It would be impossible to have guessed Telltale Games' trajectory from the studio's first title, a poker game called Telltale Texas Hold 'Em. But soon after that, Telltale started tackling projects that would hint at its future aspirations. There were games based on the comic series Bones, and episodic series covering everything from Monkey Island to Wallace & Gromit to Jurassic Park. Over the years, the studio was slowly perfecting a formula that would turn gaming into something closely resembling television, both in terms of structure and distribution. But it wasn't until last year that Telltale finally managed to bring that dream of TV-like gaming to a mass audience.
"Every game we’ve done, we’ve been trying to solve a specific problem," says president and co-founder Kevin Bruner. "The Walking Dead was a place where a lot of that work that had happened over the years came together." Now, with several new projects in development — including a second season of The Walking Dead — Telltale is hoping to keep that dream alive.
Founded in 2004, Telltale was formed by a number of former LucasArts employees, another studio with a focus on interactive storytelling. LucasArts was a key part of the golden age of point-and-click adventure games, with fondly remembered titles like The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango. But the team at Telltale wanted to do something more; games about "characters and emotional relationships, and less about winning and losing," according to Bruner.
Over the years the company carved a niche for itself as it pioneered a different kind of structure for games. Instead of 60-hour epics, Telltale built games as short episodes, which were released every month or so over the course of seasons lasting around five or six episodes. Early series like Sam & Max Save the World and Tales of Monkey Island felt a lot like those classic adventure games, humorous adventures with lots of puzzles to solve and witty dialogue to navigate. As Dennis Lenart, director for season two of The Walking Dead puts it, they were often aiming to stimulate the player's brain with challenging puzzles. That finally changed in 2012 with the first season of The Walking Dead.
"We focus less on the head and just aim straight for people’s hearts."
"With The Walking Dead, one of the reasons it’s been so successful is because we focus less on the head and just aim straight for people’s hearts," Lenart explains.
Like the comics and television series of the same name, Telltale's take on The Walking Dead thrusts players into a world ravaged by zombies. But much of the drama comes not from the flesh-eating undead, but from other humans, who struggle to live with one another in a world gone to hell. The game plays out something like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book — there's little in the way of traditional gameplay; instead your most important actions are the difficult moral decisions the game forces you to make. You'll choose whether people live or die, and often the results are ugly either way. The Walking Dead also remembers your decisions, tailoring the narrative based on what you did in the past.
It's a formula that turned the series into Telltale's first breakout hit. The Walking Dead was named game of the year by numerous outlets — including our sister site Polygon — and has put the studio in a totally new position. "It’s given us some credibility with bigger license holders," says Bruner, and Telltale is putting that to great use. In addition to a second season of The Walking Dead, expected to debut later this month, the studio also kicked off a brand new series in October with The Wolf Among Us, a gritty crime drama based on the comic series Fables. And last weekend, at Spike TV's video game awards ceremony, it announced two more series: one based on Game of Thrones, and the other a story-heavy take on the sci-fi shooter series Borderlands. Telltale's line-up of games is starting to resemble that of a premium cable channel.
Part of what makes Telltale's more recent games so compelling is the way they make you feel invested in the story. You may not be able to influence the the final outcome, but your decisions greatly change the way events unfold. And the studio uses that information to inform how later episodes are designed, altering things based on player feedback, which can often be drastically different than what the developers were expecting.
Season two writer and designer Mark Darin explains one such example with a character that players just wouldn't stop complaining about in season one — some even sent Telltale messages saying they would let the character die if they had the chance. But when that opportunity was presented, few actually took it. In fact, in that same episode many players even gave him some of their extra food despite their professed hatred. "These are the kinds of surprises that are fun," says Darin. And sometimes changes are made to upcoming episodes based on this feedback. "It lets you know that people are playing the game as people," adds Lenart. "They’re role-playing it as they themselves would do, and not playing it like a video game where there’s no consequences. That’s really exciting."
The studio will be facing perhaps its biggest challenge so far with the release of The Walking Dead's second season starting later this month. Season one put you in the role of Lee, a man who soon found himself the unofficial guardian of Clementine, a young girl orphaned from her parents. Clementine served as the series's moral compass, making you think extra hard about some of the game's more difficult decisions. Season two takes things a step further by making her the playable lead character. It was an idea the studio had tossed around for some time. "When we started to think about what would it be like to be a little girl in the zombie world," says Bruner, "then it became really rich. There’s some crazy stuff we can do."
But having a young female lead also proved to be an added challenge. "It’s hard, because you have to come up with situations where a little girl is powerful in an adult world," says Bruner. "It made us step up a little bit." And just because you're now controlling Clementine doesn't mean the game will ease up on some of the darker, more sinister moments that inhabit The Walking Dead universe, including the game. "The world doesn’t care if you’re a little girl," explains Bruner. "It really is totally indifferent. There are no punches held just because it’s Clementine."
"The world doesn’t care if you’re a little girl."
The team says that season two will feel familiar, "but also more interesting" thanks to the new protagonist. Fans of the first season will also be happy to learn that their decisions will carry over to the new series, both in subtle and more overt ways. "The most successful callbacks are the ones that you just feel, and don’t necessarily notice like a big sign in front of your face," says Lenart. "Sometimes you can take away from the storytelling by doing that. And so a lot of effort is put in to make it feel real and natural."
The Walking Dead was not only one of last year's biggest hits, but also one of its biggest surprises. Season two won't have that same element of surprise when it launches. But if the first episode of The Wolf Among Us is any indication, The Walking Dead wasn't a simple fluke, and Telltale has much more to offer in the storytelling department. And just like season one, fans will have a big impact on how Clementine's journey ultimately unfolds.
"We know where season two is headed," says Bruner. "But we really give ourselves a lot of flexibility in how we’re going to get there.”