Ever since their acquisition of the “Sam and Max” license, Telltale has garnered a reputation as a studio that does things a little bit differently.
It was with that series that the studio kicked off their unique episodic format, where a series is released in monthly or bi-monthly installments over the course of a season. While the quality of their individual installments varied from great to “meh” with some regularity, for the most part the approach was viewed as a gimmick by many.
That was until the release of “The Walking Dead.”
With that series Telltale finally made it all click. The series of choices and consequences in those games made the episodic format actually matter, while the quality of the writing and direction made “The Walking Dead” the first series from the studio to maintain a standard of excellence throughout. The general consensus winner of the 2012 game of the year awards, “The Walking Dead” was a runaway success.
Much like the runaway success “Walking Dead” TV show, however, its increased attention also drew increased criticism. Many gamers lashed out against “The Walking Dead” games for not actually being games. Instead they saw them as a series of story sequences loosely strung together by the occasional dialogue choice or QTE section. As a result, “The Walking Dead” became one of the most cited titles in the growing debate of whether or not the term video game is still appropriate when describing the state of the medium today.
Regardless of where you stand on that particular issue though, the sales numbers don’t lie, and the numbers tell us that “The Walking Dead,” was a success. It was such a success, in fact, that it allowed TellTalle to not only continue “The Walking Dead” series, but begin entirely new series within the high profile worlds of “Fables,” “Borderlands,” and “Game of Thrones.”
And that’s what worries me.
See, I’m firmly in the crowd that loved “The Walking Dead.” While that’s mostly due to the quality of the game’s storytelling, I also attribute that to the fact that there wasn’t really anything like “The Walking Dead” series, even in the TellTalle canon. It was a breath of fresh air in the gaming world, and made the choice to buy “The Wolf Among Us” a no brainer.
By the end of the first episode of that game, though, it became pretty obvious that Telltale had no intentions of abandoning the gold mine of design they stumbled on during “The Walking Dead.” I don’t want to sound like I’m writing off “Wolf” as a re-skinned “Walking Dead,” but rather want to point out that if the appeal of “The Walking Dead” lied in it’s uniqueness and quality storytelling, the appeal of “Wolf” lies just in its storytelling.
That’s fine, but it does raise the question of whether or not TellTalle can justify releasing several high profile series in succession that all follow that “Walking Dead” style. After all, how many times can you hope to catch lightning in a bottle?
Now it’s not like I think Telltale should look at the success of “The Walking Dead” and say “Well, we made a good game so its time to shut down production,” but they already have both “The Walking Dead Season 2” and “The Wolf Among Us” releasing concurrently and now apparently have “Game of Thrones” and “Borderlands” titles in the works as well.
There’s no studio in the world that can possibly handle that amount of production and maintain a consistent level of quality, especially if the games they are making all follow the same basic template. We’ve seen before what happens to studios who feel the obligation to make annual releases of the same series and, with few exceptions, the results are not pretty.
In the case of Telltale, however, it’s even more tragic. Here’s a studio that made their namesake by releasing a game that shook the foundations of gaming and had some questioning the validity of the classification gaming itself. Going from that, to just continuing to do that but in new worlds reminds me of the executives from “South Park” who surmised that if saying shit in a TV show was popular and revolutionary, then saying shit even more and in different episodes is sure to be just as popular and revolutionary.
I believe that TellTalle is a great developer, and will never intentionally start banging out games routinely in the “Call of Duty” style. However, whether it is their intention or not, unless they start exploring a style beyond that of “The Walking Dead,” or at the very least limit their releases to a series at a time, they run the risk of overexerting themselves and learning a lesson that entertainers everywhere have learned the hard way for years.
After a while, the same act starts to get old.