With four games on the go, Telltale’s formula risks being stretched too thin
We’re worried about Telltale. This is a studio that pledged a new episode of The Walking Dead’s first season would be released every month. That eventually slipped to every couple of months, with presumed certification hiccoughs often keeping PS3 owners waiting a little longer. Players on all platforms fell foul of bugs, the most severe of which deleted their save files – hardly ideal in a game so heavily focused on choice and consequence.
The Walking Dead’s stunning success meant most forgave Telltale its trespasses, even giving it the status of the go-to studio for other forms of storytelling media looking for a videogame adaptation. First came The Wolf Among Us, based on the Fables comic series. VGX brought announcements of two more projects: one based on Borderlands, the other on HBO’s Game Of Thrones TV series. While Telltale has doubtless used The Walking Dead’s sales success to significantly expand, the concern that its resources are being stretched too thin already have some weight. We were told new episodes of The Wolf Among Us would be released every one to two months. The first debuted in midOctober; the second has slipped to 2014.
Yet it is not simply in terms of resources that Telltale risks pushing itself too far. Its gameplay template – exploration and discovery, choice and consequence, life and death – will now be used to power not one, but four games. And a playthrough of All That Remains raises concerns that this powerful formula is already losing a little of its magic.
In fact, the shine came off for us before that. For all the tear-jerking power of Season One’s climax, its close brought with it confirmation that many choices had little to no effect on events. The big narrative decisions all led somewhere, of course, but many of the incidental screen-corner warnings that a fellow survivor would remember what we’d just said after a dialogue choice turned out to be of little consequence.
A replay of Season One further highlights the use of smoke and mirrors. The opening episode, A New Day, featured the first instance of one of Telltale’s favourite tricks: forcing the player to save one character from death and leave the other to fend for themselves. In this case, it was a choice between Duck or Shawn, though there was no choice to be had. Save Duck and Shawn gets bitten; save Shawn and he gets bitten anyway, with Duck surviving. And as the season progressed, leaving Telltale to write around a branching series of choices – by the start of the final episode, there were 32 potential decision paths for the writing staff to contend with – even real choices were quickly rendered moot. Save the gormless, cowardly Ben in the fourth episode and he’ll be killed early in the fifth. Why should we feel any attachment to the new group Clem meets in Season Two when the first series taught us that they’ll all end up dead or despicable?
We weren’t to know any of this at the time, and an implied consequence can be every bit as powerful as a real one during your first playthrough. Yet the reappearance of Telltale’s formula in All That Remains invites suspicion or, at worst, apathy.
The seams haven’t burst; they’re just a little more visible now. The Walking Dead’s first season succeeded because of the apparent weight of its decisions and its wellrealised central relationship between Clem and Lee. With the former’s impact watered down through familiarity and the latter gone entirely, Telltale has far more to prove in the game’s second run than simply showing that Clementine is capable of standing on her own two feet. It needs to show that our choices still matter, that our dialogue decisions have real weight, and that this undoubtedly powerful formula can withstand being stretched across not just a difficult second season, but three other series, too.