Some of the most critically-acclaimed and commercially successful games of the last few years have been produced by Telltale Games. The American studio has developed a niche hybrid genre they call “episodic graphic adventures.”
Telltale found success by licensing popular film and television franchises. Some of their most popular titles are based on Back To The Future, Jurassic Park, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones.
Each game is broken down into episodes, and each episode features three types of gameplay: dialogue trees, quick time events, and environment interaction.
The bulk of the episodes take place in dialogue trees. Interactive cutscenes push forward the game’s narrative, often pausing to give the player the chance to make a dialogue or physical decision for the main character. The plot can change depending on the choices you make, so the player is warned early and often about consequences.
Quick time events are simple reflex tests - usually reserved for action scenes in the game. On the opposite end, environment interaction segments usually involve moving the character around in a limited space to perform a menial task. All of these elements are packaged together to create an experience similar to an interactive movie, or a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book.
That’s not a good thing.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and it sucks
In the early years of cinema, movies were often staged like plays. The director would set up the camera at the front of the scene, and shoot everything in one long take.
People back then didn’t think of film as an art form or even as something dramatically different from what they were already producing. Going to see a film in the cinema was just like seeing a play, only previously recorded.
Then, directors started to play around with camera angles. Close-up shots. Non-linear editing. These techniques became the building blocks for modern-day film, and helped develop the medium into an art form.
In the same way, games started out imitating sports and play, but have evolved into a powerful medium for storytelling. Telltale though, has approached their games much in the same way early directors approached cinema. Rather than take full advantage and push forward the interactive elements of video games, Telltale has resigned to imitate the film and television they license.
From my perspective, imitation is for children and monkeys. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by another piece of work, but outright copying structure and building blocks from another medium is lazy. It limits the way you can tell the story, and it makes for a lesser experience.
Don’t believe me? Take, for example, the all-important decisions you make in each episode. After each decision, you’re immediately hit with a message in the corner of the screen. “This character will remember that.” It’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and highlights moments that should be able to stand on their own. Imagine if that message popped up during the actual Game of Thrones TV show. Ned is beheaded - “Arya will remember that.”
Games aren’t movies, and they’re not TV shows. And they shouldn’t have to try to be.
The beautiful thing about games is that you get to play them
Let’s talk a bit more about the three types of gameplay in Telltale games.
There’s nothing new about quicktime events - they originally became popular with Resident Evil 4 and the God Of War series. I still have fond memories of that knife fight with Krauser in RE4, but too many games these days rely on them for cheap thrills. Because there are often no stakes in quicktime events (if you die, you’ll restart in mere seconds) there is rarely any tension. They’re amped up reflex tests, and frankly, I can have more fun banging a hammer on my kneecap.
Environment interaction segments are arguably worse. There was a charm to the old point-and-click LucasArts games, but more importantly there were puzzles. Sure, a lot of those puzzles were illogical, but they at least provided a challenge. In recent Telltale games, these segments do nothing more than slow down the narrative and give a small drizzle of exposition.
So lets throw those right out.
The bulk of these games are in the dialogue trees anyways, and the decision-making mechanic. The promise of video games lies in interaction, and decisions are a boiled down, pure and simple form of interaction.
But so limited.
Instead of actually trying to save two characters, Telltale games have you “choosing” to save either Character A or Character B. There’s an important difference here. Rather than actually DOING anything in these games, you’re instead CHOOSING for the main character to do something. You’re removed from the experience, like a passive viewer shouting at the TV.
When you strip out the DOING from games, what are you left with? You’re left with something that barely qualifies as a game.
The future of video games?
Look, it’s not like I hate Telltale games. I get why people like them. But they’re a lazy form of storytelling, and do nothing to push the medium forward.
There is certainly a place for them, just like there’s a place for modern films made in black and white. That being said, colour is available… and I’d love to see Telltale expand their paint palette.