Ever since TellTale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead became a 2012 multiple Game of the Year award winner, the adventure game maker has been on a tear, commercially at least. The developers have focused their efforts almost entirely on the classic point-and-click-style adventure games, a throwback to pre-Windows computer gaming. Of course, that specific niche genre is what TellTale’s founders had specialized in previously during their time at LucasArts. Though their new company was obviously successful enough to stay afloat for the eight years prior, it was indisputably The Walking Dead that made TellTale a household name.
Since their first season of The Walking Dead, TellTale has released a second season of their hit, taken on the Fables comic books with The Wolf Among Us, and carved out a piece of both HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Gearbox’s Borderlands. Most recently, they’ve created a Story Mode for Minecraft and now have revisited their zombie honey pot with a Michonne miniseries. The next licensed target for the adventure game maker is a Batman game, due out later in 2016, and an unnamed game utilizing Marvel Comics property sometime after that.
Let me first say, I have a long history with point-and-click adventure games, one that predates even the classic King’s Quest and Space Quest games. I am also genuine fan of TellTale’s first season of The Walking Dead, and have, to some extent, enjoyed each of the game maker’s series since. As a matter of fact, I have reviewed each episode of all of their games since the initial season of The Walking Dead. Unfortunately, I think the quality of storytelling has dropped off significantly since 2013-2014’s The Wolf Among Us.
I make no secret of my opinion that too many modern games are targeted at too young of an audience. As an adult gamer, I am constantly frustrated by immature narrative of most video games, particularly those with an M rating from the ESRB. Considering that those under 18 years old make up only about a quarter of all gamers, it infuriates me that the narratives in most AAA games are comparable to PG-rated movies. If you made them into television shows, they could almost all air on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon.
Before I get too macro, let me get back TellTale. What made their first season of The Walking Dead so great was how it put you in the role of a caretaker and after hours, or months if you played the episodes as they came out, you had to find a way to sacrifice yourself in a way that was meaningful. Where most games end like all fairytales, with the hero riding of into the sunset, the first season of The Walking Dead made you choose how to best spend your final moments to insure another’s survival. Now that is a mature, adult narrative.
TellTale’s The Wolf Among Us continued with the adult themes. First and foremost, the game, like the comic, is set in a gritty New York City. The narrative focuses on a hidden community of fairy tale characters that are essentially just like any other immigrant group. They’re all just trying to survive in this new land by any means necessary. The main story arc will spin your head, but if that’s not enough, each of the related side stories are all tragically authentic too. Playing as the Sheriff of this community, you can’t help but be touched by each of their plights.
This kind of storytelling is what got TellTale noticed. Unfortunately, it seems like the game maker places more value on their ability to secure licensing deals than offering a meaningful narrative. For me, this was made painfully obvious after playing DontNod’s surprising Life is Strange. Where Life is Strange tackled issues like bullying, drug abuse, sexual abuse, depression, and suicide authentically and through the eyes of a teenager, TellTale’s second season of The Walking Dead put players into the role of a eight- or nine-year-old girl, who by definition has no responsibility except self-preservation.
TellTale moved on from The Walking Dead with Tales From the Borderlands which, while entertaining, used its M rating to graphically blow up bodies as it built up to finger gun battles and a main story arc that revolves around robot love. Simultaneously, they tackled HBO’s Game of Thrones. That game follows five different characters, offers plenty of death and gore, and ends just as nihilistically as the television show can be. Unfortunately, that’s just about the only thing that resembled the source. Despite voicework from the series’ actual actors, with shorter episodes becoming the norm, the whole affair is just really too diluted for any of the tragic events that happen to House Forrester to hold any real weight.
Minecraft: Story Mode, with its accelerated Holiday release schedule is an obvious cash grab. Why they spent all that money on the voice talent is beyond me. Now, as the current television season wraps up, TellTale has returned to The Walking Dead with the Michonne mini-series. Having played through the first episode, I have to say I’m unimpressed. Like the previous titles, it’s an interesting story for fans of the franchise, but it’s definitely not as compelling as the source material. It tries to open with some weight, but is so inconsistent with its delivery, that it renders the whole sequence meaningless.
Honestly, there’s a reason why point-and-click adventure games are somewhat of a relic. It’s because there is very little actual interaction with the game. You’re not really controlling anything and with TellTale’s games, you can actually just set down the controller for long periods. TellTale tries to keep you more involved with quick time events(QTEs), but they rarely convey any real sense of control. Ultimately, the only thing that really makes this kind of game compelling is the narrative. Without that, a licensed TellTale game is essentially equivalent to watching a franchise related webisode on YouTube, like Halo: Fall of Reach.
Point-and-click adventure games, by nature, can hold an audience captive for significant period of time. That cuts both ways though. While that time can be used to provide a meaningful narrative, it can also bore gamers to death. If developers like TellTale squander the opportunity of the genre’s resurgence, it will surely end just as suddenly as it appeared. Maybe the licensing-focused TellTale aren’t the ones to look to, but if someone else can’t consistently offer compelling content in the genre, it might be another 15 or 20 years before someone figures out how to bring it back.
The opinions in this editorial are the author’s and do not represent OnlySP as an organization.
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