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The Problem With Telltale's New Direction: A Rant.

posted by RAnthonyMahan on - Viewed by 1.4K users

You might have noticed I haven't been posting much lately, and this will most likely be the last thread I ever make. I've gotten pretty jaded with Telltale in recent years (things have started going downhill ever since Back to the Future, to be honest), but it's now culminated to the point where I just don't feel comfortable supporting them. I figure the least I could do is get it all off my chest.

For starters, with the success of The Walking Dead and the cancellation of King's Quest, it seems like Telltale's going to be doing nothing but Heavy Rain-style interactive movies for the foreseeable future. I wouldn't mind if interactive movies co-existed with point-and-click adventures and other, more "gamey" games, but focusing exclusively on them is a red flag in my book. I know I'll piss off the just-here-for-The-Walking-Dead crowd when I say this, but interactive movies are a step backwards in the gameplay department, plain and simple. True, you could say the same thing about adventure games when compared to more action-oriented genres, but the fact stands that New Telltale makes games more restrictive than Old Telltale did.

For me, a big part of Sam and Max's charm was the element of exploration, goofing around and doing stuff you're not supposed to just because you can. Clicking every little trinket in the office or Stinky's Diner, using inventory items in strange ways, asking people to rub your unicorn...if you can do it, no matter how useless it was, there was probably dialogue for it. SBCG4AP took it a step further by including a bunch of collectibles, rewarding crazy exploration. Meanwhile, Telltale's current games keep you on a short leash. Stay in one area, do some dialogue and QTEs. Maybe if you're lucky you can walk around and solve a super-easy puzzle. Then move on to the next area. It's depressing, to be frank.

I'm sure some people are going to jump on me saying it doesn't matter that The Walking Dead's so simple. It's about the story, not the gameplay! I'm a writer myself, so believe me, I'm all for video games having stronger stories (and on that note, for all my other issues with Telltale, the writing is still top-notch, so props to the guys responsible). What I'm not for, however, is stronger stories coming at the sacrifice of gameplay. And this isn't an issue exclusive to Telltale either. There's this nasty idea permeating the whole gaming industry that not only are story and gameplay mutually exclusive, but that the former should always come at the cost of the latter. It's why people were praising Bioshock Infinite as a masterpiece when it's a watered-down version of the original Bioshock (itself a watered-down version of System Shock 2), and why Gone Home, a game that literally had "No Combat, No Puzzles" as a selling point, received so many accolades.

The fact is, good story and good gameplay aren't mutually exclusive. Look at Deus Ex, or Fallout. Stuff like The Walking Dead tries to prove "Video games can tell good stories too!", but it does that by downplaying what makes a video game what it is as much as possible. For the longest time, people believed comic books could never tell a good story. Watchmen proved that wrong. How did it do it? By embracing what made the comic medium what it is. A text box from one scene would be displayed over a completely different (yet still appropriate) one. Seemingly unrelated panels would be juxtaposed in interesting ways. Watchmen didn't just tell a good story, it told a good story that could only have been told as a comic. A proper story-based video game would need to do just that, tell a story in a way only a video game could do. Keeping the gameplay simplistic and trying to be as much like a film as possible is not the way to do it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Telltale should stick to point-and-click adventures forever. If they wanted to branch out and try, say, a FPS or RPG, I'd be OK with that. Hell, I'm even all right with interactive movies in moderation. But when you make them your sole focus, that ends up as a problem to me.

Also, even if you ignore the shift in game design philosophy, it seems like Telltale's newfound fame has gone to their heads in a very short span of time. Telltale is now trying to release four different episodic series in one year, when before they've never done more than two. It's already become apparent that they've bitten off more than they can chew. The second episode of The Wolf Among Us came out four months after the first. Old Telltale would've released the finale by that time. I haven't been paying attention to Walking Dead 2 (the first game's done so much damage to Telltale that I've become kind of jaded with the franchise as a whole), but I understand it's coming at a similar pace. I used to laugh at the people constantly demanding "WHERE'S THE NEXT WALKING DEAD?", but these waits are pretty troubling, especially now that you have to pay for the whole game up front instead of buying episodes individually.

I'm probably rambling, but the point is, Telltale's become very...impersonal. They used to make adventure games with a lot of heart to them (and at a decent pace) and regularly talk to fans. Now they just churn out as many interactive movies when they can. Telltale used to be one of my favorite developers, and it's honestly disappointing how far they've fallen in such a short span of time.

I'm going to finish The Wolf Among Us, assuming Telltale does, since I've already paid for it and don't want my money to go to waste. After that, though, unless they manage to get everything back together, I seriously doubt I'll buy anything from them again, as much as it pains me to say it.

10 Comments
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    Blind Sniper Moderator

    You make several good points.

    As long as Telltale sticks to "cinematic" games for big/mainstream franchises such as Walking Dead or Game of Thrones, I'll understand them sticking to those types of games. However, I also find myself wishing Telltale would branch out to more types of adventure gameplay for their more obscure and/or niche franchises, such as Wolf Among Us or Borderlands to use their newer titles as examples.

    Incidentally enough, it even seems as if Wolf Among Us/Walking Dead Season 2 are drifting away from puzzles/user interaction even more so than Walking Dead Season 1.

    Even though some people thought Sam and Max: Devil's Playhouse was too casual, I actually thought the game's context sensitive puzzles (ie the Psychic Toys) were pretty well executed. It's understandable for Telltale to think that the abstract nature of old school point and click puzzles would confuse casual players, but looking off their newer titles, it seems as if they have a false correlation that extends to any form of puzzle solving or user interaction (outside of choice making) potentially slowing down users in general.

    I think it's cool that Telltale found an "interactive TV" type of gameplay for franchises that wouldn't translate well to an interactive medium without disregarding the source material, but Telltale seems to be extending that even to franchises that could otherwise retain the source material and still fit well as a point and click adventure game (or any game in general).

  • Excellent post, RAnthonyMahan! I agree with everything you said.

    What also bothers me is Telltale's suggestion that they are "advancing" or "evolving" the adventure game genre, when they are really just making interactive movies and looking for popular mainstream franchises with existing fans to benefit from. And gaming journalists (many of whom know little about, nor were ever fans of, adventure games to begin with) have swallowed whole and uncritically repeat Telltale's talking points. I can't remember all the details, but I believe that, when a Telltale rep was accepting an award for TWD, he ostentatiously and self-servingly dedicated the award to Crowther, author of the first text adventure game, implying that Telltale saw itself as carrying on the spirit of classic adventure games (though obviously Telltale doesn't see its mission that way, but it makes for good headlines by writers who never played any adventure games) and that Telltale was advancing the type of game.

    It also irked me how Telltale courted the classic adventure game fan community in its early years, pretending that its mission was to carry on the LucasArts-style magic, but then, after hooking up with mainstream pop culture franchises, dumped us and suggested such types of games were old news. Many early Telltale fans feel disappointed in this new direction. Classic adventure game fans gave Telltale so much support, and now it's like, "see ya."

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      Blind Sniper Moderator

      I believe that, when a Telltale rep was accepting an award for TWD, he ostentatiously and self-servingly dedicated the award to Crowther, author of the first text adventure game, implying that Telltale saw itself as carrying on the spirit of classic adventure games (though obviously Telltale doesn't see its mission that way, but it makes for good headlines by writers who never played any adventure games) and that Telltale was advancing the type of game.

      Maybe that one person did say that, but their opinions don't represent everyone at Telltale. Jake of Telltale said in one of his posts on the forums that he didn't see The Walking Dead's gameplay as an "evolution," but rather as a "different branch" alongside other games. Even if that one person did pay tribute to the first adventure game, it doesn't mean that Telltale was being snooty and acting as if they were the hands-down superior evolution to classic LucasArts/Sierra point and click adventure games. Perhaps, perchance, it was nothing but a tribute that you are looking a bit much into.

      I can't speak for Telltale's early days as I was not around then (although I have read up on some of their old interviews/posts/etc) but I strongly doubt they deliberately lead on classic point and click adventure fans out of deliberate malice. They did find a successful formula and stick with it, but again, it seems you are attributing malice where there is none.

      I'm not trying to say Telltale is 100% perfect, as my post above clearly indicates, but I just thought I would make some points.

  • Writing here is perfection well done. Points well taught out and in depth it's impossible to argue with you obviously writer with big future.

    But you and I both know why is hard to accept MONEY you see telltale sales were reasonable making small profit but when walking dead came out needed 100,000 sales to break even and sold over 21 million making them rich and the philosophy of companies if not broken don't fix it with such excessive sales got selfish and ignored the fanbase to chase profit and making one type of game that made them millionaires Love walking dead but whole concept gameplay, decisions, qte's even the emotional story involving innocent kid all rip off of heavy rain.

    In my opinion s2 epsiode 1 was so linear and even camera pushed you in one direction for exploration puzzle game was simple offensive the length hour for 2 month wait then wau ep 2 4 months for another hour.

    Whoever played Last of us knows game play doesn't affect story but enhances it. I feel more connected to game when i'm challenged through gameplay and feel more involved in the story as my ability dictates if reach next section. But saying all this i'm massive fan of both walking dead and wolf among us so never played previous games so can't really comment but everything you say is right. Personally I love new direction for old fans know hard to take and new games are far from perfect graphics, gameplay but still love them for story as result of playing watched tv show and joined forum no regrets also one of best stories ever played.

    One request please do more threads your writing skills and points are fantastic and love see you do some WAU or TWD threads

  • I don't care how minimal the interaction becomes, as long as I get to do this in the Game of Thrones game:

    Alt text

    I'll be happy.

  • You're not the first to have brought this up, and it's a big reason the forum change was the last straw for a lot of folks. (I think if Telltale were still making the kinds of games it was making 5 years ago, people would still have complained but would have tolerated the forums better.)

    Telltale has figured that it makes more sales by producing interesting story lines, but dumbing them down so you don't have to think so hard. That gets rid of the frustration for some, and you could still call them games, but I wouldn't call them adventure games anymore. An adventure game is all about exploring your surroundings to find what has been hidden for you and what interesting things you can make happen. If all you do is make a choice every now and then, well, you could have played it on your DVD remote.

    I haven't bought any of the new-style games since they started this. Just Hector, the two Puzzle Agents, and the first Poker Night. (I would have bought the second, but Telltale doesn't want to sell a non-Steam PC version.) I might buy one of the newer games someday, but it will be competing with a movie purchase, not an adventure game purchase.

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    Vainamoinen Moderator

    For me, a big part of Sam and Max's charm was the element of exploration, goofing around and doing stuff you're not supposed to just because you can. Clicking every little trinket in the office or Stinky's Diner, using inventory items in strange ways, asking people to rub your unicorn...if you can do it, no matter how useless it was, there was probably dialogue for it. SBCG4AP took it a step further by including a bunch of collectibles, rewarding crazy exploration. Meanwhile, Telltale's current games keep you on a short leash. Stay in one area, do some dialogue and QTEs. Maybe if you're lucky you can walk around and solve a super-easy puzzle. Then move on to the next area. It's depressing, to be frank.

    How come that people keep explaining the rewards of exploration and experimentation in this way?

    "goofing around", "doing stuff you're not supposed to", "using inventory items in strange ways", etc. - all this describes activities which are, conceptually, not really part of the game; and they also describe an expectation of strictly humorous and amusing, possibly off-key/non sequitur or fourth wall breaking results. When Jake hit on the subject in one of his lasts posts on this forum, he described these mechanics as an "interactive joke generator", making the very same mistake (and Alcoremortis did in the DF forums just a few days ago, which was of course "not what she meant" eventually, so I'm glad the initial post here is as precise as possible). But, heck, there's so much more to the mechanic. It's a conversation with the protagonist about him and his environment, one steered by the player, creating immersion. It can be applied to any setting, absolutely not just the funny parody one.

    The whole "evolution" discussion is a traditional adventure game red herring. Evolution is adjustment and diversification. Both can go wrong. Telltale clearly aims at delivering a 'pure' story game, and they're working admirably hard at it. In my opinion, it's an impossible concept though. To sum up what I've been pondering and discussing at length these last three years in different forums:

    • a story is always linear
    • the limitations of "choice and consequence" mechanics are all encompassing
    • the choice results and the impossibility of some outcomes are ridiculously foreseeable
    • the game designer's sleight of hand in plot choice based games is blatantly obvious
    • shoving plot choice into the hero's path results in a far more artificial narrative than any puzzle enhanced game
    • shoving plot choice into the hero's path makes for a worse story: no good book or movie would present a protagonist with so many so meaningless choices. In most good narratives, the hero faces ONE important choice, and would he choose differently, there would be no story to tell.


    I still believe that these shortcomings are so obvious that they will, one day in the not too distant future, become obvious to Telltale's designers, who will become dissatisfied with their products and make massive changes to their games. Plot choice is just a fashion in gaming today, nothing else. It will likely blow over, because there's no way to overcome its obvious faults. In fleeing from player challenges like puzzles, Telltale has entered a cul-de-sac. Are puzzles, on the contrary, timeless and will they come back instead? Probably not, unfortunately. But gameplay is TTG's weak point, one they will have to work on. There will be an interactive substitute, hopefully really really soon.

    In the more immediate future, I'd expect different attempts at tackling the interactivity problem without giving up the 'plot choice' approach to begin with. QTEs are nothing but consoley crutches for the feeling of immersion, an action-adventurey substitute could be devised. The backgrounds have turned into pretty, but static and dull dioramas, a real 3D engine with far more explorable environments may hopefully be even as close as in the Borderlands game. Those are elementary ways to beef up Telltale's version of the 'adventure game'. They could happen pretty soon.

  • I think the problem has more to do with the trend games are taking across the board rather than just with Telltale. When playing a game 20 years ago, we were basically thrown into the game world having to fend for ourselves. No one told us what the objective was or how to accomplish it. We just had to play the game and figure out what to do as we went along. It seems like gamers today expect the game to pretty much play for itself. They're told exactly what they need to do and how to go about doing it. Not a whole lot of thought or planning involved. That's the reason I quit playing FPS games. I used to be big into them in the '90s, but the garbage they come out with now isn't even remotely fun to me.

    On a side note, I did enjoy Planetside 2 until everyone on the server gave up tactics and treated it as a deathmatch. I haven't played it in over a year because of that.

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