’s tone and setting. Preceding games by Telltale take place in much more serious worlds, i.e. the worlds of Fables, and as such take themselves more seriously. Tales From The Borderlands takes place in a more comedic world, despite how dire a lot of scenarios on Pandora really can be, and that allows for the formula to be eased up on and the story to be more fun for the player, to a point where no one minds the formula.
All of Telltale’s games post Sam and Max have taken place in existing universes and are set to coexist with the canon of those universes, something that works well for The Walking Dead since it would make perfect sense for there to be another group of survivors in the zombie filled American South besides Rick Grimes and company, and fine for Tales From The Borderlandssince it takes place after the events of Borderlands 2, but less well for something like Game of Thrones which is set between two seasons of the show, meaning the stakes are relatively low due to the amount of crossover between the original characters of the game and the pre-existing characters of that universe. Sure, you can get revenge on the Whitehills for what they did to Lord Forrester and the mistreatment of the people of Ironrath but you know all of your interactions with Ramsay Snow mean nothing since he’s an important character in the show at that point in time. This is a built in problem with properties of this nature: the removal of the importance of your actions because of canon. Compare this to Life is Strange or Until Dawn, two games in the same genre with total original stories and universes, released around the same time. Both games work on the principle of the Butterfly Effect, meaning that each decision you make effects something, a principle present in Telltale games, however, it is executed to a much different degree in both games. Until Dawn’s horror setting applies the principle in a manner in which each of your decisions can result in the death of a different player character, a fate that none of the eight player characters are immune to, even psuedo-protagonists Sam and Mike. A lot of the decisions aren’t exactly obvious, and in some cases, the decision to try and save a character can lead to their untimely, grizzly death. Life is Strange takes the Butterfly Effect and spins it on it’s head by letting the player utilize protagonist Max Caulfield’s newfound ability to rewind and stop time to think over their decision after seeing how it plays out in the immediate future in some cases and use their own judgement on how to proceed without seeing how things will play out in the long term. Even small things like warning Alyssa of minor dangers or erasing the slate next to Kate’s bedroom door lead up to actual payoffs that aren’t just a conversation being slightly different.
Telltale jumped to the front of the conversation and kickstarted a resurgence in a genre that had minimal interest at the time. They’ve got it in them to really do something special again, with the right spark, after all they’ve got four games in production including Batman, which had an interesting enough first episode to hook me into checking out the second and who knows? Maybe those other three projects will bring them back to the forefront. But then again, maybe I’m just over analyzing things.