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The industry will remember this: the cautionary tale of Telltale Games

by Kayla W | Oct 10, 2018
   A Retrospective: Telltale Games

Clementine: He's just always blaming me for stuff

Lee: Like what?

Clementine: Puttin’ a bug on his pillow…

Lee: Did you do that?

Clementine: ...Yes.
- The Walking Dead: Season 1

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This is going to be a long and confused one.

I am really struggling to find meaning behind the loss of so much potential, and even more than that, the loss of actual, really good moments of genuine storytelling magic. Of course, it would be callous to first not acknowledge the loss of the livelihoods of many employees in a company that has folded - be it as (allegedly) toxic an environment as I have heard it is - in an industry that these people have fought tooth and nail to get into.

In case you haven’t heard, Telltale Games is shutting down, only fulfilling work they are contractually obligated to make for Netflix with a skeleton crew, and then will disappear into the ether of time. They are stopping production of their last project in the works, the final season of
The Walking Dead.

Honestly, some of this stuff is so genuinely aggravating and heart breaking that it helps to think of the things that remind you of why you cared about a company in the first place.

I’ll say what has, to me, to be the greatest accomplishment of this soon to be defunct game studio, which is to center the crown jewel of their game series around a character who is simultaneously one of my favorite female characters as well as my absolute favorite child character, in the form of Clementine. She is a character of color and has multiple moments in the game I played (the First Season) that show her vulnerability, her strength, her sense of humor, and her personality.

Make no mistake: when
The Walking Dead: Season 1 debuted in 2012, Clementine was a revelation, not only in terms of being a video game character, but in the general culture as well. Before Alloy, the return of Lara Croft, and a year before Ellie would shock an industry by putting a non-objectified female protagonist on a video game box cover art not just alongside a man, but in front of him, Clementine proved to a world that shouldn't have needed the confirmation that female characters have complex and engaging stories to tell in this medium. And it wasn’t just a small portion of people who thought this as well. In an industry dominated by people, both in the business and its consumers, who believe enjoyability relies on big budgets, male-coded protagonists, and graphics that go above and beyond, a tie-in game for The Walking Dead that is known largely because of the strength of its girl protagonist became the dark horse winner of multiple Game of the Year awards from many gaming publications in the year it released.

This game came after the (to me) disappointing tie-in games for both Jurassic Park as well as
Back to the Future, a fact that deserves notice. The game should have been more than a victory lap for a game studio I had never even heard of before playing this game – it should have been like that moment in a sports’ movie where the protagonist is raised up to be carried off into the sunset while the credits roll.

But they didn’t stop there. They followed up with a great party game collection like The Jackbox Party Pack, and truly great tie-in, such as The Wolf Among Us (a game that lead me to the comic book series that it acts as a prologue into, the truly ground breaking Fables), Tales from the Borderlands, and even a Batman tie-in game that I have heard fantastic things about. They did so much work and told a variety of different stories that it boggles the mind. Heck, I just learned they did a LEGO tie-in that’s also a Star Wars tie-in!

Alas, the problem with their closure has been one that I have seen coming for a while now. In the same way that figuring out where to start with explaining why this company matters, explaining what will cause this company to join the list of tragedies I have lived through that originate from being a gamer is not easy.

The top off the list has been easy to spot for someone who played The Walking Dead: Season One back when it first came out. Even back in 2012, the game is far from intuitive, the system it touts about being able to make a significant impact with your choices on the game’s narrative is a pretty blatant lie, and the engine it had kept on life support even for that time was showing its many failings. I may have pointed out five of their games that I have played and can confirm or otherwise have it on good authority that they are true gems, but they have more than four game series under their belt that are chores to play or are otherwise just not good. That's not a great track record, to be half great and half bad, if not outright terrible. I know awfulness is relative, but from what I have heard, people who love the games I have pointed out earlier felt varying degrees of disappointment from or outright anger towards the following titles: Guardians of the Galaxy,
Game of Thrones, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future

Keep in mind: all of this came after the 2012 success of The Walking Dead: Season One. They did all of this in the five years and some change between that game and this year.

And then there’s the curious case of Minecraft: Story Mode.

It is a game that fatigued me so much that I did not have the will to seek out
Tales from the Borderlands or Batman. This is the game that I would point to as proof positive of the inherent failings of the Telltale system. Also, I love The Wolf Among Us, but when it came time to put the controller down and the end credits rolled, I got the feeling that the story wasn’t fleshed out enough, but the big problem was the wheezing game engine it relied on. Cue Minecraft, a game I picked up because I felt nostalgic for Telltale Games’ work and out of curiosity for how they could re-invent another game's world.

At first, it’s a dizzyingly fascinating experience. Some of my favorite comedians, in the form of Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn fill out starring roles, and there’s a gentle comedy to the whole thing. But it quickly becomes apparent that the game engine has been pulled over from the Playstation 3 era into the next, and it works as well as you would imagine it would. Which is to say that it doesn’t. Lag eats into time you need to make split decisions and into scenes meant to be action-packed or emotional. The mood of the narrative doesn’t know if it wants to be lighthearted, which would fit the context of the game and the game’s community it has taken from, or bizarrely emotional. For all of the lagging and the misunderstanding of Minecraft’s appeal which is, understandably, crafting, the major problem of the game came from a complete dissonance between the perceived mood of the narrative and what it actually is – and should have been.

I do hate spoilers, and I am sorry, but the only way to explain the problem is by spoiling the end of Minecraft: Story Mode, so you have been warned. Spoilers abound for the following two paragraphs(!)

There is a scene in the game where the comic relief pet pig, Reuben, dies. Mind you, this is after the events of the game have lead to some apocalyptic doing, which lead to the destruction of a lot of stuff as well as what can be surmised to be the deaths of many – human – characters. But when the protagonist, Jesse, finds his pig dramatically dying, not only does he have an emotional breakdown that he has lost his best friend, but this pig is given a funeral that would be fitting for a major political figure. In light of the deaths of many people.

Oh. My. Word. I don’t even understand how a writer could think that this is an appropriate idea to have in a Minecraft game, but here we have the death of Reuben the Pig to act as an appropriate metaphor for the whole debacle. Potential buried beneath mediocrity that had no reason to be there, then topped off with something that pulls you out of the experience so hard you remember it (ironically enough) years later.

And then there was the non-surface level “oops” of this company, in the form of being overly zealous in a way that reminds me of an novice player of any city builder sim and expanding too bleeping much too bleeping fast with no infrastructure in place to support it, getting the rights for every hot property imaginable to make a game out of it all at once, and then the cherry on top – its (allegedly) very Konami-like mistreatment of workers. That last one hurts especially, because I envision people making things I like not having to do so in an uncomfortable, toxic – damaging – environment.

On top of it being a bad environment to produce in, this was a company apparently well-known for implementing the industry plague known as Crunch. Crunch is a term that encompasses the practices of working overtime on a project – typically to the point where it interferes in a person’s life, taking away their sleep and personal life. The funny thing is that there are believers in Crunch who think that it somehow results in a better end product. I don’t see how pushing people or a group of people like an abused beast of burden is going to make anything good, especially if it is something that is a piece of art or something that requires craftsmanship to produce. You end up getting a sub par product, and it’s no small collateral that the people who made it become disillusioned or burn out.

Yes, the burn out in this company is legendary, much like CD Projekt Red, apparently where starry eyed workers were being chewed up and spit out through this system so fast it could make your head spin. To boot, the company went out on a nasty note because it had apparently hired a lot of new people the previous week, and then all of their workers were let go without any severance pay. Whoa.

The final insult seems to be that as soon as the end came, the final season of The Walking Dead was killed halfway through, leaving people who paid for the full season hanging in the wind. Guys, paying for something like this up front is sometimes a bad idea. I’ve heard of a lot of people losing money they gave game projects on things like Kickstarter, but I am not surprised that one of these Season Passes that video game publishers have been hawking has turned out to be a bad choice. After all, a game company, whether it’s the work of one guy or hundred – thousands – of people is basically the same thing. I would also not be surprised if a few somebodies sue the ex-heads of this company for their treatment of their workers as well as charging customers for a product they never deliver on. Update: while writing this, I found out that the ex-employees are currently in the process of suing their old bosses.

If there’s extra insult to injury, it has to be the fact that people who have invested themselves emotionally into The Walking Dead will get absolutely no closure, besides the second episode of the season. Update: while writing this, apparently the last season is due to be given to another studio to finish. A bad reminder, perhaps, that this game meant so much to its players and to many of the people who made it, but that at the end of the day, it was still a product and was discontinued like Crystal Pepsi.

Wow. This went on a lot longer than I expected. I was more emotional and had deeper concerns on this subject than I thought I did when I started.

I am honestly very interested in hearing what you have to say about this. Do you have any good memories of the company? Do you think this is a pattern that might spread to more of the game industry?

Kayla loves all things weird, wonderful, and macabre.  Her soul’s in writing, and her hobbies include gaming, watching movies and television shows, reading anything and everything. Her black cat’s TOTALLY, 100%, not evil.

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