Narrative and Choice: An Examination of the Telltale Formula
Colin Will Remember That.
I have a pretty distinct and fond memory of being in Canada as a kid and reading my first “choose your own adventure” book. The book had something to do with a knight, a princess, goblins, dungeons and kingdoms, but what I remember more vividly about the experience was appreciating the freedom of choice. The thing is, the freedom to determine your own outcome to a story was great mostly because of its nonlinear structure, and because it was easily compared to a more traditional reading experience. If I didn’t want the knight to fight a group of goblins, I simply turned to page 14 and had him save a villager instead. Rather than reading a story from beginning to end and observing its events passively, I as the reader was an active participant. In a sense, these books were games in their own right, allowing agency to be injected into a well-established formula.
Telltale Games is a highly recognizable name now. The studios’ properties span a wealth of comic and game universes from things like Tales from the Borderlands all the way to their recently announced Batman adventure. However, the greatness of Telltale doesn’t come from the fact that they creatively dabble in such wonderful franchises. The genius of Telltale comes from the fact that they prioritize player agency and emergent storytelling. What this allows for is individualized experiences for the player. When my friend and I both play through Rise of the Tomb Raider, we may find different collectibles, take out enemies in different ways or level our characters up differently, but the cutscenes and story elements are largely scripted. In most cases we wouldn’t have drastically different interactions with the main characters and events of the game.
Telltale structures their experiences in a way that is almost the exact opposite of this. Mechanically speaking, Telltale’s games are fairly simple. Players will routinely interact with objects by examining or using them in simple point and click puzzles, and combat is nothing more than a few quick button presses and quick time events. Two simultaneous playthroughs of Minecraft: Story Mode will feature near identical instances of gameplay because the game requires it in order to progress. In some sense Telltale’s games could be construed as rigid, in that the player’s actions are pretty set in stone. This is why dialogue is so important in these game instances. Most interactions between two characters utilize dialogue trees and decision making which leads to impactful changes in the narrative. By choosing to aid a character in a tense moment, the player is actively generating subplots and backstory for their own playthrough. Telltale doesn’t spell out the personalities of its characters for you, they ask you to piece that together for yourself. Some of the best instances of this come in Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead, where dialogue choices can, at times, literally determine which characters live or die.
I’ve played almost every Telltale game to come out since The Walking Dead: Season 1 on Xbox 360. Initially, I was pretty annoyed by the large gaps separating each episode. Waiting a month or two for a two-hour experience seemed pretty lame, especially given my tendency to binge watch hour-long shows on Netflix. Part of the annoyance that I felt was because Telltale didn’t have many franchises they were working with. When The Walking Dead: Season 1 came out, it stood alone as one of the first episodic games to receive critical acclaim. If after finishing an episode you were craving more experiences like it, there wasn’t really much for you to do. Of course this has changed now. Just this week, Telltale displayed two new games at the 2015 VGAs. Both Batman and The Walking Dead: Michonne miniseries are slated for 2016 releases, adding to TTGs already impressive catalog of games. Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and Minecraft: Story Mode were all also released this year, meaning that new Telltale content was available almost every month. You’d think that someone would get sick of pretty much the same gameplay over and over, but the fact that I didn’t and most people who play them haven’t is testament to the writing and design of these games.
The beauty of Telltale is their ability to invest the player in universes and characters that they would normally have no interest in. I tried playing Borderlands and didn’t like it. I know that might not sit well with some people, but grinding games are something I like to experience rarely and not in the form of an FPS. Even having not enjoyed my time with Borderlands, I, up until recently, felt that Tales from the Borderlands was Telltale’s best game. Similarly, I despise Minecraft. Nothing against people who do like the game—it has an astounding number of dedicated fans—but for some reason the game never settled with me. Yet, Minecraft: Story Mode captures the essence of Minecraft and allows it room to grow into something more than an artistic template and a mining sim.
I guess this piece has pretty much turned into a description of why I like Telltale Games and the work they do. That wasn’t my intended purpose when I set out to write this piece, but it seems fitting. In essence, Telltale has over the years refined a method of making games that allows the player to have personalized experiences set in some of the most amazing gaming and graphic novel universes. Consistently, I change my opinion on which Telltale game is my favorite given each episodic release feels like an improvement in some way. With this year coming to a close for gaming releases, I feel that it is important to recognize the accomplishments of episodic storytelling for games and what it means for their future. It is very possible that we will see more character-driven gaming experiences that are divided into short, digestible segments. It’s also very possible, and very likely, that each of these new episodic games will be compared to Telltale and the work they do. The first time people are introduced to an idea is when it is the most potent and most revolutionary, and Telltale has solidified itself as a candid example of what episodic gaming and emergent narrative experiences can do for entertainment. I for one cannot wait to get hands on Batman and The Walking Dead: Michonne. There’s nothing like forging your own adventure, and who can say no to Bruce Wayne, zombies and a samurai sword.
Do you like the release schedule and models in place for most episodic games right now? Which of Telltale Game’s episodic adventures is your favorite? Tweet me @Flagcap. And be sure to follow us @YouNerded.
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