Six years ago, on a cold November day, I was forced to make the most difficult decision a video game had ever presented me with. I was playing the fifth and final episode of The Walking Dead’s debut season, and though I had long predicted how things would play out, it didn’t make it any easier when the moment arrived. A beloved character was beginning to turn into an undead monster, and he wanted me to kill him. All I had to do was press a button — but I labored over the decision, unsure about how actually killing someone, even someone about the become a zombie, would affect me. Eventually, I pulled the trigger, but it wasn’t easy. Six years later, I still think about it.
This was the power of Telltale’s unique and distinct take on interactive storytelling. The studio’s best games were like prestige television crossed with a video game, creating dark and emotional stories that made you feel like you were a part of them.
Now, that’s all over. Following last week’s devastating news that the majority of Telltale’s talented staff had been laid off, which also followed reports that the studio had been plagued by mismanagement and a toxic, workaholic culture, the studio is close to shutting its doors. But it’s worth remembering just how important Telltale was in its prime.
The studio might not have long left, but its influence will continue to be felt.
The Walking Dead wasn’t Telltale’s first game — the studio previously made comedy series based on everything from Strongbad to Wallace & Gromit — but it’s the game the developer will be remembered for. It’s also a game that did a number of things no one expected and somehow did them all exceedingly well.
It helped show that licensed games, which are historically forgettable experiences rushed out to coincide with the release of a movie or TV show, could not only be good, but, in some cases, they could surpass their source material. The Walking Dead was true to the mythos of the comic books and TV show in a way that made sense for a game. The story was dire and full of painful twists, made all the more painful because it was you making the choices that led to them. It wasn’t just more Walking Dead, it was a new way to experience the world.
The Walking Dead also pushed the boundaries of what a mainstream video game could be. Telltale didn’t pioneer the concept, as indie games like Dear Esther were already playing with the idea of games that pulled you through a story with only limited interactions. But here was Telltale taking the same idea and applying it to one of the biggest entertainment properties of the moment. And not only did The Walking Dead often look and feel like a TV show, but it was also structured like one. The game was divided into five episodes, each around two hours long, that were released over the course of seven months.
Just trying one of these things would be ambitious, but The Walking Dead did them all — and it worked! The Walking Dead was a critical and commercial hit, and it turned Telltale into a star. In 2013, I called the studio the “HBO of gaming.” The brands started calling: before you knew it, Telltale was working on new series based on everything from Game of Thrones to Minecraft. This was, in part, what led to the studio’s downfall, as Telltale took on too much too soon, and the work — and staff — suffered. Series like Guardians of the Galaxy were largely forgettable, but there were plenty of highlights. Tales from the Borderlands turned a sci-fi shooter into a hilarious romp, while Batman: The Enemy Within was a fascinating character study, one that let you mold the Dark Knight into your own vision of the iconic hero.
But even outside of the walls of Telltale’s office in San Rafael, California, the studio’s influence can still be seen. There are very direct examples. Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin, two of the key directors and writers behind The Walking Dead’s first season, went on to create a new studio called Campo Santo that released a game called Firewatch in 2016. Firewatch was sort of like an audio drama crossed with a hike through the woods, pushing those edges of interactive storytelling out even further. The studio has since been acquired by Valve, and it’s now working on an even more ambitious-looking title called In the Valley of Gods.
One of the most notable aspects of Telltale’s work is the dialogue. It’s your main tool for interacting with the story, as you make choices that can have a profound impact on how events unfold. In 2014, former Telltale lead writer Adam Hines co-founded a new studio called Night School, which released a game called Oxenfree. Ostensibly a typical teen thriller about a bunch of kids trapped on a haunted island, Oxenfree turned dialogue into the focal point of the experience; people were always talking, even when other things were happening, so you had to pay attention and make choices. It built off of the Telltale formula in smart ways, and Night School is looking to continue that with the demonic drinking game Afterparty next year. (In 2016, Telltale and Night School even partnered on a Mr. Robot mobile game.)
Meanwhile, other developers have picked up the idea of episodic gaming and run with it. Most notable is Dontnod, the French studio behind the Life is Strange franchise. The series’s debut season felt remarkably like a TV show, pulling in elements from Twin Peaks and Veronica Mars, and it featured the same bite-sized episodes popularized by Telltale. This has allowed the developer to continue to expand the series in interesting ways. Last year saw the release of a three-episode prequel called Before the Storm, while in June, the studio teased season 2 of Life is Strange with a standalone episode. The second season officially kicks off on September 27th.
Last month, the first episode of The Walking Dead’s final season launched. The second and third seasons suffered from Telltale’s lack of focus, and they never reached the same heights as the debut. Series protagonist Clementine had become lost, undergoing a seemingly unending stream of trauma, not unlike her creators. But with the final season, things were looking up. Clementine had found a new home, and Telltale seemed to have found the perfect way to create something new in the unyielding world of The Walking Dead. The new plotline put the focus almost entirely on the children, resulting in a completely fresh dynamic. Episode 2 is slated to launch this week.
Just like the debut season, I have a strong idea about how things will end and the tough choice I’ll be faced with in those final moments. Sadly, with the developer’s near-closure, it looks like neither Clementine nor Telltale will be able to see that story through to its conclusion. I won’t be forced to make that painful decision again.