Phillip Pullman once suggested that “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” The world of video games, however, hasn’t always been considered as fertile ground for great storytelling, but important strides are being made in the industry to redress this imbalance.
One company making such strides is Telltale Games, an independent studio founded in 2004 by a group of former LucasArts employees who just wanted to make great adventure games. In the 11 years since they released their first title, Telltale Texas Hold'em, the studio has won dozens of awards, worked with huge franchises and beloved names (including Game of Thrones and Minecraft) and led the way in turning traditional gaming-industry doctrine on its head. Simply put, Telltale Games are 21st century storytellers, in every sense of the term.
Back in July, we took a trip to the studio’s HQ, tucked away within the golden hills of Marin County, California, to find out firsthand what makes Telltale who they are. At the time, the team was busy preparing for the launch of Batman: The Telltale Series, whose second episode, “Children of Arkham,” drops tomorrow. They were also juggling season three of The Walking Dead, an untitled project with Marvel and a brand new IP which is curiously referred to as a “Super Show.”
The first thing you notice about Telltale’s offices is the pop culture merchandise that adorns every desk, wall and cabinet. The company’s website acknowledges that 88 percent of its staff own comic books, and it shows. Whether it’s a copy of the Watchmen graphic novel or a Rick & Morty figurine, you can probably spot a reference to a thousand movies, television shows and books somewhere around the two floors that make up the Telltale workspace. That passion for great storytelling feeds into the work.
The company’s website acknowledges that 88 percent of its staff own comic books, and it shows.
“We’re always using scenes from film, television and so on as reference points for what we want to achieve in certain moments of the story,” says Pierre Shorette, Telltale’s director of writing. “By the time that scene is finally produced, no one will be able to make those connections, because they just act as a springboard for what we were aiming for. The bar fight in The Wolf Among Us [the studio’s 2013 crime thriller, based on the Fables comic book series] was inspired by a scene from the movie Gone Baby Gone, but they play out completely differently if you compare them side by side.”
It’s not just fiction that team Telltale draw from in their work. The nature of their distribution model, in which they launch their games in the form of seasons, releasing episodes every few months, allows them to incorporate fan feedback into the live development of the episodes. Job Stauffer, Telltale’s head of creative communications, points to Tales from the Borderlands as the best example of this process. “We premiered the first episode at the Alamo Drafthouse in Texas, and it surprised us how the audience reacted to the character of Loader Bot. We had no idea the fans would respond so positively to him, and certainly hadn’t planned for that in terms of where the story was going.”
This led the team to rework the role of Loader Bot, who was eventually revealed to be the mysterious character of ‘the Stranger’, whose identity had previously been a source for much speculation among fans ever since the season premiere. “Things like that were not planned,” says Stauffer, “It was all a reaction to the live feedback we received. That story would have gone in a completely different direction otherwise.”
“It’s like cheating!” adds Shorette. “That character was supposed to explode and never show up again within twenty minutes of episode one. It’s so great to be able to fix something that was so off that early in the project.”
Telltale cofounder Dan Connors gives another, shrewder example of this commitment to incorporating fan feedback. “There is the moment in The Walking Dead’s first season where Duck and Lee are searching for missing supplies, and Duck says ‘You be Batman and I’ll be Robin!’ The inclusion of that scene was our response to players telling us they had found Duck to be annoying up to that point, which would have undermined the emotional impact of his death. By the end of that scene, he puts his hand up and you can either give him a high five or leave him hanging. That was our way of measuring how many players had been able to connect with the character.”
Speaking of The Walking Dead, Connors acknowledges that their critically acclaimed first season in 2012 was something of a turning point for the studio, as it garnered a whole new level of attention and praise for their work. That game’s central relationship between the characters of Lee and Clementine captured everyone’s hearts as the season progressed, leading many outlets to name the title their game of the year—a year which included triple-A heavy hitters like Halo 4, Borderlands 2 and Dishonored. It may not seem like it now, but an episodic, digitally released independent adventure game taking centerstage in 2012 was a turning point for the industry itself.
Stauffer has fond memories of the 2012 Video Game Awards show in Los Angeles, in which The Walking Dead won the Game of the Year award and Telltale was named the Studio of the Year. “Literally none of us expected it. I remember talking with Dan and Kevin [Bruner, cofounder and CEO] and hearing the words, ‘Adventure games are back.’ It wasn’t just a win for Telltale; it was a win for smaller developers and the industry as a whole.”
As for Shorette, he just remembers all of the Game of the Year trophies that would show up outside his desk, which happened to be located right next to where the incoming mail was stored at the office. “It definitely made us feel the pressure as we were writing season two, constantly seeing all these awards for a game I was now working on the sequel to!“
Telltale has developed close partnerships with the likes of DC, Gearbox, HBO and others to work on a variety of titles set in the worlds of established franchises, from Borderlands to Batman. By producing such quality work in expanding the lore of these beloved universes, Telltale has managed to transcend the stigma historically associated with licensed titles, usually relegated to knockoff movie tie-in games. According to Connors, the secret to this success depends on the studio’s passion for the fiction itself.
“We decide on the content in the first place because we believe there was something there worth making a great story out of,” he explains. “We’re never going to just hash it out because we know what happens if we try to do that. Kevin and I were at LucasArts for many years, and so we’re familiar with the processes of interpreting a license in the games industry.”
Telltale aren’t just making games, however; they have a history with publishing them too. As an independent studio, which Connor’s considers as “crucial” to the success of the company, Telltale has been able to self-publish its titles and even support other developers in bringing their games to market. Just this year, Telltale Publishing has released the survival crafting game 7 Days to Die onto current consoles, and more recently they worked with Night School Studios to launch its Mr. Robot mobile experience for Android and iOS.
It’s not the only area in which the company is looking to expand its horizons. With Batman: The Telltale Series, the studio not only bundled in an after-show talk panel series that can be viewed following each episode; they also implemented their first form of local multiplayer—a unique “crowd play” feature that allows players to vote on in-game choices as they progress through the story.
“We are now in a position where we’re constantly trying to evolve the means of storytelling,” says Connors. “The episodes are always at the core of it, but there can be whole new experiences of using the web and leveraging crowd play in different ways. We want to continue to redefine what entertainment can mean.”
Telltale may be in the business of making games, then, but these games are designed for anyone to be able to enjoy (though we recommend letting your young ‘uns start off on Minecraft: Story Mode before touching Game of Thrones). Telltale titles represent an experience that your grandparents or your luddite friends could appreciate; they might just change the common perception of what interactive entertainment can be.
Heated arguments amongst players have flared up as to whether a Telltale video game is even a video game at all. Regardless of the fact that the answer is plainly obvious, the entire debate feels somewhat trivial, but Connors is nevertheless happy to be driving the discussion. “If you’re challenging a norm, that’s good,“ he says. "I don’t think it hurts us to be part of that conversation, because as long as people are enjoying the content and talking about it together, then we’re succeeding.”