Even if you’re not an adventure gamer, chances are you’ve heard of Telltale Games, especially since their big Borderlands & Game of Thrones announcements, as well as possibly seeing ads for The Walking Dead everywhere. Telltale is big as a brand right now, but did you know it was founded by ex-LucasArts employees, in response to the cancellation of the 2nd LucasArts Sam & Max game?
Yes, they were, and for a time it seemed as if they might become the “new LucasArts” in terms of adventure games, but recently it doesn’t seem that way, and the company “closest” to attaining that title is Daedalus Entertainment, a possibility that makes me shudder and wake up screaming in the middle of the night.
Telltale, once it had enough funding to move on from developing CSI games for Ubisoft, went after the rights for the game they were working on while still in LucasArts, Sam & Max 2, but they were flatly rejected. Instead of finishing that one, they acquired the rights from Steve Purcell for another game, called Sam & Max Season 1 or Sam & Max Save the World, released in episodic format, as we’ve come to expect from Telltale, though they did so with a twist, releasing every episode on a tight monthly schedule, something new for the industry, where development of each episode usually took an indeterminate amount of time.
After the success of Sam & Max, Telltale would go on to make two other seasons with the strange and hilarious duo, a Strongbad game, a new Monkey Island since the series “died” with the atrocious Monkey Island 4, and even a fantastic Back to the Future game, and all of them of the highest quality (and episodic of course), with, granted, a variable level of difficulty but very enjoyable for adventure gamers, who crave nothing more than point, clicking and solving puzzles.
Then something happened, something changed within Telltale and the abomination known as Jurassic Park The Game was released, a game eschewing puzzles in favour of cinematic experiences and copious and poorly implemented quick-time events and button mashing. Despite critical condemnation, this game marked a turning point in how Telltale did things, how they developed games and in fact the genre of their products. With the following release of the similarly panned Law & Order Legacies, Telltale slowly separated itself from the classical adventure genre into something else, focusing more on those cinematic experiences, with only limited and constrained exploration and interaction; and by the release of the critically acclaimed The Walking Dead, Telltale’s games hung from a very delicate thread to the Adventure genre, seeming closer to visual novels than the former.
They still had the terrific writing Telltale’s famous for, and an evolution in storytelling compared to previous games, but the downside was a distinct lack of solid gameplay and nonexistent challenge; The Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us (inspired by the Vertigo comic Fables, which YOU MUST READ!!!) are games you can finish in one session, every episode taking less than a couple of hours each, and focusing on interactions and “choices” (see my post on that topic on how I feel about the subject) there’s nothing in your way to the end, no devious puzzle leaving you stuck, just actions and consequences (and copious quick-time events and button mashing).
On their own merit, the games are very good with very emotional stories and top-notch storytelling, keeping you captivated from start to finish; but they can’t be considered adventure games, not anymore, and it is very saddening to see an adventure game giant such as Telltale, move away from something they were so passionate about. This was a company that stated the cancellation of Sam & Max 2 as the reason behind their creation and that after acquiring its first licence spent years positioning itself as one of the giants of Adventure Gaming.
Will they return to their roots and deliver us the seasons of Sam & Max and Monkey Island we’re clamoring for, or a sequel to Full Throttle or Grim Fandango? They have stated they’d love to go back to Sam & Max but on a smaller scale, not a full season, which is both heartening and disappointing at the same time. To be honest, the chances are slim, and while The Borderlands game they’re making, because of its zany setting, has enough potential for classic adventuring with clever puzzles and freedom to explore the world, it most likely will conform to their latest releases, as will the Game of Thrones game.
But hope is the last thing you lose, and I’m still hoping Telltale comes back to true adventuring. I’m not saying they should abandon those games they’ve made with their new approach, or stop making them, but a lot of us Telltale fans yearn for a good and classic adventure game, and we know Telltale can deliver it…the only question is: will they?