Let it be said: Telltale are a team of great storytellers. What they’re often not so hot on however, is finding engaging and meaningful modes of gameplay in which to tell these worthwhile narratives. Having worked with some of media’s most popular brands and licenses in Batman, Game of Thrones, and even Back to the Future, time and time again Telltale’s games disappoint from a sheer technological perspective, frequently forcing players to best their way through bugs and glitches in order to enjoy a story worth experiencing. This has led me to question, can it be much longer until the Telltale template is broken?
For me, Telltale’s work has never shone brighter than that of their handling of the Borderlands license in 2014. As well as being the IP that best capitalised on the studio’s signature cell-shaded art-style, it handled humour in a way that was clever, effective, but perhaps most importantly original. Admittedly it did have the advantage of not needing to live up to expectations (so few people doubted it would work), yet such a masterclass in humour and character development is to be applauded nonetheless.
Even Tales from the Borderlands however, couldn’t escape the various framerate stutters and graphical hiccups that so often mar Telltale’s core point and click offerings. At its worst Telltale’s game engine Telltale Tool renders characters completely invisible, leaves lip-synching totally by the way side, and can sometimes even cause unsalvageable game crashes. You might find yourself wondering why this is such an issue. To that I’d respond: Immersion.
All of Telltale’s games post-The Walking Dead have made a point of telling episodic stories dependant on immersing the player, but this simply isn’t possible. While 2015’s utterly excellent episodic adventure game Life is Strange wasn’t perfect (the lip synching in particular left a lot to be desired), it really placed you in the shoes of tortured high school student Max Caulfield.
The reason why Don’t Nod Entertainment were able to do this so successfully, is because elements such as music, timing, gameplay, and story were so cohesive. All combine to better help transport you in that world, putting you in the correct mindset needed to make decisions as if you really were a tortured teenage soul. Telltale have some of these factors down, but it can’t entirely be effective until their engine is fixed.
Of course as well as Telltale Tool, adventure game critics also often throw shade Telltale’s way for simply lack of innovation in terms of how the game plays. I’m less bothered by this, as for the most part their episodic release format works well, and directly controlling your character rather than clicking to where you want them to go is my preferred method of action. In general, if Activison can get away with having Call of Duty feel the same every year, it’d be hypocritical to judge Telltale on the same merits, especially considering how much smaller they are.
So we return to the core question: “How much longer until the Telltale template is broken?”. Unfortunately, as long as the studio stay intent on poorly optimising their games in order to release them on every platform known to man nothing will change. The good news is that sales figures show a noticeable downwards trajectory, and no Telltale game has managed to reach the critical heights of the first season of The Walking Dead. If this doesn’t give them a kick, I don’t know what will.