While most of us have been busy playing big-budget blockbusters like “Call of Duty” or seeing the latest Marvel superhero movie in theaters, a small game company in San Rafael, California, has positioned itself in the driver’s seat of the future of entertainment.
Beginning in April 2012, Telltale Games released the first episode of its “The Walking Dead” graphic adventure game series. It was an instant critical and commercial success for the developer/publisher.
Telltale Games has since started three other franchises based on pop culture mainstays: a gritty take on fairy tales called “The Wolf Among Us,” a sequel series to the popular “Borderlands” games and a deadly serious take on “Game of Thrones.” Its “The Walking Dead” franchise also wrapped up its second season in August.
Each episode of each series lasts about two hours and sells for a whopping $5 a pop. The series forsakes traditional gaming practices for an emphasis on dialogue, story and character development — it’s not uncommon to go 20 minutes without pressing a single button. In fact, I am sometimes put off by the fact that I have to press buttons. I’d really prefer to watch the games played out as a movie.
That’s the genius of Telltale’s game development style. These games are all just as entertaining as most Hollywood movies, and they are downloadable from home at half the price of a movie ticket.
Telltale’s games also allow players to dictate where the episode’s storyline heads through a series of extremely important dialogue choices. This often leads players to wonder “what if?” which adds an immense replay value to each of the $5 games.
Although Telltale Games did great things with “The Wolf Among Us” and “The Walking Dead,” I think the company is really on the brink of a major entertainment breakthrough with its two recent releases: “Tales from the Borderlands” and “Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series.”
I reviewed the first episode of “Tales from the Borderlands” just before it released last week, and I absolutely loved it. It managed to deliver all of the charms present in previous Telltale series while also strictly adhering to the canon and style of Gearbox Software’s Borderlands game franchise.
That’s the true genius of Telltale Games. The company is willing to collaborate with those responsible for driving various entertainment franchises into the American consciousness. Developers worked with the writers of “The Walking Dead” comics and TV show, as well as those responsible for the other pop culture mainstays immortalized in Telltale Technicolor.
Despite this collaborative spirit — or maybe because of it? — the staff at Telltale has established themselves as the only true auteurs in gaming. They have just as much signature style as classic filmmakers like Martin Scorsese or Woody Allen. Although each franchise deals with drastically different subjects, they all have a signature look, feel and attention to story detail that is uniquely Telltale. Anyone who has played through a season of a Telltale franchise can take one look at a screenshot of any Telltale game and know exactly who made it.
That’s not to say that other developers don’t have a style or calling card. For example, Ubisoft’s many development branches pretty much all create AAA titles (“Assassin’s Creed,” “Far Cry,” “Watch Dogs”) that bombard players with side-quests in a massive open world.
But Telltale is different. There’s nobody making games the way its developers do. They have completely abandoned the traditional publishing model, opting instead to digitally release games in small chunks without much outside help. This is no accident; Telltale perfected this delivery through a series of episodic “Jurassic Park,” “Law and Order” and “CSI” games released throughout the 2000s.
After finishing the first episode of its “Game of Thrones” franchise on Wednesday, I am certain that Telltale is about to deliver its master stroke. Developers worked alongside HBO to produce a series closely mirroring the great TV show — complete with an identical cast of digital doppelgangers.
Episode one was much darker than any Telltale game I remember playing. Almost every dialogue choice decided if someone — be they friend or foe — lived or died. The portrayals of the evil Bolton family and the cunning Targaryens were spot-on, and the shocking ending gave me a feeling I have only experienced once before in gaming — the confused, stunned silence I felt after completing “Bioshock: Infinite.”
And that was only part one of a six-part series. Telltale is already out-delivering entertainment rivals in games, television and movies at half the asking price. I can’t even begin to imagine what’s next.