Post Script

With four games on the go, Tell­tale’s for­mula risks be­ing stretched too thin

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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.

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