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.