I’ve definitely come to have my problems with Telltale of late. Telltale rose to popularity doing games like the Sam & Max series and relaunching Monkey Island. Their games, at that time, were classic point and click adventure games in the spirit of King’s Quest, Space Quest, and the original Monkey Island games. They involved smart scripts, inventory puzzles, and just smart, intelligent puzzles in general. They put out a Back to the Future game that received a lot of fanfare, a Jurassic Park game that didn’t, and then things got interesting with their first Walking Dead game.
Instead of focusing on puzzles, they focused on story-telling and player choices. You didn’t have to to scour the environment for clues or objects, or use your brain to try to solve tricky puzzles. Instead, Telltale’s games became all about making a decision between two bad outcomes, and trying to stomach the results of whatever you just did, and whatever you didn’t do. The first game was hugely successful, and it grabbed me with its potential to be the video game version of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Immediately after completing my first playthrough of the first chapter, I went ahead and created a second playthrough where I made all of the polar opposite choices. I wanted to see the part of the game I must have missed with the choices I didn’t make. And that’s when I found out that I had missed absolutely nothing.
Despite Telltale marketing this game based on player choices, and making claims that the gameplay would “radically” and “drastically” change the gameplay and player experience based on those choices, the end result was negligible. Choose to save one character instead of another? Didn’t matter, the character you saved would die shortly thereafter anyway. All of this was because the team was building the game, and creating each chapter, as the previous chapter was being published. They didn’t have the time or the budget to create truly branching story lines, or choices that resulted in truly different outcomes. Whatever you did, they needed all players to essentially be in the same place at the beginning of the next chapter, and with Season Two, at the beginning of the next game. Essentially all choices had to be boiled down into the same set of results.
And while that disappointed me, A LOT, what made it worse was the audience continuing to buy what Telltale was selling hook, line, and sinker. The first game won a lot of Game of the Year Awards and received universal praise, and the second game continued to be marketed based on the hook of player choices determining gameplay, with that being the only real type of gameplay in the game. And the reality is that those choices are never more than cosmetic, and determine nothing. These games are nowhere near as fun as Telltale’s Sam & Max games, and don’t really require any kind of thinking. The need to choose between two bad outcomes is undercut by the knowledge that the result will never be more than cosmetic, as well as the fact that, over time, the player starts to get numbed by every decision creating two bad outcomes. The trophies are all story-based, so nothing is missable. You could literally just never make a choice when presented with them in dialogues/conversation, and the end result won’t be much different from those made via passionate involvement. The same can be said of Telltale’s recent The Wolf Among Us game, based on the Bill Willingham comic book series, Fables. Yet, Telltale’s games are now more popular than ever, with a Borderlands game and a Game of Thrones game on the way, and a solid bet of a Season 3 of The Walking Dead coming some time after that.
It’s a good thing for Telltale that the stories they’re telling are compelling, because at this point, that’s the only thing going for them. I love Telltale, and I still enjoy their games, but I long for them to go back to games with puzzles in them, or to actually deliver on the way they’ve been describing their current slate. I want a Walking Dead game where, during one playthrough, I only see perhaps 25% of the game. To see the rest, and collect all of the trophies, I’d have to go back and do multiple playthroughs, and make very different choices… and the game itself would alter its course irrevocably. I just want the game that Telltale has been selling to us but not delivering. I also want them to fix their broken game engine that sees a lot of really unnecessary stuttering for a game requiring such low memory. Yes, their cell animation is gorgeous, but there’s no reason the game has to pause the way it constantly does. Until then, I’ll still buy their games and enjoy them, but they’re no longer in the 9-10 score range for me, and I won’t be making any more day-one or season pass purchases. Instead I’ll wait until after the whole game is released and the entire bundle goes on sale for $5-$10. That will also save me from having to endure the multiple month-long waits in chapter delays, something that has continued to plague Telltale over their last three game releases.