The tragedy of Telltale Games: how a pioneer of interactive storytelling became another industry casualty
Even by Telltale’s standards, the final twist was shocking. This studio of storytellers had, after all, seemed back to its best. Batman: The Enemy Within was considered a vast improvement on the disappointing first season. The Walking Dead: The Final Season, the last bow for the studio’s best-loved character, Clementine, had got off to a stellar start. And yet, on 21 September 2018, four days before the release of its second episode, rumours quickly became reality: Telltale released a statement announcing a “majority closure” and the loss of 250 jobs. Though it said it would retain a skeleton staff of just 25 employees – in theory, to finish its episodic collaboration with Netflix, an adaptation of the studio’s Minecraft: Story Mode – it was, to all intents and purposes, the end of Telltale Games. Steadily, details behind the closure began to emerge. Ultimately, the axe fell as a result of several big-money deals falling through. Having invested a significant sum in a proposed live-action interactive collaboration, entertainment company Lionsgate withdrew its funding. And when both TV channel AMC and South Korean game company Smilegate also pulled out, Telltale found itself with no other option. Its deal with Netflix – which was set to include a future game based on sci-fi throwback Stranger Things – was not enough to save the studio.
The 250 affected staff were told to leave immediately, with no severance pay, and barely over a week’s worth of health insurance left. The development community, led by Telltale’s newly laid-off narrative designer Emily Grace Buck, rallied round, sharing details of positions on social media to find jobs for all those who’d lost theirs, including several new staff who had only just relocated to California. A job fair was organised specifically for Telltale staff. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead: The Final Season was essentially left in limbo: the second episode came out as planned, but notably without including a preview for the following chapter. The story introduced several new threads, which were obviously designed to pay off later down the line – clear evidence that no
“ULTIMATELY THE AXE FELL AS A RESULT OF SEVERAL BIG-MONEY DEALS FALLING THROUGH”
one, at least on the creative side, had seen this coming.
Yet with hindsight, the news hadn’t quite come entirely out of the blue. There had already been a number of layoffs in November 2017 with around 90 staff (essentially a quarter of Telltale’s workforce) let go. In March, meanwhile, a damning expose from The Verge reported that the studio’s best talent had been consistently drifting away, disillusioned with crunch conditions and executive-level demands. Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, the two lead writers of The Walking Dead’s critically-acclaimed first season, had long since left to found their own studio, Campo Santo (whose own game, Firewatch, was one of a number of narrative-led games Telltale now found itself competing against) and they were just the start.
Then came the almost unfathomable reports – albeit citing anonymous sources – that, of the studio’s recent output, only The Walking Dead’s first season and Minecraft: Story Mode had been profitable. It seems hard to believe, though it’s true that Telltale had grown significantly since The Walking Dead without coming close to matching its commercial success. Strong competition from other narrative-led games (Dontnod’s Life Is Strange being the most prominent example) was a likely factor. Meanwhile, the demands of creating episodes to a tight schedule meant that the studio struggled to match the benchmark for quality it had set with The Walking Dead. The Wolf Among Us was just the first game to suffer delays to its release schedule, while the studio’s dogged insistence on sticking with its bespoke engine caused technical problems, particularly on console. And by 2014’s adaptation of fantasy epic Game Of Thrones, the Telltale formula was beginning to feel decidedly stale: since The Walking Dead, all of its stories had been shoehorned into a one-size-fits-all template that, well, wasn’t exactly a snug fit for all the franchises it had acquired. It had, quite simply, spread itself too thinly, with its bosses believing that simply staffing up was the solution. By 2017’s Guardians Of The Galaxy: The Telltale Series, Telltale was hitting its episodic schedules, but it now had around 400 employees. Something had to give, and so it proved.
While the Telltale story is, in the end, a cautionary one, it began 14 years ago with a wave of optimism. Troy Molander, Dan Connors, and Kevin Bruner, a trio who had worked together at Lucas Arts,
founded the company with the aim of continuing their former employer’s legacy in episodic form. In fact, it hoped to achieve that with the help of a detective duo familiar to LucasArts fans: Sam & Max. Owing to a squabble over the rights to the game, Telltale built a Texas hold’em game and two titles based on Jeff Smith’s comic book Bone, plus the first of three episodic games based on the CSI TV series for Ubisoft, before it obtained the rights to Sam & Max from original creator Steve Purcell. Purcell helped co-write and direct Sam & Max Save The World, which saw monthly releases between October 2006 and April 2007. A funny, albeit fairly conventional, point-and-click adventure, very much in the LucasArts mould, it was warmly received and sold well enough for Telltale to release a sequel one year later, and then a third game in 2010.
Telltale’s apparent desire to become the new LucasArts had a lot to do with the old LucasArts. Many of the latter company’s staff had now jumped ship, including, notably, Dave Grossman, co-designer of some of LucasArts’ best-loved games. Over the next five or six years Telltale made a name for itself as the new custodian of the adventure genre. Strong Bad’s Cool Game For Attractive People, based on web comic Homestar Runner, came next, before Telltale teamed up with Aardman for Wallace & Gromit’s Grand Adventures. It raided the LucasArts vaults one more time in 2009 with Tales Of Monkey Island, the first new entry in the series since Escape From Monkey Island, nine years before.
By now, Telltale had settled into a groove and was attracting wider attention. It struck a deal with NBC Universal to produce two more episodic games, based on Back To The Future and Jurassic Park. The former was the more successful of the two, attracting Christopher Lloyd to reprise his role as Doc Brown, while Bob Gale, co-creator of the films, earned a writing credit for the game’s story. Jurassic Park, by contrast, was widely panned – and yet in some ways it was the more important of the two releases. It focused much more on story over puzzles, featured a final decision that determined the game’s ending, and had action sequences based around quick-time events. In other words, Telltale was beginning to experiment with the narrative template that would soon bring the studio its biggest hit.
Having inked a deal with Skybound to produce an episodic series based on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic books, Telltale assembled a talented team, including Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman, alongside Rogue One/ The Book Of Eli writer Gary Whitta.
At first, The Walking Dead threw a few bones to Telltale’s point-and-click audience, with rudimentary puzzles to solve, but in many other ways it followed Jurassic Park’s lead, prioritising story over systems. It differed from that game in two main ways: a series of tough moral choices would allow the player to shape the narrative; and, more
importantly, the writing and characterisation was far superior.
Telling the story of a teacher-turned-convict and the young girl who becomes his surrogate daughter, The Walking Dead was an instant hit – partly thanks to the success of the TV series, although many suggested the game’s storytelling was better than the show’s. Either way, the burgeoning father-daughter relationship at the core of the game won players over, and the series became Telltale’s biggest hit to date. The choices and their different outcomes turned each episode into a watercooler moment, and the series subsequently won a hatful of awards, ultimately helping usher in a new wave of narrative-led games.
Everything seemed to be going well for Telltale, as it stuck with comics for its next project, albeit with a lesser-known name: Bill Willingham’s Fables, a story about fairytale characters eking out an existence in New York. Visually, The Wolf Among Us was an improvement on The Walking Dead, with its noirish use of shadow juxtaposed with saturated colour. However, with a second season of The Walking Dead being made concurrently, frequent episode delays demonstrated that Telltale was already having difficulties managing two projects at once. Regardless, this dark, twisted tale ended up as a cult favourite. Meanwhile, with Clementine promoted to the lead role, The Walking Dead: Season Two was another triumph – if not as popular as the first with either critics or audiences.
Telltale dipped into comedy for its next big project: Tales From The Borderlands offered a fresh, funny take on Gearbox’s RPG. The studio released its first kid-friendly game since its move away from point-and-click with 2015’s Minecraft: Story Mode, using the world and blocky art style of Mojang’s mega-hit for a witty but uneven adventure – it was clear there were problems with the story when five episodes became eight, though this may well have been partly down to commercial considerations, since it was the studio’s biggest hit for some time. Otherwise, the studio was still attracting major names without achieving the sales to match. Game Of Thrones failed to capture the imagination of the show’s fans, and despite a consistent monthly schedule and a new engine, Batman: The Telltale Series was a flop. Even the cast-iron Marvel brand took a hit with its adaptation of Guardians Of The Galaxy, which seemed to suffer as much as anything from a lack of promotion.
After last year’s layoffs, new CEO Pete Hawley promised a focus on quality over quantity, with the studio taking on fewer but potentially more lucrative projects. Its deal with Netflix seemed to be just the start: at the time of writing, its adaptation of Minecraft: Story Mode still appears to be going ahead, though the studio’s adaptation of Stranger Things won’t see the light of day – Netflix says it’s exploring other options to bring that to fruition. In the meantime, Robert Kirkman’s company, Skybound, has reportedly reached a deal with Telltale to finish Clementine’s story, apparently “with members of the original team” – though as yet it’s unclear how that might happen. Either way, we can only hope Clementine has a happier ending than her makers.
“WE CAN ONLY HOPE THE WALKING DEAD’S CLEMENTINE HAS A HAPPIER ENDING THAN HER MAKERS”
A subtle shift in art style brought TWD: The Final Season closer to the comic books in look. It remains to be seen whether Clem’s journey will be fully completed.
Minecraft: Story Mode stuck to Telltale’s usual template, but was a hit with younger audiences, spawning a second season last year.
The Walking Dead games occasionally featured established characters from Robert Kirkman’s universe, notably in a three-episode mini-series based around Michonne.