Thoughts on… the way Telltale tells tales these days

So I really like Telltale games. Or at least I do for the most part. I’ve been reviewing their current series “Tales from the Borderlands” and “Game of Thrones” an episode at a time and finding it hard to gave any real meaningful commentary on them. So I thought to myself; “Why not just sum up my feelings on their current game model as a whole?” My thoughts have changed and I’m pretty much in limbo but if anything that’ll breed debate. With myself. See recently I played and reviewed “Until Dawn” and I’ve heard enough good things about “Life is Strange” to buy it and I’m planning to review it as a whole, and I have a new perspective on Telltale’s output.

The first Telltale game I played was their original series of “The Walking Dead”, which I still maintain is a masterpiece. Its character relations, the development of main protagonists Lee and Clementine and its choices made it a harrowing, gripping adventure game that knew when to guide the player through the story without sacrificing control too often. They key to the argument I’m going to make overall here is that it felt like something that needed to be a video game; there’s already the original comic book and the television adaptation of said comic book, but the game was unique in that it let you actively control what happened, be that by controlling Lee through various situations or making decisions that had dramatic consequences down the road. Though TWD season 2 maintained this tradition (while being an overall inferior product), it was “The Wolf Among Us” that marked Telltale’s next big step, coincidentally also an adaptation of a comic series. The choices felt weighty, informed by the fact that you were in a position of authority, and constantly able to abuse that authority, often with the excuse that the situation calls for it. The action scenes were more involved, the characters were all excellent and fit the noir theme the game was going for, and overall Bigby Wolf’s investigation is still the best Telltale experience I’ve had the pleasure to play. However, things took a turn for the worse after this.

Now, don’t get me wrong; as you’ll see in my reviews, there are things I really like about Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands, but after playing Until Dawn it’s dawned on me (no pun intended) that the current model for Telltale games has some real problems. I’ll start with Borderlands, as its the one I last played. The series has an excellent sense of humor; whether it be dialogue, slapstick or stylised “dream” sequences in which characters outline plans backed up by sequences in which said plans are pulled off flawlessly, they’ve got comedy nailed down. The choices do still have some weight to them, but they can’t quite nail a consistent tone. Most of the time it’s funny, then it turns really violent (more so than the games it’s based off); the two instances that spring to mind are the eye-removing scene from episode two and the face-peeling scene from episode four, which while darkly funny are still surprisingly grisly. The choices also fail to have much meaning when I can’t find a consistent motivational through-line for the characters. Rhys is the biggest problem here; I’ve made him alternate between being a corporate stooge and a decent guy dedicated to his new friends, then threw away an out-of-nowhere developing romance to pursue a dream I’d had him pretty much discard. None of this felt out of character or even odd, because he doesn’t have much of a character. My Lee Everett was a strong, intelligent and┬ásensitive man but quick to violence and revenge if Clementine was threatened and my Bigby Wolf was a violent psychopath with a strong sense of justice who’d never put hands on a woman (apart from the fight with Bloody Mary, which was self defense). I don’t know what Rhys is, and Fiona just sort of treads water, though that’s mainly because she doesn’t have many dramatic choices to make. Overall I prefer her though, she does seem more well-rounded. Anyway, my main problem with …Borderlands (and Game of Thrones, actually), is a lack of interactivity. It still has choices and QTEs, but at several points during episode four I found myself thinking “This is great, but it’d be just as great as an animation. I don’t even care if they make the choices for me, just go for it.” That’s a frankly massive problem for a video game. It’s interactive, sure, but it’d be just as good if it wasn’t.

Game of Thrones’ best trait is its choices which, like season 1 of TWD, set it apart from the book and TV adaptation. The game does a great job of putting you in a pretty hopeless, awful world where every choice feels like the wrong one, and you constantly feel like you can’t win. But that’s all it does well; it doesn’t have the intelligence and comedy of Tales from the Borderlands, its action scenes are lacking, and its characters aren’t particularly interesting. It does its best, but it doesn’t stand out as a worthy accompaniment to other media based on the series, like TWD and TWAU do.

I’m going to finish both GOT and TFTB, but in GOT’s case it’s more out of obligation than actual investment. Borderlands is holding my attention with its wit and charm, but overall Telltale really needs to consider how they proceed from here. Interactivity needs to be brought back to the forefront, otherwise it’s just a film that stops you repeatedly to ask you a binary question. Like a David Cage game, but not complete shit.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18