Telltale Games’ various episodic adventure series have been in the spotlight for the past couple of years and rightfully so – the company has been consistently making high quality adaptations of popular licenses like The Walking Dead and Fables, and currently has two ongoing series based on the Borderlands and Game of Thrones franchises, as well as plans for a third season of The Walking Dead in the foreseable future. They are known for their emphasis on quality storytelling, solid writing and meaningful character development. The choices players make while playing will have affect the story in characters, with multiple possible outcomes and endings.
I recently picked up Episode 1 of their Borderlands spin-off series, Tales From the Borderlands. I wasn’t planning to at first, since I had lost interest in the franchise midway through the first Borderlands, but Tales got my attention thanks to a number of very positive reviews, which all pointed out that the series was a fresh spin on the license and suitable for both new and old fans. I played it and I loved it, particularly for its wonderfully whacky sense of humor and the general impression that you are playing as a bunch of underdogs in a world built on chaos and ludacrious violence. It really felt like a fresh new perspective on the world of Pandora, one that I look forward to exploring in the next four episodes of the series. However, I also noticed a number of things that concerned me, mainly with the general way Telltale has started to make their titles for a while now, which I will refer to as the Telltale Method.
The Telltale Method is basically doubling down on cutscenes and dialogue, and removing most of the exploration and puzzle elements found previous titles. Ocassional QTE sequences or other button prompts would pop up for the sake of variety, but the vast majority of the gameplay consists of branching dialogue scenes or straight up cutscenes. Of course, this isn’t necessarilly a bad thing. After all, Telltale has always prioritized storytelling and dialogue, so putting an even bigger emphasis on it is in many ways quite good. The thing is, this was done primarily to cut back on development time more so than anything else.
The Walking Dead Season Two and The Wolf Among Us were two series that ran on a back-to-back bi-montly schedule, with the idea being that Telltale would release new episodic content every month for one of the two. To make it work, both games were made with a similar cell-shaded art style and relied more heavily on cutscenes and dialogue, cutting down exploration and puzzless to a minimum. Tales From the Borderlands is also based around that art style, and so will the upcoming Game of Thrones series. Episodes that are more heavily scripted and are based around a unifying art style are easier and quicker to develop, which certainly helps when you have two ongoing series and at least one, possibly more on the backburner. If we want more series from Telltale with consistent episode release dates, this is certainly the way to go about it – the thing is, should we want that?
Don’t get me wrong – I love that there’s a Game of Thrones series coming up, as well as Season Three of The Walking Dead. I wanna see Season Two of The Wolf Among Us and more from Tales From the Borderlands, but I feel that the Telltale Method is robbing some of these series from some unique possibilities.
Early episodes of The Wolf Among Us gave us glimpses of what could have a wonderful crime scene investigation game mechanic. Imagine if Bigby could use his keen sense of smell to look clues, or interrogated witnesses and tried to figure out if they’re lying or not. There were more than a couple of crime scenes that could have greatly benefited from being more about exploration and puzzle solving. Instead, the crime scenes were perhaps the weakest part of the series, because all of the clues were highlighted, and all the answers to the mystery were clunkily shoved in the dialogue.
In Episode 1 of Tales From The Borderlands, Rhys has an Echo Eye implant, which allows him to scan the enviroment and possibly hack or interact with machinery. However, it’s more of a gimmick than a game mechanic. Hacking is simply clicking on highlighted computers and scanning ammounts to switching to the implant and clicking on objects to find out more about them. How about some kind of hacking mini-game? Perhaps even hacking something during a conversation, trying to keep someone distracted while you activate some piece of machinery. Or possibly using the Eye to discover hidden objects that could affect the game’s storyline. There’s lots of potential here and I hope future episodes explore it further.
In fact, I hope Telltale starts incorporating more unuqie game mechanics for their different series in general. I don’t mind an unified art style, but as it stands, a lot of really interesting gameplay ideas are used as gimmicks at best, which is unfortunate. I would suggest that Telltale either develop them into fully fledged mechanics or simply drop them alltogether – I don’ think this clunky inbetween way of doing things is the right way to go. I would be perfectly okay with a game entirely based around dialogue, cutscenes and the occasional button prompt, but throwing in half-baked gameplay gimmicks is just distracting. It makes me think about wasted potential, which is not what I should be thinking about when playing a Telltale game.