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Talking a good game

New studio, new season: can Telltale’s return to Fabletown blow our house down?

- Developer Publisher Format Origin Release Telltale Games, AdHoc Studio Telltale Games PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series US 2023

Billy Basso, creator of Animal Well, the most absorbing Metroidvan­ia we’ve played in some time, admits that he’s bad at pitching his game. “I’m very confident in it,” he begins. “I’m making a game I like and trying to make it as high quality as possible.” Trying to describe it? That’s a bigger challenge – particular­ly when people view certain elements of it as instant red flags. “People are like: ‘Pixel art: boring’, ‘2D platformer: boring’. I have to jump all these hurdles to actually get people to pay attention.”

There’s the rub: the dominant currency in our always-online world is attention. When everything is vying for visibility, how do you convince people to take notice of the thing you’ve made? To that end, Basso contacted former Nintendo alumnus Dan Edelman for help. “Since working with Dan, I think I’ve been able to understand the game a lot better, or at least what makes it cool,” he says. “And now I’m able to articulate that.”

Not everything fits snugly into a neat elevator pitch, of course. With its blend of exploratio­n, survival systems and rhythm-action interludes, Inkle’s genre-fluid A Highland Song could easily seem, according to writer and narrative director Jon Ingold, like “custard and noodles”. Which is perhaps why they were happy to sit down with us and explain why the studio that has “never made a game with a jump button before” is, well, doing just that.

Some games, though, need little introducti­on. Nintendo, in its infinite wisdom, has decided it doesn’t need word of mouth to make Nintendo Switch Sports a hit, forbidding those involved in its online play test from talking about it. We imagine plenty of people were already on board with the very idea of a sequel to The Wolf Among Us before the new iteration of Telltale announced it. And others speak for themselves. The many hours we spend perfecting our platinum-medal times in the demo for Neon White? Why, that just helps us better explain why it deserves your considerat­ion.

Plenty has changed in the world of Fables during the six months between The Wolf Among Us and its sequel. It’s now winter. Snow White has replaced her former boss as deputy mayor of Fabletown. Bigby Wolf has been temporaril­y relieved of his duties as town sheriff, and forced to attend an angermanag­ement group, as the result of a violent altercatio­n with a certain tin man and a scarecrow. It’s at this point that he meets a non-fable (or “mundy” as they’re known here) detective called Faye, who asks him for help on a case. “This time around, New York City plays a much bigger role in the game,” Telltale CEO Jamie Ottilie tells us. “Bigby will struggle with where he fits in the two worlds.”

Plenty more has changed in the real world during the almost ten-year gap between the original release and the launch of its successor. Not least, of course, the demise of Telltale as it was. Malibu-based publisher LCG Entertainm­ent acquired the rights to most of its intellectu­al property in 2019, and quickly revealed it was beginning work on the Telltale sequel for which most players had been clamouring. Yet it was a controvers­ial announceme­nt given the circumstan­ces of the original publisher’s demise: the end came swiftly and suddenly, with many employees let go without a severance package. Ottilie, for his part, said, “Give us some time to ramp up and then judge us by the work we do, not by a past over which we had no part or control.”

Notwithsta­nding the length of time it would ordinarily take a sequel to reach fruition, it’s understand­able that this new iteration of Telltale would want to keep its powder dry for a while. With the dust having long settled on the acquisitio­n, and the developmen­t team in a position to prepare a promotiona­l trailer for this second episodic series, it makes sense to talk now. So why announce it way back in 2019? “There were many people who missed the news or weren’t sure what we meant by ‘a new Telltale’,” Ottilie says. “There was speculatio­n and so many questions as we started our social channels back up. Even though we’d just entered preproduct­ion, we felt it was important to be as transparen­t as possible for both our investors and fans, and get ahead of any rumours. And what better place to get the word out than a huge stage like The Game Awards?”

That lengthy wait was partly down to getting a new developmen­t team establishe­d, while aiming to build “a stable, non-crunch work environmen­t”. Not to mention the small matter of a pandemic. Ottilie says that none of the problems it created was unique to Telltale, but that the timing wasn’t exactly ideal. “We were still working on things like the script and character design when we

were forced to go remote, so there were a lot of long video calls instead of all being in the studio together,” he says.

Talking of studios, it’s worth noting that the game is being developed with AdHoc Studio, which was set up by four former Telltale alumni who left shortly before the axe fell. Significan­tly, three of those people were directly involved in the first season’s opening episode: writer Pierre Shorette (AdHoc’s CCO) and co-directors Dennis Lenart (the studio’s COO) and Nick Herman (CTO) are reprising their roles here. Ottilie says that continuity was a priority from the start. “We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to work with the same creative leadership from the first game, as they have such a strong vision and feel for this world and these characters,” he says. The studio might have been set up with a view to working on liveaction narrative games, but Ottilie says AdHoc was delighted to have the opportunit­y to further explore the world of Fables.

That meant starting again in more ways than one, beginning with a move over to Unreal Engine. “The challenges with the old proprietar­y engine were well-known,” Ottilie admits, the politest possible way of saying it wasn’t fit for purpose. But it was important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, he adds. “We wanted the speed, power, flexibilit­y and art pipeline of Unreal. However, we still needed our proprietar­y tools for many aspects like enabling quick iteration and our choice-driven episodic gameplay, so we had to refresh those tools to sit atop and work with the new engine.” Then came custom lighting and shaders to keep The Wolf Among Us 2’s aesthetic consistent with the original – and, indeed, the comics on which it was based.

Which isn’t to say this is a story purely for fans of the first. New players should, Ottilie says, be able to come in at this point and understand what’s going on – even if he hopes some will revisit the first season beforehand.

“We strive to design our narratives so they can stand on their own. We think the opening of the first episode sets things up in such a way that the player understand­s how the characters got where they are now.”

And Telltale is preparing to welcome a host of newcomers to the cast list, too. Faye, Ottilie explains, “brings all the complicati­ons of the real world with her”, with the Big Apple itself playing a much bigger role. Then we have a stoner scarecrow and a hulking tin man, with whom Bigby grapples in his vulpine form. Not to mention Dorothy Gale, whose blithe indifferen­ce to the brawl going on around her is a reminder that the comic-book version of the character is about as far from Judy Garland as it’s possible to get.

Which isn’t to say that Telltale doesn’t have the room to leave its own mark on these characters. “We look for areas that provide enough creative freedom to tell interestin­g and fresh stories but that could also become canon to the bigger universe,” Ottilie says. “At the heart of it, we are storytelle­rs and it doesn’t make sense to simply repeat stories that have already been told. But it’s also important to capture the spirit of the original material and be faithful enough that we bring its fans along with us on the journey.”

Indeed, the game will remain faithful to the episodic release format of the first season, albeit with the whole season being ready before the first episode launches, to ensure it avoids the delays that affected many Telltale games. Since 2013, we’ve grown accustomed to streaming services serving up entire seasons all at once, even if there has been something of a binge backlash brewing of late. “There’s something about building anticipati­on and allowing players to speculate what might happen next that is an important part of both good storytelli­ng and Telltale games,” Ottilie says. “When done well, like some of the recent limited series we’ve seen on streaming channels these last few years, you can capture the collective imaginatio­n and a moment in culture.” Whether TWAU2 can become the game equivalent of appointmen­t viewing remains to be seen, but in its big, bad lead, it has someone who certainly knows how to make an entrance.

“We look for areas that provide enough creative freedom to tell fresh stories”

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 ?? ?? There were COVID-related challenges, Ottilie admits, but “we were building the company on a more sustainabl­e, distribute­d model, so we were already using some of the same collaborat­ion tools that we all came to rely on heavily during the pandemic”
There were COVID-related challenges, Ottilie admits, but “we were building the company on a more sustainabl­e, distribute­d model, so we were already using some of the same collaborat­ion tools that we all came to rely on heavily during the pandemic”
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 ?? ?? The former Telltale staff at AdHoc and the new studio are a single team, Ottilie says. “It’s actually AdHoc resources and Telltale resources working together as one production team under unified management”
The former Telltale staff at AdHoc and the new studio are a single team, Ottilie says. “It’s actually AdHoc resources and Telltale resources working together as one production team under unified management”
 ?? ?? TOP The original’s distinctiv­e look has been retained for the sequel, albeit with a raft of visual enhancemen­ts.
TOP The original’s distinctiv­e look has been retained for the sequel, albeit with a raft of visual enhancemen­ts.
 ?? ?? RIGHT Adam Harrington will reprise his role as Bigby Wolf, with Erin Yvette also returning to voice Snow
RIGHT Adam Harrington will reprise his role as Bigby Wolf, with Erin Yvette also returning to voice Snow
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 ?? ?? ABOVE The studio believes that the benefits of releasing new episodes on a regular basis offset the inability to adapt the story based on player feedback. “We’ve internalis­ed much of that process this time around,” Ottilie says. “We’ve been able to test and get feedback along the way.” MAIN Telltale’s internal motion-capture setup has “allowed us to iterate more quickly” – and has clearly had a positive impact on the standard of animation
ABOVE The studio believes that the benefits of releasing new episodes on a regular basis offset the inability to adapt the story based on player feedback. “We’ve internalis­ed much of that process this time around,” Ottilie says. “We’ve been able to test and get feedback along the way.” MAIN Telltale’s internal motion-capture setup has “allowed us to iterate more quickly” – and has clearly had a positive impact on the standard of animation
 ?? ?? TOP Ottilie: “We’re introducin­g a host of new characters that people may or may not expect, doing things they may not expect.”
TOP Ottilie: “We’re introducin­g a host of new characters that people may or may not expect, doing things they may not expect.”

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