UN­HAPPY END­ING

The tragedy of Tell­tale Games: how a pi­o­neer of in­ter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling be­came an­other in­dus­try ca­su­alty

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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.

’Tale’s end

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.

Mon­key busi­ness

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.

Writ­ers’ blocks

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.

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