Editorial: Telltale’s Place in the Future Gaming Industry, and What that Says About Gaming in General

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This Editorial was written in part by both James Herd and Nick Behrens, Pixcelation’s Editor-in-Chief and Content Editor, respectively.) 

Not very long ago, I picked up a little gem of a video game with some birthday money that I got from my family. Said video game was none other than the infamous The Walking Dead: Season One by Telltale Games. I absolutely loved it. The intricate story woven between the various complex and interesting characters only left me wanting more. I loved the fact that Telltale was able to create a video game where I cared more about these characters than I did the characters on the televised version of The Walking Dead.

Now, as I’m currently in the middle of playing through the second season of The Walking Dead, as well as Telltale’s Fables based series The Wolf Among Us, it leaves me wondering what the future is going to be like for episodic gaming, and really, whether or not these emotionally compelling and intellectually stimulating experiences can be truly called video games. If they cannot, is this really a bad thing?

This article will be analyzing this question, and providing an open discussion so that we can come to a consensus. Following the article, I welcome all who are interested in engaging this topic to voice their opinions, whether they agree or disagree, in the comments section below.

Firstly, we need to figure out if calling Telltale’s unique gaming experiences video games is fair, and if not, is that really such a bad thing? Personally, I think that the future of entertainment is slowly guiding to the streaming market, as can be evidenced from the recent decision by Nickelodeon to switch The Legend of Korra to an online-only basis. The market for that particular product is online, clearly.

The PlayStation Store and the Xbox Marketplace provide venues for online streaming of movies, music, and games, and the upcoming PlayStation Now will widen the gap even further. So it is clear that, at the very least, entertainment producers want the audience to transition to an exclusive streaming source for their various methods of entertainment. This being said, it stands to reason that eventually, though it may be years from now, not only will the newspaper be extinct, but television sets will no longer be used for the same way they’re being used today.

For those who aren’t familiar with Telltale’s business model, the studio depends on episodic content released at various times throughout a five to six month period. These episodes typically cost around $4.99 each, and provide around 30 minutes to an hour of enjoyment, adding to the story as a whole, depending on the story you’re playing through.

The question is this: do these episodes that release bi-monthly really constitute as video games? If so, then perhaps we should redefine what a video game is, because the gameplay in the Telltale episodes is severely outmatched by the stories that they present. If not, then that may not be such a bad thing. When these episodes present stories that are sometimes greater than their television counterparts, then perhaps they deserve a title of their own?

The Walking Dead game was, by no means, revolutionary in its concept; it was at times point and click, at times Quick-Time Event rail action game, and at times Mass Effect-level dialogue-only RPG. None of these elements are new, they just did it better than anyone had thought to do for an episodic series, when no one really knew how to make episodic series’ work. Really, the fact that no one had tried to do it before, or failed if they did, is mostly due to refining a niche in the market that no one realized was there.

The Walking Dead game, for the most part, was riding on the popularity of the show of the same name, and it paid off tremendously, bringing this niche to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Like how Oblivion defined the current definition for DLC, The Walking Dead defined the season pass (or at least showed everyone how it should be done).

And now Telltale has made, and is almost done with, a second season of The Walking Dead, has finished Wolf Among Us, based upon the comic series Fables, and has set that series up for a second season, and is now on call to make episodic series for Gearbox’s Borderlands, Game of Thrones, and perhaps a few other projects they aren’t telling us about.

What does all of this mean for the industry as a whole? Will episodic gaming become a hot new craze?

Likely, episodic gaming may not make a larger impact for a while, and the industry, while it likes what Telltale is doing, no one is really emulating what they’re doing because the demand for and the means to make episodics isn’t as high as it would need to be.

Telltale games is doing well for itself because The Walking Dead capitalized on the popularity of the show, which got its popularity on the comics. The Walking Dead was popular beyond all reason, and the characters and plot over the course of the game’s first season resonated with a lot of people. It resonated so much that, without any real prompting, they made a second season.

Their popularity also allowed Telltale to branch out into other cool properties, like Fables and Game of Thrones. This means that, with any reasonable expectation, we can see really cool episodic products from Telltale in the future. But all of these properties are based on other popular properties, and that means they are up for scrutiny with the ol’ licensed games rule. Telltale has proven it can make good license games, however, so it seems like they are able to buck this trend.

Still, the question is left to ask whether their episodic model will resonate elsewhere. The Walking Dead, for all its worth, had a very strong first season, and is lauded with all sorts of awards. The second season, depending on who you ask, is not as successful. The first two episodes spent more time providing exposition than it actually spent in plot development, while episode 3 was arguably the best of the season so far with all of that exposition coming to a head and laying to waste a lot of what had been dogging them for those first two episodes. But with the recent release of episode 4, some are wondering what happened. Lots of reviewers liked it, saying it’s setup for a grand finale, while others are saying its a step back in its storytelling, and is just setting up throwaway characters to knock them down and encite a reaction. The stakes also seem to be just ‘stay alive’, which is understandable, but we did enough of that in season 1, and now the audience needs more to carry them along. The drama between Clementine and Kenny and all of the other members of the group is strong stuff that probably should be built upon more, and yet it just isn’t. Now there is a new set of adversaries that we have no idea why they’re there, or how they hell we’re supposed to advance that plotline enough to make it to a finale.

What that little tirade of mine basically means, is that Telltale has discovered the pitfalls of creating a television show. You have a season of multiple episode, and each episode does need to stand on its own, but also have enough of the season’s overarching plot to carry the audience’s interest. There’s a reason we review individual episodes when reviewing television, because there are episodes that are worse than others. Season 2 of The Walking Dead is having its ups and downs, and it is still a mystery whether Episode 5, the conclusion of the season, will be as great as it’s being made out to be, and whether there will be enough to go on and make a Season 3 (which I really hope we get).

The Wolf Among Us had a similar pitfall; each episode felt like it created more questions than provided answers, and some reviewers felt that episode 5 was rushed in closing out all of those plot points, making story elements that felt forced rather than naturally flowing. This was coming out of a really slow and undirected episode 4, in which it started slow and never really picked up steam until the very end.

Telltale has done month-to-month releases well, with Wolf Among Us and Walking Dead Season 2 being the first games that have either had complications or done bi-monthly instead. Telltale has a monopoly on the episodic series currently because of the pure focus on story, and that’s something difficult to do in an industry that is focusing a lot on player experience in other sectors. Over this past weekend, a lot of you may have been playing the Destiny beta, which has a lot of player experience set in how the game feels, looks, plays, and how you interact with other people. The Walking Dead, meanwhile, has its entire player experience based on how you play as Clementine, and how your choices affect the narrative. The challenge of that is both on how you can make a compelling narrative, and how all of those choices eventually lead into shaping the narrative to be meaningful for the player.

This is challenging beyond what a lot of developers might want to try. Everyone still remembers the disastrous reaction to Mass Effect 3, and how a lot of people cried that the decisions they made in the first two game eventually lead to an inconsequential decision at the end that really meant nothing. Telltale games has to prove that it can move past that in the second seasons of its properties in order to show that episodics are sustainable long term. Either that, or make the episodes or seasons longer to allow for more narrative growth.

Telltale games has a lot to prove with the Episodic model, and while a lot of the gaming audience is excited for anything that Telltale makes, there is a reason they are the only ones doing what they are doing. Now that Gearbox has teamed up with Telltale for “Tales from the Borderlands,” and now that they’re producing an episodic series based on Game of Thrones, perhaps the future for episodic series’ lies in many varying and unique developers all trying their hand at the genre. But first, Telltale needs to prove that the episodic method works for more than just dramatic concepts, which it could prove with its series based on Borderlands. \

Now it’s your turn! Do you agree with our notes? Do you disagree with them? Let us know in the comments section below, and be sure to ‘Like’ us on Facebook for the latest in all things entertainment!