Telltale Games reanimated a tired genre

In 2012, a corpse shuffled into view, and a police car was upended, delivering us Lee Everett – a likeable fellow who was understandably startled by the ordeal. So were we. Despite the dramatic physical transformation of the cadaver, it was just about recognisable. The lumbering pace, the puzzling focus – it couldn’t be could it? It was! It was a point-and-click adventure game. And, for some reason that wasn’t quite clear yet, we loved it.

The era of the classical adventure game – one ushered in and seen off by LucasArts – had long passed. We had wearied of being lashed with lateral logic puzzles, and gripping stories had seeped into other genres just as restlessness had seeped into this one. And yet here it was, the reanimated remains of a studio from a golden age, its gilding chipped here and there but its heart, by some stubborn force, still beating. Why, then, were we held rapt by the rabid dead?

Well, for one thing, this wasn’t quite what we were used to. Before founding Telltale Games, in 2004, Dan Connors, Troy Molander, and Kevin Bruner all worked at LucasArts; but The Walking Dead didn’t fully cleave to the course laid out by the greats of the ‘80s and ‘90s – games like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Grim Fandango. As befits its title, The Walking Dead favoured movement – your own. The stagnation of the point-and-click was suffused with exploration and danger. Despite the stale smells of its zombified world, it had the air of airiness about it – a loose challenge in its puzzles, simple, tactile combat sequences, and a story that blew through it all in unwavering wafts.

For adventure junkies, of course, Telltale had been quietly supplying the drug of choice for some time. These same quickening touches were there in Sam & Max Save the World, in 2006; Tales of Monkey Island, in 2009; and Back to the Future: The Game, in 2010 – all pointing and clicking on a nostalgic time gone by. None burst the banks of the niche nor filled the bank for Telltale, but the company remained steadfast. As if in wry recognition of its own attempts at genetic resurrection, it released Jurassic Park: The Game, in 2011 – which should have stayed fossilised.

This one was different. It wasn’t as if a huge change was made to Telltale’s formula; it was just that the vessel needed the right licence, and in The Walking Dead, it arrived. It wasn’t only the all-pervading popularity of the television show that propelled the game to stardom. Zombies were that perfect pulp concoction, already nestled in the hearts and brains of gamers everywhere – tourists of the Spencer Mansion and the Willamette Parkview Mall. For a time, it was good.

But time wore on, and the same strain of infection that brought the adventure genre to decay was now gnawing at Telltale: abundance. The Walking Dead was followed swiftly with The Wolf Among Us, in 2013. That same year, The Walking Dead Season 2 was released. The next year brought Tales from the Borderlands and Game of Thrones. 2016 saw The Walking Dead: Michonne, Batman: The Telltale Series, and The Walking Dead: A New Frontier. Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series followed suit, with Batman: The Enemy Within flapping close behind. In the wake of Telltale’s effective closure, three more titles were scrapped: The Wolf Among Us: Season Two, Game of Thrones: Season Two, and a Stranger Things game. Enough to form an undead army.

All these games were etched with the Telltale Tool, the company’s custom game engine. Its name spoke perfectly to its nature: an implement, at first sharp and later blunted, with which to tell a story. And there were many that wanted telling. When the likes of HBO, Netflix, and Marvel come knocking, the pressure of the conveyor belt begins to mount. The curse of the Telltale Tool is the way it stunts your enjoyment after prolonged use: when you’ve had your fill of the frame, you can’t stomach any more paintings. It’s for this reason that the first one or two Telltale games are the best you will play. 

But the tragedy is in the ones you start with in-built fatigue. The Wolf Among Us was a thrill – a hard-boiled noir empurpled with neon, the electric crackle of its colours emboldened with Telltale’s signature black pen lines. Game of Thrones felt like the perfect match, the sharp practice of its politics ripe for the forrestfuls of dialogue trees and branching decisions. The sedentary action scenes in Batman turned the focus inward, behind the cowl, and gave us gaming’s best Bruce Wayne. At least that’s how they seemed; I didn’t get very far in any of them before I felt restless.

Playing Life is Strange 2 recently, I saw one of the main characters, Daniel Diaz, don a zombie costume in preparation for Halloween. It felt like a hat tipped. Without The Walking Dead, we might not have Life is Strange, with its assured pace and dialogue-driven drama. The writers of The Walking Dead’s first season, Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, went on to make Firewatch – an excellent game, its rushed final act singed by the lack of episodic structure. Adam Hines and Sean Krankel, both writers for Telltale, left to launch Night School Studio and made Oxenfree – in its zip and wit, it refined the art of natural game dialogue, and in the spooks of its story, the two writers couldn’t shake the call of the dead.

In the wake of the recent studio closure, it’s these telltale traces that linger in the landscape of games. What stays in my mind isn’t Clementine or Lee, or even Bigby Wolf – despite his sublime designer stubble. It’s the picking of paths; it’s episodes and emotion; it’s reanimating a tired audience and a tired genre.

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