Telltale Games made three major announcements today regarding upcoming projects.
Microsoft announced its list of Games with Gold today with a pair of games for the Xbox One and 360 each.
The latest episode of Telltale Games’ Game of Thrones is pretty good.
Telltale, creator of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones episodic games, announced Monday night that co-founder Kevin Bruner is taking over as CEO of the company.
Former CEO Dan Connors will continue on as executive advisor.
Bruner says Telltale is expanding and growing as it comes into its tenth year and announced an upcoming original IP in a statement to gamesindustry.biz Monday.
“Our top priority is to continue fostering an environment where the most talented and creative storytellers in the industry are working side by side with the world’s biggest creative partners,” he says in the statement. “We’re already working on some of the biggest franchises in entertainment, and when you add our unannounced partnerships and upcoming original IP, it’s clear the most exciting time to be at Telltale is now, and there will continue to be more and more opportunity to innovate ahead of us.”
Telltale announced in Dec. their collaboration with Mojang in the upcoming Minecraft: Story Mode which is set for release some time this year.
As easy as it is to believe that the genre of adventure games is dead, there is plenty of proof that they’re just as—if not more—popular than ever before. In the last week alone I’ve reviewed a horror-themed, traditionalist point-and-click with The Last Door, enjoyed a slightly modernized version of the same puzzle-solving style in Valiant Hearts: The Great War, and finished up the latest episode of Telltale Games’ pseudo-adventure series The Wolf Among Us. From this vantage point it seems that adventure games haven’t gone away at all—that they are, in fact, a greater presence in videogames than they have been in years.
When Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions launched a Kickstarter for the production of a back-to-basics point-and-click game back in early 2012 it was because the major publishers apparently weren’t interested in financing new entries to the adventure genre. The millions raised through the crowdfunding effort showed that there was an audience for a throwback of the sort that Broken Age, Double Fine’s release, turned out to be. Just the same, the project seems to have been a one-off. Probably it was Tim Schafer’s pedigree as an adventure game designer that helped Broken Age’s funding effort. Maybe it was that players really only need occasional doses of nostalgia—are content with only one traditional adventure game in a blue moon and not several of them each year. Regardless of the reason for the Kickstarter project’s success, the adventure genre, at least in its point-and-click form, seemed destined to remain stuck in a niche.
Fans of this style of game bemoan this fact and have to be content with sporadic point-and-click releases. They see one of their favourite genres fading into obsolescence, not noticing just how well adventure games of a different sort are doing. It’s unlikely that traditional adventures will achieve mainstream success anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean that the genre is dead. As made clear by the attention garnered by Double Fine’s Kickstarter, players are still interested in the gameplay staples found in adventure games—quality dialogue, interesting characters, and an emphasis on logical thinking—can find them, even if traditional takes on the genre aren’t as popular as they used to be.
Telltale Games, a developer that has enjoyed a sort of renaissance over the last few years on the strength of the great gameplay design and writing of its episodic The Walking Dead series, is evidence of this. No doubt helped along by the popularity of the comic books and television show it’s based upon, Telltale managed to attract audiences indifferent to the game’s source material by overhauling the adventure game mechanics it had been indebted to for so many years. I believe The Walking Dead was such an overwhelming success because it was made by an adventure developer willing to experiment with the genre. Rather than adhere to older design principles, Telltale boiled the style of the game down to its basics, concentrating on storytelling and dialogue-based decision-making as the key elements of its version of the zombie apocalypse. While many die-hard adventure fans surely see The Walking Dead (and Telltale’s similar series, The Wolf Among Us) as blasphemy, these games are a necessary modernization of a genre that was previously at risk of fading entirely into the past. They’re the result of an experienced adventure game developer using the lessons learned from prior releases to change a game’s style in a way that makes it accessible to a wider audience.
Genres can only maintain relevance through change. While traditional adventure games deserve to live on and will always have a place within the medium, it’s good to see the genre adapt to modern sensibilities and find a place in the mainstream. It may not seem like it from the outside, but the fact that games like Valiant Hearts: The Great War and The Walking Dead manage to capture so much attention means that a whole style of game is making a healthy transition from past to present. Far from being dead, adventure games are very much alive and well. It’s just that now they take a different form than what we’re used to.
End Of The Road
With episode five, Cry Wolf, Telltale Games brings their first Vertigo adaptation to an end, and it’s quite likely from the reception of this first season that this Fables-based game is just that; the first of more seasons. As to be expected from any concluding episode, there’s a fixed goal in mind for this installment and choices that have been made in past episodes play out to show you what kind of world you’ve made, and what kind of influence you’ve had on people. For anyone that’s a fan of adventure games, episode five of The Wolf Among Us delivers the goods in a satisfying way.
Not Black & White Fairy Tales
Although it’s been widely, repeatedly acknowledged that the PS3 version of the series is technically the worst performing, it bears mentioning that it’s gotten even worse for this last episode. Load times are noticeably longer, upwards of over a minute from some chapters to the next, and the audio occasionally goes out of sync with the visuals, leading to some awkward moments where the speaking is all wrapped, but the characters are still going through the dialog motions. It’s safe to assume that this will continue for the remainder of PS3 Telltale games, such as the wrap up to season two of The Walking Dead. It’s also quite likely that new games, such as the upcoming Borderlands adventure, will probably also be available on the Xbox One and PS4 and not prone to these hiccups.
Now, as for the game itself, this is all about the story, which should be no surprise at this point since we’re talking about a Telltale game. There will be the inevitable questions along the lines of “Is this ending as good as Season One of The Walking Dead?” The answer to that question is, “Yes, as long as you’re not expecting to cry.” The Wolf Among Us—and to be fair, the entire world of Bill Willingham’s Fables—is not the same as that of The Walking Dead. In a way, both worlds explore the human condition, but where The Walking Dead goes the route of the extreme—putting people in life or death situations that force hard choices—The Wolf Among Us tackles moral ambiguity head on, especially in this last episode. There’s a different kind of emotional turmoil that comes from trying to uphold a system of law versus trying to do the right thing. The Wolf Among Us has constantly wrestled with this. In nearly every episode, Bigby has been confronted with a rule of law that is corrupt, marginalizing the Fables without wealth or status, forcing the player into making choices that might be the legal thing to do, but might not necessarily be the right thing to do.
All those little choices add up and get some karmic payback in the final episode as Bigby gets a final confrontation with the “final boss” of the game and story. It culminates in the player finding a personal answer to the question, “What is more important, upholding the rules of society as an example to society, or doing whatever it takes, however illegal, to ensure justice is served?” It’s an enormously complicated question, and it’s sure to have players arguing back and forth over the decisions they made and what it says about their own value system. That’s not something 90% of games ever do to their players, and it’s amazing that Telltale managed to pull it off here.
The Wolf Among Us, like the world of Fables themselves, is ultimately a reflection of modern society. The only difference is, over the course of this five-episode murder mystery, it has repeatedly forced players to confront their own value system through scenarios that are anything but clear-cut “right choice/wrong choice.” There’s no chance that Cry Wolf is going to elicit tears from the player; it doesn’t want to. But what it will do, which is equally as important—perhaps more so—is make the player think about right, wrong, legal and illegal, and how these things don’t necessarily pair up with each other in the way you’d expect. Telltale has told a great tale here, living up to their studio name, and hopefully there will be more unusual, morally complex, offbeat adventures like this in their future.
The Wolf Among Us is now into the home stretch as episode four is released to the public. Happily, for fans of the series, this latest episode keeps the positive momentum of past episodes going in a good direction. Things happen, and Bigby continues to find himself negotiating a world where upholding the law is mostly a good thing, but there are some serious problems with the current system that are hurting many innocent people. Fables the comic book has always been about putting fairy tale characters in realistic, humorous and morally ambiguous situations. Telltale’s interpretation is upholding that legacy nicely.
The technical side of things remains the same; the PS3 version reviewed has performance issues. They’re well documented and don’t need a repeat. The important thing here is that Telltale continues to follow a traditional narrative arc of rising action, rising stakes and, in true interactive fashion, some choices that need to be made, some easy and some hard.
It’s hard to talk about the fourth episode of a five part series without getting into spoilers about past episodes. But really, no really it has to be stressed at this point that YOU SHOULD NOT BE JUMPING INTO EPISODE FOUR OF A FIVE EPISODE GAME AS YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH THAT GAME. Having said that, I feel no remorse at all about discussing past plot points, although of course, even those moments may differ based on the choices players make at key junctures in the game.
Bigby is now recovering from the absolutely brutal encounter he just barely survived at the end of episode three. In true Fable fashion, recovering actually means “suck it up, get back on your feet and get back to the job,” since Fables can endure what would be mortal wounds for mundane humans, or “mundies,” as the Fables call them. Things have taken an unexpected turn, and the murder mystery has gotten a bit more complicated as murderer and victim aren’t as straightforward as they were shaping up to be.
Telltale once again does a great job of engrossing the player in 80s New York populated by fairy tale characters. There’s a definite film noir tone to this mystery with classic tropes such as the “mysterious dame,” waiting for a detective in his office and other little touches that make the player feel like Humphrey Bogart on the case. That’s assuming Humphrey Bogart interrogated trolls and transformed into a homicidal werewolf-ish creature to get his point across more sternly. More of the fantastical elements rear their head in this episode, reinforcing just how different Fables are from their mortal counterparts. There’s actually a reduction in locations visited in Sheep’s Clothing compared to past episodes, but they pack a lot of drama—and most importantly for a mystery—investigation into these locations that it doesn’t feel like a budgetary consideration.
Telltale has now set itself up for what will hopefully be a satisfying conclusion to this latest episodic series. It’s not as emotionally charged as the original Walking Dead game, but in many ways is a more entertaining experience. Telltale has always been good with humor, and that’s something that comes out more naturally in a world inhabited by Fairy tale characters. We’ll likely have to wait until the end of summer before we see the final episode, but if it plays out well, Telltale will have another respectable notch to add to their adventure game belt.
This month has been a good one for episodic games. In the past week, new entries to both Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero and Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead: Season 2 have been released, offering those of us following those series a bit of long-awaited story progression. These are two of my favourite games at the moment, so I was happy to get a chance to play more of them. But, while trying to remember plot and character details from previous episodes, I also started to think that the way these games are being released isn’t quite as good as their actual content.
Episodic titles are a great idea. Splitting a game into several parts with staggered releases allows developers to control the pacing of their stories to a degree that would be impossible otherwise. Waiting for new parts of the game to come out also focuses player concentration, fostering conversation around new plot points and prompting deeper looks into the material that everyone has just experienced at roughly the same time. But in most cases, the execution of most episodic releases hasn’t been handled all that well. Telltale Games is probably the highest-profile developer employing the episodic format. While their release schedule stayed mostly on track throughout the first season of The Walking Dead game, the second season of that series and the ongoing The Wolf Among Us have struggled to meet consistent deadlines. Worse is Kentucky Route Zero, an exceptional game by Cardboard Computer that is still frustrating in its incredibly slow releases. Every act of Kentucky Route Zero has been remarkably well-written and presented, but the effectiveness of its mysterious plot is hampered by the enormous gaps between new entries. I was blown away by the end of Act II. By the time Act III came out—nearly a year later—I had to spend the first half hour trying to remember each of the characters and what had happened in the story before.
These aren’t new problems. The infamous ending to Half-Life 2: Episode 2—a cliffhanger that still hasn’t been resolved after almost seven years—is more of a joke than a real annoyance at this point, but the inability of even a huge, well-established developer like Valve to stick to its self-imposed release schedule illustrates a point. Television seasons are typically filmed and edited in their entirety before the first episode is even aired. Because of this, they’re able to maintain a weekly air-date that ensures viewers can become engaged with characters and plotlines without having to search their memories every time a new episode comes out. Videogame production is markedly different than television, though. Studios routinely delay their games for reasons that don’t exist in film or TV. Technical problems may cause a title that works on computer to crash constantly on a console; the save states that allow continuity between episodes may be prone to corruption. It’s completely understandable when developers are unable to meet deadlines, but that doesn’t mean that erratic releases aren’t still a problem.
Imagining an HBO where True Detective, Game of Thrones, or Boardwalk Empire episodes are staggered over months is impossible. Audiences would forget why they were anticipating a continuation of these stories in the first place. Why should videogames be any different? Players waiting to learn more about the mysteries at the centre of The Wolf Among Us or Kentucky Route Zero are no different than those who are invested in story-driven TV shows. Unexpected delays also take away from the strengths of episodic games, interfering with the careful pacing established by incremental releases of new content.
It seems like the only way to solve this problem is for developers to finish a game in its entirety (or at least the majority of it) before beginning to release episodes. If unexpected issues—creative or technical—are responsible for uneven waiting times between releases, then it only makes sense to re-evaluate the model as it is currently used. I love the episodic format, but there’s little doubt that it’s extremely difficult for videogame developers to make it work consistently. Taking a few lessons from TV— a medium that has long understood how to make predictable scheduling work—seems like the best path forward for games.
We’re now into episode three of a five episode series, and, to the surprise of no one that’s watched TV, movies, or read books in the last 50 years, risks, rewards, chills and thrills are going into overdrive as we into the middle of the story. The Wolf Among Us is quickly turning into one of the best thrillers in games today, and even if it doesn’t have the same populist momentum as the monster franchise that is The Walking Dead, in some ways, it is a better written, more interesting tale than what we’re getting in that storied property’s second outing as an adventure game.
Because this is a continuing episode in a series, all the usual technical details of past episodes are in full effect. The PS3 version stutters, and sometimes takes so long to load new scenes that the trophies have popped up and nearly vanished long before the next cutscene begins. It’s a safe bet that if Telltale continues new games on the PS4, these issues will vanish, but in the meantime, this is the worst performing version out of all the platforms currently available. Having said that, these issues in no way detract from the entertaining experience that lies in wait for the faithful.
The second episode of The Wolf Among Us was a nice, slow burn that gave the audience some character development some more insight into the world of the Fables and how they live in modern New York, and particular detail was paid to Bigby’s growing sense of responsibility as Sherriff of Fabletown. Episode three takes all that and rolls it down a hill of escalating drama that’s got just much tension as a typical Game of Thrones or Battlestar Galactica episode. Stuff happens here, and as much of it is character-based conflict as it is people actually getting into fights.
The writers for this episode, Adam Hines and Nicole Martinez, ratchet up the character tension by bringing in the unpleasant issues from the past two episodes and forcing some of the characters to confront them. Snow White in particular gets a lot of the emotional spotlight in this episode, and it’s here that we begin to see the woman that will eventually become the hard-nosed director of operations in the Fables comic book series that this story precedes. Things have been leading up to certain consequences and confrontations in the first two episodes, and episode three is where some of it starts to pay off.
What’s most impressive about this third episode is the characterization. Hines and Martinez have nailed the essence of Fables while still making it their own. They’ve provided a unique interpretation of what would happen to fairy tale characters when transported to our world, but they’ve also humanized them to such a degree that it’s impossible not to relate to their situation. However, this is still the middle of the story, which means that even though we’re seeing some pieces fall into place, not everything has been revealed. There’s still plenty of room for surprises and that’s exactly what we get as The Crooked Mile comes to an end. It’s difficult to talk about how effective the plotting and characterization are here without getting into spoiler territory, but it’s safe to say that people who have already paid up for the season pass can safely download this latest instalment confident that they’re about to enjoy a unique, well written ride. By the time the credits roll, players will be shaking their head at just how long the wait is going to be until the next episode. But even that frustration is, in itself, a sign of just how engaging this story has become.
The Plot Thickens
It came just a little over two months later than was expected, but the second episode of Telltale’s Fables adventure game is finally here. Episode two, titled Smoke And Mirrors continues the adventures of Bigby as he tracks a killer that is targeting female Fables (Fables being refugee fairy tale characters that now live in our world), and, as to be expected from any good story as we get into the middle, the stakes are now going up.
Enjoy The Ride
It’s the usual drill here since this is a new episode in an established Telltale game, there’s nothing to talk about in terms of graphics or mechanics. This is exactly the same art direction and game design established in the first episode, and it carries on here. The only thing that bears remarking on is a hope that the next new series from Telltale also makes its debut on the Xbox One and PS4 platforms. The graphics here look fine, comparable to the PC version, but, at least on the PS3, it’s obvious that the 512 MB of RAM is really holding the game back in terms of performance. Screen tearing and frame rate issues crop up regularly, and the game’s constant reliance on calling up data from the hard drive can stutter some of the scenes. None of this actually hurts the gameplay, but it does cause noticeable hiccups in the flow of the story.
The story, however, is why people are playing this game, and in some ways, The Wolf Among Us is the best game in Telltale’s library right now. Yes, it is competing with its sibling, season two of The Walking Dead, but TWD is, by fan necessity, predictable and giving the audience more of the same. The Wolf Among Us continues to surprise with new characters and situations, and the refreshing, signature take of modern fairy tale characters trying to survive in 80s New York. In the fairy tales, despite the acknowledgement of class systems like peasants and nobility, social order is never in question. Here, Pierre Shorette, the writer for the series, manages to breathe wry social commentary into the clash of Fables living in luxury apartments, while others eke out a living as prostitutes and pimps. It’s an ugly, dark, surprising portrayal of fairy tale characters, but it’s also witty, compassionate and compelling. Some strong dialogue and great acting make this latest episode every bit the piece of entertainment of a good dramatic serial on television, except, of course, that players get to choose how to investigate, and what to say to the other people.
It should be noted however that, as good an episode as it is, there are going to be some that will be disappointed with Smoke And Mirrors. For those that more addicted to plot/action than characterization, this will be a weaker episode. It’s clearly a “bridge” episode, in that the lower key events portrayed here are building up to something bigger and more dramatic. But that also means that it’s the characters that really get a chance to shine here. Bigby, unlike Lee Everett of The Walking Dead was already a fully formed character that didn’t need a trial by fire to define him, and he really gets a chance to shine, as do the other characters in the episode that provide some nuanced performances and add surprising amounts of depth. This is an episode that really gives the audience a chance to inhabit this world and get to know the people in it, and while there is still a mystery to pursue, suspects to interrogate and even a little bit of action, it’s more of a treat for fans of character and world building than it is for fans of plot. In other words, you can expect to be more invested in the people and places of The Wolf Among Us, but not necessarily be blown away by the latest turn in the story. As with all good serial dramas, Smoke And Mirrors does end by raising some big questions, and promises to give us a pretty intriguing third episode, so it does a great job of keeping the momentum going, even if it doesn’t do it loudly. Overall, for some, it’s one of the best-written Telltale games in recent months. For others, it’s a bit light on action.
Telltale Does It Again
Welcome To Fabletown
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the glut of revisionist fairy tale media we have now is, in some part, because of Bill Willingham. His post-modern take on traditional fairy tales, better known as Fables, debuted in 2002 and since then has gone on make not just a huge impact by itself, but influenced countless writers to give the sub-genre a spin themselves. With that kind of track record, it was just a matter of time before the games industry came a knockin’. Fortunately, for both Bill and the audience, it was Telltale that answered the call.
No Rabid Fan Knowledge Required
The Wolf Among Us is a prequel, taking place before any of the major story arcs of the Fable comic take place. The premise centres on “Fabletown,” an area of New York taken over by refugees of various fairy tales that have escaped an enemy known only as “The Adversary” who has been conquering their lands. This particular game focuses on Bigby, aka “The Big Bad Wolf” who has now reformed and acts as a sheriff for Fabletown. That job description quickly changes to detective when a murder occurs, and the game is afoot.
The visuals of TWAU are a treat, clearly using the same techniques as The Walking Dead but amplified even more. The textures for paint and line work are even more defined, to emphasize the comic book look, and the color palette is bright and vibrant, representing the 80s look of the time period. The only downside to the graphics is that while performance is smooth on PCs, the PS3 version regularly chugs and hiccups as it does with most Telltale games. The music also carries a similar 80s vibe, largely based around synthesizers to keep the mood of a pre-internet, pre-cellphone world going. And it goes without saying that the acting is great. Adam Harrington, voicing Bigby, brings the kind of noir-ish, surly detective delivery the character needs.
Mechanically, there’s little to differentiate this game from its critically acclaimed predecessor, The Walking Dead. There’s still less emphasis on puzzle solving than traditional adventure games, there are still QTEs, and there are timed responses, with answers that will be remembered by the various characters and have an influence on later events. The only real caveat here is that the there’s little in the way of tutorials to explain how the action/QTE sequences work. The game requires players to move a cursor over to a target area, and then hit an action button in order to pull off certain moves, but this is never really explained. It’s not a deal breaker as players can quickly pick it up with a little trial and error, but it’s a surprising omission from a company that makes games generally accessible to everyone.
Aside from that, the real question here is “Will I like this game?” And your answer will be “Yes,” if you are a fan of adventure games in general, a fan of Telltale games in particular, a fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables universe, or a fan of games with good storytelling. If you’re an FPS or action game fan, just walk away, you are not the target market. Of course, fans of the series will probably enjoy the game most as the material is very loyal to source (both Bill Willingham and series artist Mark Buckingham participated in the project) so references and foreshadowing abound for those in the know. For those that aren’t, the game lays out just enough to hit the ground running and provides an appendix to keep the uninitiated up to speed on who all these people are, and what their significance is within the Fable society.
The important thing though, is that the game makes a strong first impression in terms of story, and makes you want to keep playing to find out what happens next. The lack of tutorials for QTEs and performance issues are blemishes, but the sharp writing, good acting, and compelling plot are all shaping up to make for another Telltale hit. It’s not as bleak as The Walking Dead, but there is wit, humor and enough of a dark edge here that it stands up comparably to its predecessor. Fans will not be disappointed.