Telltale’s take on Stranger Things vanished when the studio collapsed.
After years of turbulence at Telltale from problematic management and constant crunch, the company closed its doors suddenly in September 2018. It left 250 people with no jobs, no severance, and only days left on their health insurance. In-progress projects, like Stranger Things and a second season of The Wolf Among Us, were killed. The popular Netflix show exists as a video game adaptations with other developers, but Telltale’s game wasn’t the only project that died with the studio. Indie developer Night School Studio had its own unannounced project — a hybrid of puzzle games and storytelling mechanics — set to be published by Telltale. When it shuttered suddenly, Night School nearly suffered layoffs of its own.
Today, Night School Studio is 13 full-time employees. It was founded by a pair of developers hailing from Disney Interactive Studios and Telltale, respectively — Sean Krankel and Adam Hines. The developer launched its first game, Oxenfree, in 2016 and, later that year, released a surprising project: a mobile game set during the first season of TV show Mr. Robot, published by Telltale. The game was praised by critics for its clever use of storytelling via text and it established a positive working relationship between Telltale and Night School.
“We love the games they made and wanted to do a mobile game that tied into our game,” says a former Telltale employee. “We weren’t a mobile studio. Working with Night School, who had those chops, and had done the Mr. Robot stuff as well — it was just kind of a natural pairing.”
“[Telltale] had a really ambitious vision for building a new type of game”
In December of 2017, Telltale CEO Pete Hawley contacted Night School about interest in another project. (Hawley did not respond to requests for comment.) His goal, says a source familiar with the project, was to work with narrative-focused external studios to explore new types of design and storytelling. “He thought that the overall Telltale formula had begun to become a little bit stagnant,” the source says, “and he thought that there could be some low risk ways to experiment with new things.” Night School was just one of a “handful of teams” Hawley was speaking with. “[He] was really leaning into Telltale becoming more of a publisher, too, a publisher of third-party games.”
Night School wasn’t actively looking into working on other companies’ properties, and its success with Oxenfree meant that the team could be picky about their work. But Stranger Things was a dream project, one that felt perfectly in line with the spooky, teenage thriller vibe they’d established with their first game.
“It was a huge opportunity,” says a source familiar with the game. “We were planning on making that a big part of our portfolio and not just some side project.” Night School was promised a direct line to the Duffer brothers and creative collaboration — much like their work with Mr. Robot. “We thought that this would be that, but on a much bigger scale. It was kind of the opposite.”
In the months following, Telltale and Night School discussed possible projects. Telltale’s opportunity to tackle a Stranger Things game opened the door for a second game that could supplement that experience. By January 2018, Night School had begun work on its own Stranger Things game, a project internally dubbed “Kids Next Door.” They hired four new employees and partnered with an outside studio on development. “The project itself was very promising, and we had some insights into where the seasons were headed,” says a source familiar with the project. “[Telltale] had a really ambitious vision for building a new type of Telltale game on their front.”
Telltale’s plan for its own Stranger Things game was set to bridge the gap between seasons 2 and 3 of the show, during spring break, according to a former Telltale employee. They describe the story as “the boys’ last chance to be kids again before they’re brought into high school and their adult life begins.” The inciting incident for Telltale’s game would start with Night School’s — a game that added more context to the overall Stranger Things story.
The Verge has reviewed video of Night School’s unfinished game, though we have agreed not to publish it to protect our sources. It was a chapter-based, first-person narrative game, in which decisions players made would have carried over into Telltale’s game via a save file. It would have taken place over the course of a single night, with players switching to a different kid every hour. Each had a different ability; with a character like Eleven, for example, you could use her telekinetic abilities to psychically scope out new locations, or solve physical puzzles. The bottom screen would include persistent dialogue from the rest of the cast as they kept in touch via walkie-talkie.
“[Telltale] wanted to do their larger console experience, but this time they were trying to not port it to mobile,” says a source familiar with the project. “They wanted some sort of a mobile extension of the franchise … It was super exciting, dream scenario. We had gone from working on Oxenfree, which is already a Stranger Things-esque thing, to then being able to try and apply that to a different type of design.”
“The game just sort of evaporated”
But sources describe the development process as “strangely separated.” According to one source, teams at both studios were often unable to connect directly; the partnership was instead managed on an executive level. Another says that Night School’s connection to Telltale was “all over the place,” as their liaison to the project changed several times over the course of the year. “It felt like two games were being developed in parallel, but they weren’t really speaking to each other in a way they should have,” says the former Telltale source, adding that it was an abnormal way to work on two complementary games. “They felt very sequestered … I never saw anything from [Night School’s] side.” Another source describes the project as “the epitome of the telephone game,” where Netflix would talk to Telltale, which then talked to Night School, in an endless loop.
Night School’s project was expected to launch around the show’s third season this July. But as time went on, more problems arose. “There was a lot of changing of the guard inside of Telltale in terms of who was leading certain aspects of both the studio and then that game,” says a source familiar with the project. “Netflix was just getting into the space and didn’t really have a games group in place yet. So getting approvals or just running ideas past people was very difficult.” The team revamped many ideas to better suit their own project. “Our game was actually going to be a standalone piece, but the further we went into production, it was apparent that we needed to not be searching for approvals,” says the source. “The Telltale side was having enough difficulty just getting that done internally with Netflix.”
Telltale had failed to pay Night School for its previous three milestones — a scary number for a team as small as theirs. According to one source, the first was contractually late, the second was not yet off-timeline, and the third was days away from submission. Despite the missed payments and lack of communication between studios, Night School didn’t initially believe it was in trouble. “It wasn’t warning signs of the studio having a crack in the hull,” the source says. “It was more warning signs of ‘How are we going to maintain any consistent creative vision?’” The source describes much of it as “normal publisher shit” that the team expected to push through. “It really wasn’t overall that concerning. It definitely didn’t point at the studio going under, though.”
And then, Telltale closed.
“We had zero warning,” says one source. “We had no idea that anything was amiss over [at Telltale]. Neither did any of their team, anybody that we dealt with, all the way up.” News trickled out slowly about the fate of Telltale in the days that followed, but Night School learned nothing related to their project. “There was still a total lack of clarity on what was happening to our project,” the source says. “Our project was basically just thrown into limbo immediately, and not based on the quality of it, not based on where we were in the production timeline, but just because the company that was funding it was in dire straits. We transitioned really quickly from working on a game that we were all very proud and excited about that was really cool, to just taking buckets and trying to get water out of the boat because we were pretty far in the hole, financially, from this game.”
“We actually were hoping that people wouldn’t know it was a Telltale game”
The source declined to comment on specific sums, but says “those milestones were as much a quarter development of Oxenfree,” adding that it was “enough that it impacts many team members.” If the team hadn’t had a concurrent game in the making, Afterparty, Night School would have faced its own layoffs.
“It was a very difficult three months,” the source says. But because the studio is small, staff were able to pivot to another Night School project. “Afterparty got to benefit from some of this because we had people that are talented and could focus on making that game better.”
Unlike Telltale’s game, Night School’s project was never announced, nor was it technically canceled. “The game just sort of evaporated,” says one source. “We never got official word that the game was killed.” For the team, their reaction was shock. “Who would have ever thought that the combination of Stranger Things and Telltale could go south?”
The sentiment is echoed on Telltale’s side as well. “We’d fought so many battles creatively, fighting with the new engine and all the tools, and were starting to make some progress when everything evaporated,” says the former Telltale employee. “It wasn’t like the wheels came off the train. It was like the train just atomized. It was so shocking initially that I think a lot of us didn’t quite know how to feel… It’s kind of like delayed heartbreak.”
For Telltale, its ambitious efforts with Stranger Things were a sign of the studio’s push in a new direction. Although footage from the games has since leaked, they were far from representative of Telltale’s actual product. “It was unfortunate because that was so early in development,” says the former employee. “What didn’t leak was all the amazing concept art and character designs that were just unlike anything we’d done at Telltale. It looked like an animated feature film. What people saw was basically the proxy models that we were working on still.”
The former employee acknowledges that “Telltale fatigue” — the idea that all Telltale games followed the exact same formula and had stagnated — was real. “We had it internally and people had it externally,” the source says. “With a new CEO, with a new engine, with a lot of other new pieces in play, we [wanted to] draw inspiration from something different, both bigger in scale and that we wanted to be more free-roam, mini-open world.” They describe the ethos for Telltale’s take on Stranger Things as The Witcher 3 meets Night in the Woods, with a hint of games like Oxenfree or Firewatch — “a personal story told in a more open world at a very vulnerable time in a person’s life. That awkward transition between middle school and high school between adolescence and puberty and adulthood.”
Even its advertising plan was different, the source says. Teasers would have included Telltale’s name last, or perhaps even not at all. “We actually were hoping that people wouldn’t know it was a Telltale game,” they say. “It was supposed to look like something brand new, feel different… It was staying true to our roots while trying to push into a new place that would attract a wider fan base.”
“Games live and die all the time”
It also marked the beginning of what could have been a lucrative partnership for Telltale. The source says that employees at Telltale were hopeful that Netflix might take all of its cinematics and make them into interactive series that would exist on the streaming service. “The company has already experimented with interactive storytelling with projects like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. Why not take everything Telltale did — take Walking Dead, take Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman — and you remove the gameplay elements and just make them choice-based streaming series? It made a lot of sense.”
Many of the Telltale staff who worked on Stranger Things have scattered to new jobs, but Night School remains as it was. Its project will likely never see the light of day. One source jokingly compares it to Hangar 51 in Indiana Jones — a giant warehouse where nothing that enters ever leaves. “The project just gets archived and saved and that’s it. Nobody really sees it again or talks about it.”
At the end of the day, the source says, Telltale funded the Night School game. It’s theirs. “We went very quickly from having an original IP we were very excited about, and then working on arguably the biggest IP out there TV-wise, to then that thing going away and us losing a ton of money that was extremely impactful to us,” the source says.
“Games live and die all the time. Studios shut down all the time. But [Telltale] just disappeared over night.”