As the shocking news about Telltale’s impending demise continues to greatly sadden those of us who admired what their extremely talented creative teams did for storytelling in video games, it also highlights a lot of the prevalent issues around ensuring employees in the industry are properly treated in situations like this one after the majority of the company’s staff were laid off suddenly and without severance pay.
Here, however, the goal is not to explore that very sad saga, but to reflect on one particular amazing story that the company told. The Walking Dead series has been the company’s flagship title since season one was released all the way back in 2012, and it is an example of the excellent writing that the team was always capable of.
In fact, it hasn’t just been excellent. Telltale’s foray in to the world of zombies has produced something that surpasses every other form of media that bears the Walking Dead name, meaning not just the extremely famous TV show, but also its source material, the original Robert Kirkman comic book.
How has it done that? Well, as previously mentioned, Telltale as a studio gained a reputation for their excellent writing, whether it be dialogue or plotting, and the story is no different here. It makes the answer simple: it’s better written and has a more intelligent overall narrative design than its counterparts. Sure, other aspects help, from the strength of the game’s protagonists to the fact that Telltale ensures that you as the player are at the centre of major moments and decisions, but the work has to be done in the writing room in order to make those choices meaningful, and those interactions worth getting involved in.
AMC’s TV show counterpart lacks the ability to thrust the viewer in to the action, and at this point is regularly and justifiably criticised for relying on shock after shock to maintain any kind of interest in what has become a plodding, boring husk of the show that it once was otherwise. While it once managed to balance the constant threat of the walkers with engrossing character drama, the high turnover of characters was a major contributor to a growing sense of detachment. When you couple that with the stagnation that the series started to suffer, the show loses what made it so gripping in the first place.
A large part of that is down to the comic book. Creator Robert Kirkman has to be commended for building a rich world, but the focus of the comics is never on substance. It is rather on telling a rip-roaring tale at full throttle, eschewing extraneous dialogue in favour of efficient one-liners that allow the story to progress at pace towards the next major event.
This is not necessarily a negative and indeed the fast pace can make for an engrossing read, but the fact that the TV show takes so much inspiration for so many of its plot points directly from the comic leaves it needing to do a lot of other work to fill in those gaps than the comic never feels the need to.
What Telltale’s game, which doesn’t rely on the comics anywhere near as heavily, does a whole lot better than both is it focuses on relationships, and making those relationships matter. Sure, the threat of the walkers is always there and the game creates a lot of tense moments as you attempt to negotiate them, but it’s never about the walkers. It’s about Clementine, and the way that her relationship with Lee grows in the first season goes way beyond anything that the other mediums manage to achieve. The interactivity of a lot of the character discussions certainly helps, but this can be a double-edged sword because the gravitas in those moments where the player is making a vital dialogue choice comes from the writing, and the way those interpersonal relationships are managed.
That is what Telltale succeeded at doing so well. In season 1 Lee and Clementine’s story takes many twists and turns, from the escape from a family of cannibals right through to the game’s extremely emotional series finale, but those calamities and small silver linings are found through the collective humanity of its characters and the way they effect Clementine.
A particularly great example of this is Kenny, whose relationship with Lee can go one of a few ways, and whose impact on Clementine as a person is gargantuan, not only in season 1 but in season 2 also. The other versions of The Walking Dead do not have a character like Kenny. Sure, they may have some of his characteristics like Shane, but the nuance of the character is new. The player’s perception of Kenny shifts as he attempts to deal with the events in his life, and the way he handles those events force the player to make multiple important and powerful choices about his long term welfare.
These shifts feel totally natural, and form a large part of the backbone of season 2 of the game. It acts as an excellent character study of Clementine, who does her best to take what she learned from Lee and apply it in these life or death situations. Her relationships with other characters continue to shape her in to who she might be, and it’s Kenny that proves that Telltale managed the nuance of these perfectly poised situations. The second season was arguably even more bleak than the first, but as a character examination it’s incredible and a further mark of the game’s prowess.
The third season may have had its problems, but A New Frontier showed that Telltale’s ability to craft an excellent story wasn’t entirely reliant on Clementine as a protagonist. Javi’s story had its own wonderful elements packed with complex character interactions and nuance, and the drama continues to be hard-hitting, never feeling cheap.
Clementine’s return to the main role for The Final Season (Telltale also seemed eminently aware that dragging the series on too long would deplete its value; an issue that blights both of the other mediums) was definitely a welcome one though, and the imagery involved was already Telltale at their best. Clem is older now, and a little wiser, trying her hardest to fulfil Lee’s role for AJ, and finding it as difficult as you might expect. Again, it’s the characters that make the game, and both the first and second episodes contain many moments that make use of the excellent writing, together with some new, innovative gameplay, to offer the best Walking Dead experience. That blend feels seamless when Telltale were at their best, and it is what makes the company’s demise all the more sad.
It was up in the air as to whether the season would ever be finished, but the recent announcement that Skybound Games will be stepping in to finish the game “with members of the original team” according to their statement will be music to fans’ ears. The fact that this story, which has exemplified not just storytelling in games, but the blending of interactivity with their powerful, intelligent and meaningful writing, will get a proper ending is a silver lining of good news, and a welcome one.