The glaring Telltale problem
author: taylor balfour | news writer
To say that Telltale Games is in hot water would be the understatement of the month. Despite how painful it is watching one of the video game companies that changed my life crumble to pieces, followed by hit after hit while they’re already down, there’s one thing I hate more than all of that: the fact that so many of us saw it coming.
Telltale Games, first created in 2004, announced in September 2018 that they were closing their doors. The company, which at one point had a reported 250 workers, was cut to 25 by the end of the that business day. The layoffs, and the very sudden closure of the studio, was reportedly thanks to “unforeseeable business circumstances.”
Less than a week after the announcement was made and the layoffs were inflicted, a former employee filed a class-action lawsuit, claiming that Telltale “violated labor laws” with these layoffs, because no fired employees were given severance pay.
In the hours after the announcement, former voice actors, employees, and designers at Telltale voiced their grievances about the stories they had been conceiving that would never be told. In the midst of all this, Telltale is still releasing the game “The Walking Dead: The Final Season,” a conclusion of the video game that brought them critical acclaim back in 2012. Now, the studio is unaware if the last two episodes of the series’ conclusion will ever be released.
Thus began the battle between both those who love and hate Telltale on what the company should do next. One side demands Telltale to sideline any projects and give severance pay to the employees they let go, and the other are gamers who paid for an “all-season pass” to a game that isn’t finished and want a refund, or for the story they paid for.
The most painful part about all this is that I and so many other fans saw this coming years ago. These issues could’ve been fixed and Telltale could’ve been saved, but they weren’t.
The looming knowledge of Telltale’s potential demise is not new. Murmurs of Telltale’s financial decline had been circling since, at the latest, spring of 2017. Games were being declared financial failures, sales were down, and their game mechanics and technology were being criticized as ‘outdated.’
In November 2017, Polygon even reported that Telltale had let go of 25 per cent of their staff, meaning 90 workers, citing that they wanted to turn out fewer games with more attention to detail. Despite this, the major issues with Telltale remained, and less than a year later, they were done for all for one, glaring, overwhelming issue: their games don’t matter.
Storybook games don’t sell the way that they once could. If the style of the game is playing out a story where you’re allowed minute input and the course of the game follows a very strict, pre-made path, there’s no joy in playing. Telltale games require players to sit back and watch most of the game happen, and the few dialogue inputs a player has access to change practically nothing.
The key to these games is stakes, and stakes are something that Telltale has lacked almost entirely. If a decision in a game doesn’t matter and changes nothing about the overall game plot, then why play? Why market a game as a choose-your-own-adventure if the adventure doesn’t change depending on the player?
Today, players get almost the exact same experience out of watching YouTube gamers play these games instead of going out and buying their own copy. This is a part of Telltale’s problem: if the gaming experience is practically a movie with little input, and where the story is the same to every player, there’s no desire to buy. And why are Telltale games made this way? Plain and simple: because Telltale is lazy.
There are many instances in The Walking Dead Game – Telltale’s signature title – in which the player needs to choose one of two characters to save. One will continue on with them, the other will die. This means that game developers need to make two separate versions of the game: one with Character A still alive, and another with Character B. This branching off continues for every other decision made in the game, which is what gives a normal storybook game its individuality. As you could guess, this would make the creation of a game extremely long and detailed. So Telltale doesn’t do this.
Instead of choices branching off like a tree, different decisions taking you down a different path and giving you a different experience, Telltale’s choices are more like detours which eventually bring you back to the tree’s root. Your choices don’t matter.
If a Telltale player is forced to choose between one of two people to save and they decide to save Character A, Telltale doesn’t worry about planning out an intricate storyline between both of the two characters for either branch. Instead, Telltale will write into the script that either Character A or B, whichever one you saved, will die an episode later – rendering your decision useless, and bringing your ‘unique plot’ back to a predictably paved and plotted one.
This is done because it’s easier on game creators. It’s easier to create one solid game plot opposed to 20+ different variations depending on any variety of combos of choices a player can make during gameplay. It’s easier to give players a choice that will eventually not matter and force them to return to the come back to the same plot.
With the price of an average Telltale game ranging up to $30 in price on older titles, people don’t care to buy. Not if they can watch a YouTube video and get the same experience of playing the game. It’s $30 for a game that markets itself as being player-driven when that’s a lie.
As a fan and supporter of Telltale for almost five years now, I feel like fans themselves might be the flawed structure that caused this company to fail. Because we all saw it coming, and we all voiced our displeasure, but Telltale did nothing. Telltale did nothing for years. We’ll all remember that.