If They’re Not Careful, Telltale Games Runs The Risk of Overexerting Themselves

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Superman Problem and Who Could Fix It

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What is the Superman problem?

Simply put, it’s making a good Superman game.

To view the extent of this problem, try typing “best Superman game” into Google. Soon you’ll be met with the equivalent of a shrug, as the only results are people asking if there ever has been a good Superman game. Specify that search to read “top 10 best Superman games,” and the most relevant result is the “top 10 worst Superman games.”

That’s right. The Superman problem is so great that it even breaks Google.

While it’s impossible to attribute the problem to any single issue, the biggest one has to be Superman himself. Simply put, Superman is too powerful, and doesn’t make an effective video game character because there are only so many things that can cause him harm, or scenarios where he is in actual danger. So unless you’re going to equip every thug with kryptonite gloves (which you shouldn’t because it’s a terrible idea), there is a very limited rouge gallery that can even contain the god-man. On the other hand, the entire reason you want to play Superman is to use those very powers that makes him an issue in the first place.

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As a result, mediocre games like “Death and Return of Superman” and “Shadow of Apokolips” are held in higher regard than they should be because they do nothing more than let you play as Superman, and not suck too bad. Meanwhile, Superman’s actual best roles are cameo appearances in lego games, and fighting titles.

That last part got me thinking. Maybe the solution to the Superman problem lies somewhere in the fact that so many Superman games have been 3D action titles. While that would seem the most likely home for the man of steel, it’s beginning to look like a truly great Superman game will not emerge until a developer is willing to chart some unconventional territory.

Specifically, that territory may be an adventure game, and that developer Telltale Games.

Ok, so it’s not the first thing you think of when you think Superman, but that’s the point. It’s something outside of the Superman comfort zone, that has turned into the rut the character’s games are in. For instance it would be interesting to see “Walking Dead’s” choice system make a return, and force gamers to actually grapple with the decisions that come with essentially being God on Earth, rather than just wail on baddies level after level. Hell, Clark Kent could even be made useable, courtesy of some journalistic investigation sequences

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Best of all, they wouldn’t even have to trim down on the few highlights that do exist in Superman games. You could still have flying, you’d still have the epic feel of playing as Superman, and the powers issue is addressed as you would still be able to use all of Superman’s abilities, but with the emphasis now on plot and progression, there would be no need to trim them down, as the developers could instead have greater control over the action sequences where you get to use them.

It’s not the only Superman idea out there, and it’s certainly not one that is guaranteed to work, however it is an example of how the Superman problem doesn’t have to be one without resolution, and that there are still ideas for the series that haven’t been explored which could potentially turn the games from running joke, into a franchise that is as anticipated as the next “Batman” game.

Although yeah, personally after Telltale is done with that incredible looking “Fables” project, I’d love to see them take a shot at the franchise, and do what no company has done in the 34 years since the first Superman game for the Atari, which is simply make a game that associate’s Earth’s greatest hero with the word good.

2012 Year End Game Review: Matt Byrd

2012 in gaming isn’t a year that is easy to sum up with hyperbole, or one sweeping statement.

It was far from the greatest year in gaming (very, very far), but even still, when I was compiling this list, I had to make some heartbreaking cuts, and felt I was disrespecting some very good games. For every cheap money snatching blockbuster we got this year, we were also gifted with some genuine surprises and accomplished franchise extensions (many of which make up this list). The end result of one step forward and one step back for an entire 12-month period may not have moved gaming ahead, but the constant motion made choosing the best of the year a dizzying experience.

Somehow, though, I was finally able to narrow it down to 10 games that I feel comfortable saying are the best of 2012.

10. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

On the surface, it looks like all there is to “Kingdoms of Amalur” is a standard RPG coat of paint and a souvenir of the high profile closure of “38 Studios.” It’s not the type of game that makes its first impression with its looks, but rather its personality. The game’s speedy free flowing combat system never ceases to be entertaining throughout the very long adventure “Amalur” provides.

An all-star team of developers and outside talent (fantasy great RA Salvatore penned the story) may have been behind “Amalur,” but nothing feels old hat about the game, and it instead comes across as something closer to a fresh faced group of young talent, with heads full of new ideas creating something against the grain. It’s one of the more surprising, and certainly among the most pure fun, releases this year.

9. Xenoblade: Chronicles

If “Amalur” looks standard and done before on the surface, then “Xenoblade” is practically a fossil upon first viewing. It’s a member of the dying JRPG genre, and was featured on the outdated Nintendo Wii, which would normally spell either doom or obscurity at best. Yet after a wave of hype from the Japanese market, and several thousand petition signatures later, audiences everywhere were greeted by something that felt like meeting an old friend, and finding out that you have just as much fun with each other as you used to.

“Xenoblade” pays tribute to all of the great JRPG conventions that shaped it, but it just as carefully takes note of all the things that made those game’s grow stale as well, and manages to mold new forms for them so you are left with a game that somehow makes you nostalgic for things you never knew before. Your party becomes your family thanks to a great relationship system, and the character building and combat mechanics keep things fresh as you explore one of the more unique worlds available for the genre all in pursuit of finishing an equally gripping story. The era of JRPGs may be over, but “Xenoblade” reminds us why it had a dynasty in the first place.

8. Sound Shapes

I love new, bold ideas in gaming, and “Sound Shapes” may have been among the newest and boldest this year. It has nothing to do with its basic gameplay either, as “Shapes” traditional 2D side scrolling system is fairly ho-hum. Much like a new “Mario” release though, the real draw doesn’t lie in the mechanics, but rather the design. “Sound Shapes” employs a minimalist graphic style that is charming, but only serves to give substance to the soundtrack that defines the experience. Several different musical artists contributed to the music (and the design) of the levels, and as a result we are provided one of the first games since the brilliant “Rez” that feels like an organic and physical product of the soundtrack. It’s more of an interactive soundtrack than a fully loaded video game, but it’s artistic value is unquestionable, and I wouldn’t want to know the person who couldn’t have fun with it.

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Why I’ve Come to Bury “Hitman” and Not the Dead

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

-Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (physician, poet, professor, lecturer, and author)

I truly, truly hope that the above quote is correct because this week in video games we saw a case of a dangerous old way of thinking and a potentially new idea of thinking that if carried over to other projects, and taken in as a new idea, will stretch the limits of what we once believed to be standard, or even possible.

What I mean is in reference to two recent games. One being “Hitman: Absolution” and the other being “The Walking Dead: Episode 5”. Specifically I’m talking about the plots of those games.

Ironically whereas “Hitman” is a game ideally about subtlety, and the art of skill, it’s story has all of the approach and delivery of a blunt hammer to the face delivered by a laughing lunatic. On the other hand, a game like “The Walking Dead” (which often asks the player to smash something in the head with a blunt object) delivers a tale so refined that we must now be careful how we speak of other game’s stories while praising them so we don’t accidentally lump them in the same league with “The Walking Dead” and therefore lose perspective.

“Hitman” is a dangerous game, and I’m not talking about the controversy surrounding the sexy nun enemies, or the general violence of the title. Instead it’s a dangerous game because of its disgusting and obvious story and stroytelling that,despite a couple of here and there moments of quality dialogue, fails to inspire a moment of emotional reaction, whatever that emotion may be . Whereas previous games in series wisely shunned a grand plot in favor of environment and mood as the larger themes, “Absolution” tries to go another route by making its presentation more of a high production, low grade movie. It’s every effort in that respect is so insultingly awful, it is the first game that should have not received the traditional M rating, but rather IM for “immature”.

Didn’t think that was funny? Well now you know how I feel as I tried to suffer through some of the most horrid attempts at sexual references, characters, plot, and of course comedy that have ever graced video games. It’s not even the content I’m against, but instead the delivery. It aims for Guy Ritchie, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino, and instead ends up with an effort more in line with the works of Roger Corman. The only difference was Corman’s schlock knew it was bad and had a sense of style about it, whereas “Hitman: Absolution” seems either unaware of how bad its bad really is, or otherwise doesn’t give a damn and couldn’t be bothered to make what’s there work.

“The Walking Dead” on the other hand? Don’t be surprised if the fifth and final episode in the game’s first season just won the series overall game of the year honors, as its use of characters and plot, and more importantly the player’s involvement in those aspects, is nothing short of revolutionary. The game works off of the same promise of “Mass Effect” or a TV show like “The Wire” where all the pieces supposedly matter, and what you do in the end will be just a reflection of the steps you took to get there.

Unlike “Mass Effect” though, but much like “The Wire”, “The Walking Dead” achieves this as suddenly your choices do come to bear upon you as you now are faced with the prospect of facing the tough moments that defined your journey in a fresh light, and only in the end when you see the ramifications of them are you given the gift of hindsight that allows you to regret, smile upon, and always question your choices, as the end results, and your reactions to them, give you something that few games ever have, and that is a better sense of who you are, and the person you’d maybe rather try to be.

Does a game like “Hitman” have to do the same? Well it would be nice, but that’s not the point. The point is that a title like that handles its story with a dangerous indifference can no longer be accepted. This is not the NES where a brief kidnapping of your girlfriend by some thugs leads to all the motivation you need to reach a single frame resolution and expect satisfaction. You don’t have to have a masterpiece story, but don’t try to pass an entire adventure that is framed by the mentality of the average thirteen year old boy, and done with all of the effort exhibited by the average two year old boy, and honestly tell yourself it is the best you can do without expecting to receive both the mixed reviews and mainstream public backlash you are getting now.

And if you do decide to be dumb and lazy in the same week, whatever you do don’t release that high profile game at the same time as a title that provides a blueprint for the future of the medium and expect to save face in the minds of either your peers, your critics, or your fans

That, and I’m sure the creators of “Hitman: Absolution” can understand this, would just be silly.

Monkey Island Chapter Three Arrives September 29th

Lair of the Leviathan.If you haven’t yet finished Chapter 2 of The Tales of Monkey Island you should probably get going on that. The third installment arrives September 29th and will be called The Lair of the Leviathan. Lots of piratey goodness in that title.

The release date is only for the PC version of the game. As with The Siege of Spinner Cay, you’ll be waiting on the 360/Wii releases just a little longer.

Along with the expansion of the new game, you can find Guybrush Threepwood’s original adventure, The Secret of Monkey Island on sale from Steam and Direct2Drive this weekend for $5. The sale coincide with Talk Like A Pirate Day, September 19th. The sale will run until the 21st, so you’ve got a few days to decide whether you can part with honest Abe.

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