Considering the Direction of the Telltale Style Adventure Game

Often after recording the Moving Pixels podcast, we stick around to chat about whatever crosses our minds until we realize we have somewhere else to be. After recording a recent podcast episode, I mentioned to fellow contributor Nick Dinicola that I bought the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead for a friend and that we were playing it though together. He makes all of the decisions, and I hold the controller inputting everything. Seeing it all play out again and knowing how the plot is going to play out made me realize that it is a more tightly constructed and thematically rich work than I previously thought.

Somewhere online is this great semi-tongue-in-cheek infographic of the life cycle of a television series. It shows each season in terms of its general vibe and its number of quality episodes. Basically, the show starts off weak as it finds its footing, peaks around season three or four, and then begins a slow decline as the show runs out of ideas and descends into navel-gazing and self-parody. Telltale has very much set themselves up as a television network as much as a developer. Their episodic adventure series are marketed as seasons and now they are gearing up to release multiple properties alongside the American broadcast schedule: spring and fall.

I fully admit that my worries could be unwarranted and that the first episode of the second season of The Walking Dead was due to the transition and a long time getting the new status quo established and that The Wolf Among Us required more establishment of the scenario than The Walking Dead, due to its esoteric nature. Neither is bad, they’re just not as good as the first episode of The Walking Dead. I don’t want to focus on any such hand wringing though. Both games will play themselves out over the coming months. This discussion leads one to looking back at Telltale’s output as a whole, though, and their evolution of the point-and-click adventure game.

One of the things that irks me is when players judge an adventure game solely based on the criteria of how well it matches up with and executes either the LucasArts or Sierra style of adventure game. When any game comes along that deviates too far from those companies’ established conventions of presenting puzzles and establishing the story structure of a game of this sort, the hatchets come out even if the game wouldn’t benefit from those companies’ approach to the genre. In some cases, games that are adventures games aren’t recognized as such because they stray into wholly unrealized territory from the mainstream’s perspective. That’s something to get into deeper at a later date. Part of the above worry was that Telltale may stop innovating as they found their groove and soon that the above comparison might evolve into a question of whether an adventure game is following the LucasArts, Sierra, or Telltale style of adventure game.

The adventure game is easily the most broad of any game genre when it comes to thematic genres — or at least, it is the most easily adaptable into many different thematic genres. Yet, despite such a wealth of possibilities, these games still seem to get bogged down with what will play to already established gamer tastes. The Walking Dead is great, and I am a huge fan of Fables. However, while I’m excited to see what they do with Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands (each for different reasons), it seems like they may fall into a predictable style. Fantasy and pseudo-science fiction settings that depend on moments of intense violence to offset longer, quieter moments of conversation, reflection, and puzzle solving.

During this conversation with Nick Dinicola, I floated a half formed idea that took more and more shape as the words left my mouth. If Telltale are establishing themselves as the television production company of the games industry, then why not go after certain licenses of television shows that could fit their particular style. Law & Order, Mad Men, The Newsroom, and Downton Abby are all works about making tough choices, managing relationships, having conversations, and working through problems that could easily be slotted into the adventure game genre.

But the property that has the grabbed me the most as I was thinking about this idea (and hear me out) would be: Telltale’s The West Wing.

Just imagine. Following where the show left off, the game picks up a year into the DeSantos administration, just as the show picked up a year into the Bartlett administration. The country is reacting to its first non-white president while it deals with a hostile congress, a fragile agenda, and two overseas conflicts (Palestine and Kazakhstan in the show) left over from the previous administration. You play as the President’s Chief of Staff having to manage the needs of your various department heads like the Deputy Chief of Staff, Communications Director, Press Secretary, etc. as well as Presidential Cabinet Secretaries, members of congress, and special interest representatives. As they each vie for time and attention for the agenda that each one is managing.

Telltale could even play with their own established mechanics. Imagine doing the walk and talk with the timer ticking down, not for a single response, but for an entire conversation — that timer representing the travel time in which the high powered conversation can happen in. An inventory would be made up of policy arguments collected through other conversations and demands for memos, while the puzzles could be presented in the form of behind-the-scenes debates, instead of physical item interactions. International incidents, unconnected to the main plot, could intrude on the day’s happenings, meaning that you’ll have to take time out of your day to head to the situation room.

The beauty of this avenue is that even if Telltale couldn’t get the license, they don’t really need it. Instead, they could opt for original programming. Any of the above shows is simply an established name in its particular setting and genre. They can set a game in a police station, 60s ad agency, a television newsroom, a WWI-era country manor or their own version of The White House. These are all stock settings for numerous books, movies, and television shows and don’t require a license for the audience to be invested or understand what is going on. Would I love to see Telltale try and spin Aaron Sorkin style dialogue with characters that I know and love from seven seasons of a great television show? Sure, but it isn’t necessary.

The adventure game genre and Teltale’s style and production abilities in particular allow them to break into so many different genres of storytelling. And with those new genres come new challenges. A game where no explicit violence occurs or even any action sequences at all. The character drama and philosophical quandaries already take center stage in the Telltale style adventure game. Why not make them the basis of the whole show?