Telltale and Choice

Telltale and Choice

Last month out of seemingly nowhere, Telltale games announced that they were shutting down. Like many gamers I was stunned. While far from its height of relevance after releasing the amazing Walking Dead Season 1, the studio was still working with some of the biggest properties out there: Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman. They had also inked a deal with Netflix to make a Stranger Things game. They seemed to have carved out their own niche in the industry, a bridge between TV and video games.

The internet has been a buzz of blame and think pieces on the closure. Polygon’s Ben Kuchera has a well-researched, scathing take-down where he levels the blame at the company’s technology, stale game design and poor working conditions. The working conditions argument is Kuchera’s strongest. It’s depressing to see that Telltale suffered crunches and poor management. But some of Kuchera points, while well argued, feel overly harsh.

Telltale’s engine did feel wobbly, creating stiff character animations and bugs, but Bethesda has been using a version of the same janky engine since Morrowood and people still eat up their games. And I’ve yet to bump into a video game where character animations make it all the way through the uncanny valley. Even the Witcher 3, a god damn masterpiece and my favorite game of all time, has some awkward animations and character model. Any game that’s going to be as story focused as Telltales is going to have issues.

Kuchera’s game design argument is even harsher and I feel like it ignores a depressing truth. Telling stories in video games is hard, making storytelling the sole focus of your game is even harder. And to be fair to Telltale they did try. I played three Telltale games, The Walking Dead Season 1, Tales of Borderlands, and Batman Seasons 1 and 2. And did all three games have a similar vibe? Sure. Where they as Kuchera claims, cookie cutter knocks of the Walking Dead Season 1 with choices and twists I saw coming miles away, no, not at all.

The Walking Dead Season 1 was bleak, shocking and touching. Tales of Borderlands was far better than it had any right to be, hilarious and surprisingly emotional. I would have been happy if the Borderlands series dropped the main games and continued as a Telltale series. Telltale’s Batman did some of the best reinterpretation and deconstruction on comics most reinterpreted and deconstructed character (even wrote a post about the first season). To say the games were all boring, retreads is just unfair.

If Kuchera’s argument is less that the games themselves were all cookie cutter and more that Telltale’s choice system often felt the same regardless of the game you were playing, that I can see. Looking back, I only remember a handful of choices I made in any of the series and very few of the choices changed the outcome to a season. But choice in Telltale game wasn’t about changing the story.

In the moment, while playing a Telltale game, choices felt important. They spiked the drama, gave weight to the scene and helped immerse me in the story. Deciding whether or not to cut Clementine’s hair didn’t save anyone, but it helped establish a bond between Clementine and Lee. Choice was a mechanic, an action to help tell the story rather than a means to change it.

The more impact a studio gives to particular choice means the more work they have to do. A big enough divergence would mean creating two or more wholly different stories, different games even, that might sound exciting, but that means that most players will only experience half of the work a studio puts in. And the more changes you have and the more radical you let those changes be, the less control you have over your story and characters. You might easily end up with some very unsatisfying narratives.

From Mass Effect on, we’ve debated the naked ‘choices’ we bump into in narrative heavy games. Players try to weigh the value of them, becoming upset if they realize their ‘choices don’t matter’. But in truth these choices, never matter. Sure, they might mean that one character lives while another dies, or that you get a good ending as opposed to a bad. At best they are divergent points in the narrative, giving a slightly different journey, but one that will eventually lead to the same end. The player is like a switch operator at a station deciding which ‘track’ the train will go down, but there’s only ever so many tracks.

What Telltale understood best was that choice isn’t about how the story reacts to the player, so much as how the player reacts to the story. Choices often effected dialogue and a particular scene rather than the aggregated season. You choose to be cruel or kind, serious or brooding and other reacted. Your choice was the emotion, not the outcome. You were engaging with the narrative and not deciding it. Telltale was far from perfect, but I’ll miss them and their use of choice.