Telltale has triumphed in a once-considered lost genre. How the studio did so and why it affects the 30-hour game experience.

Lee was a kindhearted man. He cared for Clementine and made the toughest decisions that best affected the survivability of his group, themselves a broken, walker-worn bunch. He had a troubled past: The convicted murderer type, who caught his wife sleeping with a state senator, whose head he clocked after claiming the two men brawled. The apocalypse did little to alleviate the pain of his sordid past, even if it meant finding a new purpose.

Bigby Wolf is troubled too, as he has most of Fabletown resting on his shoulders. The Big Bad Wolf has a particular set of skills that he puts to good use: Bashing in skulls, ripping off arms, and keeping Fabletown secure. A hinder to that plan finds its way to his doorstep, and through handling repercussions of a messy history with several residents, he must find the person responsible.

The zombie apocalypse set in Atlanta and a carved out section of New York City reserved for reformed fairytale characters don’t share many qualities. Characters in both The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, though, are in essence the same: Rugged survivors with a powerful will to live. Oh, and forever memorialized in videogaming history by a studio on the rise.

Condensed to five two-hour episodes, Telltale used thrill, unease and loss to beautifully articulate how a zombie apocalypse would effectively destroy the world. Drawing from Robert Kirkman’s monstrously successful comic series, The Walking Dead: The Video Game reigned in what had been a year of massive titles. Before TWD, the studio had perfected a formula of borrowing from popular properties, Jurassic Park and Back to the Future among others, and repurposing them in videogame format.

Before Telltale, point-and-click adventure (or graphic adventure) was a declining genre. The Phoenix Wright and Monkey Island series had seen marginal success on Nintendo’s handhelds and PC respectively, but the consoles remained adventure game-starved. In following Lee, Clementine and their ragtag band of survivors, Telltale reminded everyone that adventure games could work and make us fall to our knees and uncontrollably weep. Following The Wolf Among Us‘ first episode, I wouldn’t be surprised if the game concluded similarly.

The studio’s formula is simple: Begin with a troubled protagonist, throw him/her in an extraordinary scenario, and see what happens. Each episode plays like a guessing game. Telltale’s simple mastery of heightening the effect of even mundane moments is extremely powerful–decisions, decisions, decisions. The player controlling Lee genuinely cares what Clementine thinks; one choice may ultimately lead to the opposite conclusion, or somewhere unimaginable.

The Walking Dead is the first game in a while to make me think. I paused and carefully diagrammed possible scenarios that were wildly different than what the game offered. Unpredictability is a quality most games lack, because studios follow an unwritten mantra stating that if a game isn’t accessible, players won’t buy. The opposite is true: critics and players alike praised the game’s propensity to challenge players. And making choices that led to a certain ending was far from easy. Planned on starting a relationship with Carley? Nope. Sadly, in the apocalypse no such thing like foresight exists.

Where the true beauty of Telltale’s creative work comes in is a question of identity. The studio has learned to utilize the best available tools in a universe and adapt the work to feel original. The Walking Dead could have been some run-of-the-mill zombie adventure, The Wolf Among Us a Sherlock Holmes ripoff. Telltale’s imprint is all over the creative side of these universes in a way that feels fresh and exciting.

Suspense in most media is hard to project. It relies on a tactful use of the medium, from language and design to smaller things like placement. The perfect moment is hard to find. Telltale seems to hit this mark on a sporadic basis, through jump scares or unanticipated character reactions. In this case, however, rarer is better. Calm moments are usually broken up by a chaotic one, but the studio excels in making the tone shift tasteful. Or, at the least, sensible.

It’s surprising Telltale took this long to catch its stride. Minus the Sam & Max series, most games have been hit-or-miss with reviewers. The Walking Dead is the first to show consistency in or around the coveted 9/10. “Faith”, the first episode of The Wolf Among Us, scored in the mid-eighties. If the pace endures from “Faith”, the rest of Bigby Wolf’s adventure could mean another highly successful series.

Telltale shows promise in an age of stagnancy. Let’s hope it persists.

To the readers: Do you have a favourite moment of The Walking Dead: The Video Game or any other of Telltale’s creations?

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  • Chalgyr

    Very cool write-up. I still haven’t played through all of The Walking Dead, so I can’t comment to that, but I did recently give The Wolf Among Us a go and man that was a good first episode. Of course, the titles are built around cliff-hanger episode ends, and this one does not fail on that front. Did not see that coming.

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