I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain/evangelize video games. Not to you lot, though, you know what I’m talking about. But I’ll admit I’ve also had to explain to a few people that gaming is a lot like music, with is vast sub-genres within sub-genres. One of my favourites of the last few years is of the interactive storytelling variety. Imagine watching a Netflix television series like Daredevil or Black Mirror (my official pitch for both these to become this type of game) and being able to make the real, defining choices that will alter the events of the story. It still progresses episodically and as seasons go on you realize the consequences of your decisions ripple through the entire show. There is one company right now which is nailing this concept right now. They are called Telltale Games, and you're welcome.
I first stumbled upon Telltale games as a function of terrible computing power and a simultaneous desire to play games. The only game titles that fit that centre of a low-res venn diagram, were those that did not necessarily require insane RAM or graphics requirements, but managed to peak my interest in their format. No stranger to relatively lo-fi gaming, I picked up my first few titles, and the rest was credit card history.
Telltale was started by ex-employees of the now defunct LucasArts company, a legendary unit that created some of the most famous adventure games from the 90’s , including my personal favourites The Monkey Island series and Full Throttle, so no doubt they came in with solid storytelling abilities, new technology and a quest to create a new format. They struck gold when they quickly ended their short stint of developing games for other companies like Ubisoft. The games that followed were the narrative-based ‘choice and consequence’ series they are now famous for.
Digital distribution like Steam helped push the format and their breakout hit The Walking Dead based on the Robert Kirkman graphic novel of the same name, told the heartbreaking story of ex-convict Lee and 9-year-old Clementine set during the events of the TV show adaptation. The parallel narrative flexed the dramatic muscle for the writing team at Telltale having done only comedic licences earlier, but ultimately lead them to win several ‘Game of the Year’ awards and critical accolades. More than that, this game is about as tragic and emotionally captivating as any series I have watched, except this time, I was responsible for it. The ending, as you can probably surmise, is absolutely terrifying and crippled me emotionally and writhing on the floor as several degree college submissions wafted by; but left such a lasting impression that I went on to try out the other titles to get equally wrecked.
The Walking Dead was a perfect match because in a crumbling society being overtaken by the undead, a lot of impossible situations can appear out of nowhere. In one scene early in the game you have to decide whether to save a life or leave the person behind, and the sheer guilt that washes over you for leaving him behind, turns into a real problem when his buddy decides to exact vengeance on you 3 episodes later. Other characters remember your decisions as soon as you pick them, making you mostly feel like an idiot, and quietly regretting your actions. Yeah turns out you have to be a responsible adult, now in video game format too.
That aside, the hard-hitting nature of reality in the Walking Dead games have been hard to match up to, which is why when they announced Batman: The Telltale Series, I was really excited to see how they would handle the Dark Knight, and safe to say they did not disappoint with a brand-new take on the caped crusaders life, with a few left turns from the origin story we know and love. What if Bruce’s parents weren’t the goody-two shoes Gotham made them out to be? What if Alfred knew all this and kept it from Bruce to validate his crusade on crime? What if Bruce and Oswald Cobblepot were childhood baes?! These are some of the deviations that Telltale has brought to the increasingly subverted table. For me it was just another way to experience the glory of Batman, in some cases by not even playing as Batman; the game allows you to deal with situations either as Bruce Wayne or his slightly meaner alter ego. You even get to choose what kind of Batman to be, nothing close to lovable but the other end of spectrum being of the bone-breaking variety. Most players including yours truly decide early on that this is a great way to f*ck with the Batman who we all agree needs a timeout these days, and so several weird and uncharacteristic choices are made on his horn-headed behalf. Telltale knows better though, and all the shenanigans cease when you realize you are being totally judged by one Commissioner, and that your decisions will define how Jim Gordon sees the Batman as a brutalizing vigilante or kind-hearted Gotham-City-endorsed servant of justice. Season 1 concluded earlier this year and it has left me the exact same way I would feel after watching an awesome Netflix series on the brooding one.
Telltale has applied this unique style of gaming to titles like The Wolf Among Us, which graphic novel fans will identify as the adaptation to Fables, series by Bill Willingham and Lan Medina; as well Game of Thrones, which I’m sure is the emotional equal of something as crushing as The Walking Dead. The most recent of the lot is Marvel’s entry into the Telltale fold with Guardians of The Galaxy. With just one episode out that I’ve just gotten through, I’m not entirely sure if it’s canonical, even though its modelled exactly after the Jim Gunn MCU version, but a surprising choice for Marvel and Telltale considering the peak of divisive decisions you must make is in whether you offend Drax about his family or not. Admittedly it’s not the best candidate for life-or-death consequences, but it plays out fun either way.
With Walking Dead going strong on its third season as well as a spinoff series for TWD favourite Michonne, and a second season of Game of Thrones due soon, Telltale is churning out some of the most interesting formats I’ve seen/played in games for a while. Perhaps someday this will turn into a Netflix style catalog, where you can actively decide which character’s lives you’d like to ruin through your poor judgement next.
Scribe: Tejas Menon
Captain's Log: Tejas is a core member at Geek Fruit HQ and he will remember that. Find him on twitter @tejasmenon