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This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us, which you really should play if you haven t already. You might want to skip the second-last footnote if you haven t played Spec Ops: The Line too.
Telltale s games each begin with a warning: This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play. That sets up an expectation plenty of players have been disappointed by—an expectation they ll be able to radically alter the plot, twisting it into something like one of those pictures of a cobweb made by a spider on caffeine. In reality, Telltale s The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and more recently Game Of Thrones and Tales From The Borderlands1 funnel players back to a baseline every couple of episodes. Then they branch, and then they funnel again. It s not The Stanley Parable Adventure Line, but it s a close relative.
There s a moment in the third episode of The Walking Dead when the character you chose to save in the first episode—either Carley or Doug, though for the 75% of us who prefer competent gun-wielding survivors it was Carley—gets unceremoniously killed off. In the moment, it was shocking. Later, when I realized it happens no matter who you save and the decision was at least partially motivated by the cost of writing and recording different dialogue for future episodes (the character in question plays a noticeably reduced role in episode two for the same reason), I felt like I d seen behind the curtain. Some of the impact was reduced.
The choices you make in Telltale games have limited consequences for the plot, it s true. But they have massive consequences for the characterization and theme, which is something few other games offer. There s more to stories than plot, after all.
The comic book The Walking Dead is based on is overt about its theme. At the end of issue 24 Rick Grimes delivers a speech making it very plain, saying we already are savages and then, shouting over a two-page spread, WE ARE THE WALKING DEAD. It s classic Man Is The Real Monster stuff, fitting for a grim series where survivors betray each other constantly. Telltale s game gives you the option of choosing a different interpretation. Lee doesn t have to become hardened by being forced to make hard decisions; he can maintain his belief in human nature and then pass that on to Clem. He dies no matter what, but whether he dies with words of warning or compassion on his lips whether this is a story about hope or fear—is up to you.
Like a lot of zombie fiction the comic takes a cynical view of humanity, suggesting civilization is a thin veneer and we ll fall into savagery as soon as catastrophe strips it away. That s not what happens after disasters in the real world, however. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York, the Gothamist reported that crime rates dropped by 31%. We expect the opposite, sometimes with dangerous consequences. Reports of looting and violence in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina were exaggerated by politicians and the media to such an extent that a bipartisan committee later wrote, The hyped media coverage of violence and lawlessness, legitimized by New Orleans authorities, served to delay relief efforts by scaring away truck and bus drivers, increasing the anxiety of those in shelters, and generally increasing the resources needed for security. 2
Maybe a plague of actual zombies would be enough to turn us into lawless beasts, and if you believe that Telltale will let you tell that story. When the survivors decide to steal from the car at the end of episode two you re welcome to join in. But you can also tell a different story, one about a man who refuses to steal because he wants to set a better example for a child. The endpoint of both those stories is the same if you reduce them to their barest plot points, sure, but why would you?
Similarly, The Wolf Among Us lets you subvert Fables, the comic it s based on. Bigby Wolf is feared because he was once the Big Bad Wolf of legend, but it s on you whether he lives up to that reputation or not. After a bar fight with Grendel you have the option to tear his arm off, Beowulf-style, to ensure he doesn t try it again, or you can simply walk away. The comics often portrayed Bigby as ruthless and apparently Bill Willingham, the writer of Fables, removed Gren s arm when he played the game3. But The Wolf Among Us doesn t have to be another hardened hard man story. Your Bigby doesn t have to be the monster everyone thinks he is, and can take actions that would never happen in the comic it s based on.
Big Choices have become part of the shared toolkit of modern video games—take, for example, retro RPG Wasteland 2. Early on you re forced to decide between saving a settlement or a laboratory, with the obvious implication that the other will be destroyed before you can get to it. The repercussions seem large different areas to explore, different characters to talk to, different missions to complete but while the meat-and-potatoes of the game changes, the theme remains the same either way.
You ll be berated for letting one place be destroyed no matter which you save, but you ll never be asked why you made the choice. Maybe you saved the settlement because there were children there, maybe you saved the lab because trained scientists are more valuable than ordinary folk, maybe your decision was informed by the fact that one provides food and the other water. It doesn t matter. Wasteland 2 doesn t care why bad things happen, it just knows they need to because that s how post-apocalyptic fiction works4.
Forcing us to focus on why we make characters do things brings us closer to them.
Letting players pick their own morals is something Telltale s games have in common with Edgar Allan Poe s stories. The author of The Tell-Tale Heart disliked the idea of writers forcing a single reading of their work, or bending all their stories to an overarching morality. While the murderer who narrates The Tell-Tale Heart is wracked with guilt and eventually confesses, the murderer who narrates The Cask Of Amontillado feels no guilt and suffers no consequence. Poe thought it was better for writers to focus on creating effect (if he was writing today he d probably have said feels ), and that s what Telltale s games achieve 5. Forcing us to focus on why we make characters do things brings us closer to them. It s why the endings of both seasons of The Walking Dead are such tearjerkers, and why we share Bigby s shock at the end of The Wolf Among Us.
The choices in Telltale games aren t just meaningful because they foster this connection with the characters, however. By giving players control not over the plot but over the context that plot happens in, the choices become meaningful in the most literal sense—they let you alter the meaning of the story. That s a rare thing in video games, and worth recognizing.
1 I m focusing on The Wolf Among Us and the two seasons of The Walking Dead in this article because those are complete at the time of writing, though Game Of Thrones seems to be following the formula so far. Three episodes in, Tales From The Borderlands feels like the odd one out given how light-hearted it is. If its final episodes are as good as the first three it might just be Telltale s masterpiece, though.
2 Sociologists have tried to debunk the myth that theft follows disasters, which they call elite panic , but it s a pervasive part of our culture. Even a game like This War Of Mine, which is based loosely on the 1992 1996 siege of Sarajevo, falls prey to it. In This War Of Mine you have to keep guard at night to keep out raiders because your neighbors are as much of a threat as the snipers and bombs. Its initial inspiration was One Year In Hell, the account of a survivor of Sarajevo s siege known only as Selco, who wrote that, In these situations, it all changes. Men become monsters. But accounts from other survivors differ from Selco s, depicting communities coming together, sharing rather than stealing. Selco is the one who got famous, however, and now sells his expertise through online courses for survivalists.
3 That info comes from an interview with the writers of The Wolf Among Us comic (yes, there s a comic based on the game that s based on a comic). The series is still ongoing, but so far it s been weird seeing which Bigby is the Official Canon Bigby. As well as ripping Gren s arm off he burns down Aunty Greenleaf s tree. I like my Bigby better.
4 To pick another example of a game that does things closer to the Telltale way, Spec Ops: The Line forces you to commit an atrocity but allows you to choose how the protagonist feels when confronted by his crime at the game s conclusion. It was just as divisive there s no way to keep playing without killing innocent people but like Telltale s games it lets you determine how the main character feels and whether he s capable of being redeemed or not. It makes for a powerful ending that s like nothing else in modern military shooters.
5 Closer to the hardboiled crime genre The Wolf Among Us was inspired by, Raymond Chandler had similar ideas. Mystery stories are famously dependent on tight plotting, but while writing to one of his editors Chandler explained why he believed his audience cared less about that than was usually assumed: My theory was they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description... Read that back, the creation of emotion through dialogue and description is such a perfect summary of what Telltale do it should be on their business cards.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (Alice O'Connor)
On this week’s episode of Whoa What Wait You’ve Licensed What To Make a Spin-off of Your Game? comes word that prison-escaping craft-o-RPG The Escapists [official site] has been romancing zombie world comic book The Walking Dead and is expecting a bouncy baby in less than nine months. They plan to give the wholly uncreative name The Escapists The Walking Dead. No, really. Just the two names smashed together. Yeesh, parents these days.
The spin-off will see Rick Grimes trying to keep his pals alive while escaping scary places.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (Jem Alexander)
Telltale Games have announced a new three-part The Walking Dead miniseries, starting this autumn. The Walking Dead: Michonne, as the name suggests, focuses on Michonne, one of the longest surviving characters in the comics. Across the three episodes, you’ll explore her whereabouts and actions between issues 126 -139 of the comics.
Telltale is returning to The Walking Dead with a new three-episode mini-series, called The Walking Dead: Michonne. Unsurprisingly, it stars The Walking Dead comic's Michonne, and is set between issues #126 and #139. According to Telltale's announcement, Michonne starts the mini-series "haunted by her past and coping with unimaginable loss and regret." So expect it to be as cheery as any other Walking Dead game.
Like Season One's 400 Days DLC, the mini-series will require players to own at least the first episode of Season Two. As to why Telltale are basing the mini-series around this character, The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman had this to say:
"In many ways, Michonne herself is a reflection of the world of The Walking Dead. She is brutal and cold on the outside, but deep beneath what is broken, she remains hopeful, trying to claw her way out of the darkness that surrounds her. In our effort to bring the world of the comic and the world of the Telltale series closer together, there is no greater character than Michonne to help bridge that gap."
The Walking Dead: Michonne will be available this autumn.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - firstname.lastname@example.org (John Walker)
You know that there are adventure games, and you know that some of those adventure games are better than others. But do you know which one is best, and which one is twenty-fifth best? Well, at last you can find out, with our definitive, unimpeachable breakdown of adventure gaming’s best moments.
Overkill's take on the Walking Dead has been formally confirmed for a 2016 release on PC by the studio's parent company Starbreeze.
The team behind Payday 2 is handling the comic book tie-in, and the co-operative first-person shooter will - quite obviously - take a fair few pointers from the creation (and success) of Payday 2. Just with more zombies, I'd guess.
Based on the comics, Overkill's version of the Walking Dead is also going to avoid the pitfalls of certain other tie-ins by running with its own set of characters and stories, with creator Robert Kirkman in tow to help out.
When you think of Walking Dead videogames, odds are you think of Telltale's outstanding adventure series. But Overkill Software announced last year that it's getting in on the action too, with a cooperative FPS that will feature elements of action, stealth, survival horror, and role-playing. Speaking at a SXSW panel over the weekend, Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman said the experience will be much like Payday, but bigger, and won't slavishly follow the plot or characters of the television show.
"I can say that it will be Payday-esque because [Overkill and parent company Starbreeze] are currently doing Payday," Kirkman said, via Polygon. "But I'm told it will be in a bigger world than Payday currently encompasses. They are going to be learning a lot of stuff from Payday that they will be incorporating into The Walking Dead game."
Overkill hopes to avoid the pitfalls that trip up most licensed videogames by doing its own thing with the property, rather than trying to pander to the existing anbase. "The key I think, which is very important, is that we're not doing, 'Hey, it's Daryl Dixon running around shooting zombies, because you like Daryl Dixon.' Or, 'It's Rick Grimes doing this because you like Rick Grimes'," Kirman continued, possibly alluding to Activision's The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct, which holds a deathly Metacritic rating of 38. "We're telling our own stories and doing our own things almost as if they are original games."
He also confirmed that, much like Payday, the Walking Dead game will feature online cooperative gameplay. "It will follow a similar approach. That's good news," he said. A release date hasn't been announced, but it's currently slated to be out sometime in 2016.
Rock, Paper, Shotgun - email@example.com (Alec Meer)
I haven’t been entirely sure what to make of Firewatch [official site], the upcoming great outdoors adventure/exploration title from a mini-supergroup of ex-Double Fine/ Telltale/ Lucasarts/ Klei/ Lionhead devs, because I wasn’t entirely sure what it was. Having just watched a quarter of an hour of it, I still don’t entirely know what it’s going to become, but I really, really like it. It seems to have this laid-back pace and tone and tons of slow-burn character-building while still being very, well, gamey. I really hope that pace and tone can be maintained throughout. Also it looks like somewhere I’d really love to go and live in for a while.
The footage and my own assorted as-they-happened thoughts, including observations on underwear, caves and wedding rings, are below. … [visit site to read more]
Announcement - Valve
Telltale Games has built a solid reputation adapting existing franchises into adventure games, but according to the studio's new CEO it has an "upcoming original IP" in the works. The news comes as part of an announcement earlier today that the company's president and co-founder, Kevin Bruner, is now CEO. He replaces Dan Connors, who will stay on as an executive advisor.
While corporate musical chairs is interesting to some people, the promise of an original Telltale game inspires hope, as does "unannounced partnerships". Could this mean our long-hoped-for Seinfeld game is happening? Probably not, to be honest.
Here's Bruner's full statement, via GamesIndustry.biz.
"We're thrilled to continue our growth and bring our unique style of scripted entertainment to the next generation of digital media, and do that across thousands of different devices. Our top priority is to continue fostering an environment where the most talented and creative storytellers in the industry are working side by side with the world's biggest creative partners. We're already working on some of the biggest franchises in entertainment, and when you add our unannounced partnerships and upcoming original IP, it's clear the most exciting time to be at Telltale is now, and there will continue to be more and more opportunity to innovate ahead of us."