The Future Of Telltale Games

A severed head is discovered in the middle of the night. A charming villain returns from the dead. A nervous man points a revolver at two angry women because he’s terrified of his own sadistic family. The shock and awe that is inherent to Telltale Games’ cliffhangers shares a dark but vital thread with the best thriller novels or single-story TV series. Not only do they show a willingness to jump headfirst in the sometimes horrific waters of human nature but they also serve to wrap an icy grip around a player’s throat and demand that they keep playing.

Near the end of the first chapter of Telltale’s Game Of Thrones, the family of House Forrester is under the tutelage of Ethan Forrester, a young boy eager to put the land of Ironrath on the right path for the future. Unfortunately, Ramsay Snow and his men have arrived to terrorise the whole village. Despite the love for his family and the bravery of a future king, Ethan is killed. It is a sudden and upsetting scene. Snow is a monster who drives a blade into Ethan’s throat and kidnaps his younger brother just to add insult to injury. The credits roll, House Forrester lays in sorrow and Chapter 2 can’t come fast enough.

This is all by design. As co-founder and CEO of Telltale, Kevin Bruner makes it clear that him and his team have a plan for each of their games right from the start. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean things can’t change. “First episodes are always the hardest and we take each one on a case by case basis”, Bruner tells me. “We always start by deep diving into the franchise we’re working with. We will consume as much content as we can and talk extensively to fans of the franchise. We really try to get involved in the community as much as possible. That will lead us to an overall season concept. We usually try to do something that demonstrates we get the franchise and really put people in the world right up front. We’ll take all of that and have a two week “creative conference” where we’ll break down the entire season. We usually invite writers and designers from outside of Telltale into this part of the process. It’s great to have franchise and genre experts around in the early stages, even if they aren’t familiar with the process of making games. The results of all this give us a clear story and design direction but [they] aren’t definitive. For example, our finales rarely look like what comes out of that conference. We keep evolving the story and gameplay as we get to know the characters and the actors and see how people are playing and what’s working. It’s definitely the harder way to do things, but in the end I think it’s worth it.”

Based in San Rafael, California, Telltale has now grown to almost 350 staff, give or take a few contractors and partners. For over ten years, they’ve gradually honed their developmental processes to accommodate their dream projects. From 2012 onwards, they have expanded their scope and made the concept of a licensed game based on a movie, comic, or TV show something that can be viable again. If it ever was before. Typically, marketing executives would sign the deal that delivered a movie game alongside cereal, toys and pyjamas. Very rarely were they passion projects to be laboured over and fine-tuned for the most hardcore fan’s eye. In recent years, Telltale has proven that these licenses properties can be molded into deep, immersive journeys into previously established universes.

Bruner says the only way to do that successfully is to choose wisely. “We do pick projects very carefully, and have a pretty thorough process we go through before we green-light something. Most importantly, we really have to feel like we can do something creatively and artistically credible with it. I think many thought Minecraft was an unusual project for us, but Story Mode is one of the most compelling games we’ve made, and we chose that project because we’re all big fans of the game. We really thought we could do something special with it. We obviously also have to plan around how much the studio can actually do, and there is still a long list of stuff we’d love to tackle eventually. We’re focusing now on expanding our genres, so you’re seeing us make ‘M’ rated horror games as well as getting back to our comedy roots. And now we’re also making games whole families can play together. We really excited to be engaging these large new audiences in the Telltale experience.”

The only thing more familiar in Telltale’s games than desperate people doing desperate things is the storytelling format itself. Thanks largely to what they achieved with The Walking Dead, the concept of an episodic game has now seen success throughout other development teams and remains a compelling reason to consistently return to a game world roughly once a month. With the advent of streaming and on-demand entertainment, the idea of actually waiting for the next instalment of your favourite story and characters has become less frequent for people under the age of 75 but the release of a brand new episode in a well-written tale can still hold a great deal of excitement. Coupled with so many of their fans barely having time to fit in a sprawling RPG for dozens of hours, Telltale realises that the format they have perfected is something that still works and works well. “We’ve always been committed to the episodic format, and always will be”, Bruner says. “We think it’s a special way to tell stories and offers something different from binge consumption. One of the things we’re getting better at is delivering our episodes at consistent intervals. I think that’s a really important part of episodic entertainment. Another important part is our live development model, where we can listen to fans and see how they play. That can play a huge role in how a season progresses."

The Wolf Among Us is one of Telltale’s strangest games. Based on the Fables comic, its mature fairytale characters gleefully engage in murder, drugs and use of the c-bomb. It was a risky proposition for a game developer but throwing in complex relationships and mysterious subterfuge made the world of Bigby Wolf an exciting one to fall into. However, none of it would have been possible without Telltale reaching a position of success and influence in the last few years. You can’t just make something as oddball as Wolf Among Us and think everybody will just join you in the realm of surreal, brutal madness. What you need is faith. Faith that this developer will deliver the goods.

As a result of that faith, Telltale is taking on two of the biggest properties anybody could hope for: Batman and Marvel. Say what you want about Telltale’s achievements up to this point, this will be the one-two punch that really tests their resolve as developers and storytellers. More people than ever before will be interested in seeing what this team produces with these two universes. Bruner is taking it step by step. “Our Batman series is looking fantastic. I think it might become one of the best things we’ve ever done. I can’t go into much detail, but the Batman team is amazing and they are really on top of it. It’s not like any other Batman game out there. This game really explores all aspects of Batman, not just the the “fighting in the suit” side of him. There’s a lot of subplots to explore and some really amazing choices that have a big impact on the story being told. I really think it might be the peak of the mountain for us so far.”

With every new Telltale game announcement comes a sense of surprise from fans. Typically because it always seems like they are working on so many things at once. Their slate currently includes Minecraft: Story Mode, Walking Dead: Michonne, Batman, Marvel, Game Of Thrones Season Two and Walking Dead Season Three. Plus whatever unannounced projects they have up their sleeves. “We’ve basically built the studio to handle up to four Telltale series at the same time, with a little extra for special projects. The productions are staggered so each project is in a different stage at any time. Pretty much everyone here ends up working on every project at some point, so our biggest challenge is coordinating how the projects are flowing through the studio. Last year we really put so much work into that aspect of the studio, and I think you’ll see that pay off with this year’s line up.”

With so much on their plate, comes the dreams. It has become a running joke to pick out a movie, TV show or game franchise and imagine what Telltale could do with it. Political thrillers and historical biographies. Courtroom dramas and dark murder mysteries. The weirder, the better. Bruner and the team have their own wishes for the future. No matter how crazy. “Well, we do have a big list but we keep it locked away from the world. I probably shouldn’t call out anything explicitly, but I think the most important thing is that we really love the franchise and are genuine fans of it. There’s a lot of franchises that we talk about that are just too small or boutique to make sense for us right now. There’s some really crazy stuff that doesn’t obviously map to a Telltale story that we really think would be amazing. There’s also lots of crazy genres and formats that we hope to tackle. And then there’s the giant franchises that seem like they might never happen, but it never hurts to ask. Personally, I’m on record saying how much I’d love to make a Telltale Star Wars game. I’ve made Star Wars action games in the 90’s when I worked at LucasArts, but a Telltale Star Wars game would be a dream come true. And Bond. James Bond would be freaking awesome. And Fletch. And Chinatown. Oh, and The Shining.”

Telltale Games in 2016 and beyond looks more exciting than ever before. This studio is now in the position to take more risks in game storytelling and take on bigger and bolder projects that will hopefully break a lot more new ground. “2015 was a very, very busy year at Telltale”, Bruner says. “When we started the studio in 2004, I don’t think we imagined it would grow to [more than] three hundred people. It’s been a steady march to get here. I spent a lot of time last year working working hard at transforming ourselves from a small studio to the “big version” of Telltale we have now. I’ve examined every part of the studio with a focus on getting really great episodes out on a very reliable schedule. For instance, we saw some really long gaps between episodes last year, but we also saw Minecraft come out at the best cadence we’ve ever achieved. I think both of those things were a result of us re-examining the way we produce content.”

There’s a moment in the first season of The Walking Dead. In Episode 4, Lee and Kenny enter the attic of an abandoned house to find a zombie. A child zombie. A child that became a zombie because he starved to death. Wearing only a flimsy pair of underwear, the child tries to walk but crumbles to the floor. Too weak and frail to even attempt an attack. It growls on the floor, unable to comprehend how tragic and useless its existence has now become. It is all alone and its skin and bone can no longer support its weight. Eventually, Lee and Kenny decide who will put it out of its misery. The entire scenario is sad and chilling.

The dark, unexpected corners of these games are consistently the most rewarding and memorable. Because at their core, Telltale are storytellers. Always focused on the most interesting possible journey these characters can take. As a responsibility to not only the universes they delve into but also to their fans. And if they continue to deliver more moments that expose the complex web of hope, fear and despair that lies in all our hearts, everyone will remember that.


    Change the engine, gameplay and writing. Didn't play the Borderlands one but it's all been a piece of shit after Wolf Among Us.

      Tastes being subjective and the ongoing popularity of the games set aside, I'd suggest you lack the data necessary to declare that you have an informed opinion. Tales from the Borderlands, against all probability, was widely considered some of their best work.

        I really don't think any 'data' is required to from an opinion. I've played a couple of telltale games and also those quantic dream titles. They left me cold. I don't enjoy interactive film format games. I find them limiting and quite dull because of a lack of interactivity. Obviously a lot of people do like them but that doesn't make my opposition less valid.

          Your opinion, as phrased, is fair. The opinion I responded to, as phrased, is like saying "I listened to track 2 of this album and while it was ok, I threw the disc away because I assumed it would go downhill after track 4."

          It's just the genre. Based on what you say it seems like you dislike having being restricted and a point and click adventure game is precisely being restrictive. You make a decision and you live with it, you can't rewind unless you start over as well.

          But because when someone dislike the particular genre, their opinion is near worthless since they will still dislike that genre regardless of what game it was.

          Why do you think your opinion is valid when you personally hate the genre of games? Your review/opinion will be completely bias to begin with since every single thing you do in game makes you unhappy.

            I love their genre of game, but TellTale have made very concerted efforts to remove the actual gameplay from their titles. Every successive title has stripped away the puzzles and challenges and left us with interactive movies.

            That's not necessarily bad, they've built their own niche in which they excel, but I also wish there was more game to their offerings.

            I have no problem with point and click games. I grew up on the Lucas arts games, kings quest etc. the telltale games are another level of restriction. They are more like 'choose your own adventure' books or an extended quick time event. I'm fine with their success and people can enjoy it of course. But my opinion is subjective and as valid as the next persons.

          You're entitled to your opinion, but a minority opinion it is and is no gonna change it as the vast majority seem to enjoy the style of gameplay.

          That's not the same as attempting to objectively define something for others. I would say that your assessment of the game as an "interactive film" is objectively incorrect the same way that Forrest Gump isn't a horror film based on the conventions and values of the genre but that's just my opinion also, I'm less inclined to alter the definitions of narrative conventions to suit my tastes.

            I'm suggesting that the telltale games are limited in actual gameplay. You listen to and watch narrative sequences and choose a path for the story to follow. In this way they are absolutely similar to interactive films or choose your own adventure books.
            Your Forrest Gump analogy is ridiculous. Im not suggesting telltale make a genre of game which is the opposite of what they make. Using your logic ,I am saying something along the line of "telltale make open world shooters". How is my assessment 'objectively incorrect' exactly? Telltale make narrative based games in which you choose paths and don't have a great deal of interactivity beyond that. How is that untrue?

            You don't seem to be able to objectively process my assessment of the games because of strong biase towards them.

      I don't like their games either, but I think it's clear from their success that they don't really need to change much.

      I am a little baffled by their success, though. Like you, I never found their writing to be particularly good and that's basically all the games have going for them.

      I stopped buying their games around the time of Back to the Future. By all accounts they've been getting steadily better.

        I stopped buying their games around the time of Back to the Future. By all accounts they've been getting steadily better.
        While I own Back to the Future (obtained it as part of some bundle or another), I've not yet gotten around to playing it. As far as I'm aware, Telltale's games were not really considered that remarkable prior to The Walking Dead - presumably because this was an extremely popular property for them to be working on.

        I'm not saying that playing The Walking Dead, Wolf Among Us or Tales from the Borderlands will convert you to being a Telltale games fan, but I would say that if your experience ends at BTTF, you've not seen why they're currently popular.

          It definitely seems like they hit their stride once they moved away from comedy.

          But they were meant to be the revival of the Lucas legacy. They failed to meet my very specific (and apparently unprofitable) expectations.

            I wouldn't even begin to compare telltale to the Lucasarts heyday, not while Monkey Island and The Dig exist.

            Have you checked out Wadjet Eye? They're doing some interesting stuff in the adventure game area. I'd heartily recommend the Blackwell series.

              I have a couple of the Blackwell games from a humble bundle, but haven't given them much of a chance yet. I should really sit down and play through them.

                I really enjoyed them. Not on a Lucasarts level, but definitely worthwhile in their own right.

                I was introduced to them when I got one of their smaller games, The Shivah, from a hunble bundle. From there I checked out Blackwell and really enjoyed them. Still got to finish the last two in the series, come to think of it.

      Engine is perfectly fine. It is a point and click adventure game so no idea what you mean by changing gameplay, making it FPS game? Writing is great, enough story and twist to make you get on a feel train.

      I'm against telltale going hyper realistic to become Quantic Dream.

    Their slate currently includes Minecraft: Story Mode, Walking Dead: Michonne, Batman, Marvel, Game Of Thrones Season Two and Walking Dead Season Three.


    I just want more Sam and Max.

    Like the LEGO series of games, you can copy/paste any past review and change character names and the title and post the review as a new one. Outside of minimal changes with story, characters and title; this company puts out the same game time after time and it's beginning to wear thin with players.

      That's a overly simplistic way of putting it. "changes with story, characters and title" between, say, The Wolf Among Us and Tales From the Borderlands was *far* from minimal. In fact, those things are where they put the effort and what I find enjoyable. A far more reasonable criticism is that the gameplay is cut-and-paste, and that the "adventure" game aspects are severely lacking. They're effectively creating interactive story books. And while they remain as funny and enjoyable as Borderlands was, I'm OK with this.

    Telltale is divisive, but that's exactly how good art should be. Trying to please everyone just makes generic crap. I adore Telltale. My partner hates them. Big whoop.

    Fuck I'd kill for The Wolf Among Us Season 2 though.

    I'm looking forward to seeing their take on Batman. The movies and games up until now always seem to feel the need to go big. I'd really love to see a smaller game that really focusses on character, particularly Batman as 'the world's greatest detective'.

    I love Telltale. Love them. I buy everything before I've even heard if it was good or not. Episodic, story-driven games are a godsend for a time-poor Gaming Dad, the less interaction I need to have with the screen, the more free my hands are to feed the baby a bottle or clean up the orange juice that just went over the carpet.

    I haven't really played any telltale games in the past year but omg I so want s2 of the wolf among us. That game prompted me to read all of fables. And I usually hate comics (despite loving manga).

    I demand more monkey island!

    I demand more monkey island!

    is there will be wolf among us 2????

    The Marvel game is the one I am most interested in, especially since Marvel of late has sucked with getting any console games out there. There's been all sort of rumours about the planned Marvel game including Moon Knight, Daredevil and even a game based on the Marvel Noir line of comics, but all of those would prove very interesting. I do hope we get a second Wolf Among Us Game too though.

    Wolf Among Us 2 and more Tales from Borderlands please!

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