Monday, October 1, 2018

Episodic? Unfinished? or Ill-Suited?

It looks like Telltale Studios' last story is just about told, and as such there has been a lot of reminiscing on the internet about titles like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, and so on.  A lot of criticism of Telltale, then and now, is centered around the similarity of the template applied to all their IPs.  I see where they're coming from, but to me the Telltale formula was fine.  It just felt like they were only sub-components of what should have been much meatier games.

Take Minecraft: Story Mode, there's really no story in vanilla Minecraft aside from the vague and tedious goal of slaying the Ender Dragon.  Why not integrate Telltale's product directly into Minecraft and give the world's most popular digital sandbox a much needed narrative driven setting?  A common gripe with Telltale products is the illusion of player choice.  I understand that creating dialogue and visuals for every branch and outcome is a task that grows exponentially in terms of time, money and labour, but it doesn't have to be if the decisions the player makes influence gameplay rather than simply a truncated narrative arc.

Hypothetically speaking, suppose Telltale's Game of Thrones had a tactical RPG gameplay element built into it (similar to Shining Force, Vandal Hearts or Fire Emblem).  Choices made by the player during conversations could factor into the combat segments in all sorts of interesting ways.  Everything from enemy placement, unit types, and battlefield conditions to character stats, available movesets, or even objectives could be affected.  This kind of thing has been done on a limited scale in the past by titles like Suikoden and Sakura Wars.  So, why not expand on the concept?

Now, I know some will read the above and conclude that increasing the scope of a Telltale game would drastically up the's true to some degree, but possibly not as much as one might be inclined to think.  For one thing all Telltale games are hand-animated, a needlessly labour-intensive process when performance capture would take care of this and fulfil the voice recording which has to be done regardless.  Having a separate combat system would also eliminate the QTEs that Telltale games use for action scenes.  Graphics and sound assets could be shared between teams and a lot of the overhead costs of running a studio probably could have been alleviated by not basing the company out of San Francisco (the most expensive place to live in the entire USA).  Any additional development costs could be recouped by a modest price increase.  I don't think most customers would mind paying a bit more for Telltale games if the had more to them than a bunch of streamlined adventure game mechanics.

Speaking of improving on the basic formula, a number of indie studios have done precisely that.  Oxenfree strips away the uncanny valley that Telltale games suffer from by going with a simpler, yet more stylized visual presentation.  The Council, while somewhat of an eyesore, adds in some board-game-like mechanics which adds another layer to what would otherwise be a somewhat shallow experience.  At the very least you'd think Telltale would have added some crafting/exploration/survival mechanics to the later seasons of The Walking Dead.  Instead all that the studio did was make some minor graphical improvements to "Telltale Tool," an inelegant in-house rendering engine that only remained viable as long as it did because of the blood, sweat and tears being fed into by the development teams (who in recognition for their hard work were fired en masse without proper compensation or warning).  Stay classy Telltale execs...stay classy.

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