Stories are central to the human experience, and no part is more human than composing your own. We’ve all known this since we were kids, when the fun you had wasn’t in reading books and watching movies, but playing with action figures or on a playground. With a simple tube and some elevated platforms, you made your own story. If you were lucky, you got to do it with friends. Or you took your dolls and action figures and built your own narrative, fueled by a few figures and your imagination. Or maybe you preferred to craft your stories in images and words, and you spent your time doodling your escapism or plotting it in your journal. The point is the same, that we best express ourselves in the stories we tell ourselves for ourselves. And our stories are best expressed through a physical toy, a visual or literary or audio or technical mechanism for sharing your ideas.
What makes books and movies easy to consume is that the audience doesn’t have to do very much work. For people looking to escape, but wearied by the world, a prefabricated story is its own pleasure. But that is where video games introduce themselves as a unique medium. Writing, the wordy medium, conveys story to the audience through what it tells the audience. Film, the visual medium, conveys story to the audience through it shows the audience. Vidya, the interactive medium, covney story to the audience through the actions the audience chooses. The audiences now writes the story. We’re right back at our playgrounds, with more potential than ever.
Even in our playgrounds, we were limited by what we could imagine, which is itself limited by our faculties and knowledge, and playing with a stable toolbox and stable rules generally leads all stories to run the same. When you mature, your imagination outstrips your ability to fulfill your fantasies, so you write or draw it, or look for it in someone else’s writings or drawings. We could picture ourselves being pirates or superheroes or soldiers or astronauts or wizards, and picture ourselves sailing and flying and shooting and floating and magicking, fueled by the simple cues of our colorful playlets, but that isn going to bore you if you can’t find something new to reignite that imaginative passion. New images and new actions give us even more tools to play with, and rules that limit what you can do force new ideas. Video games are the ultimate expression of this, with each new release shifting the rules and the tools and giving new fuel to the audience, the players, the storytellers.
And then we share our stories. Screen recording technology has made this easier, and overlaying audio tracts lets commentary recorded before, after, and/or during be introduced, creating some sort of hybridized storytelling medium.
At least that’s what video games can be. Puzzles and tests of skill, of course. A more fluid Choose Your Own Adventure novel, a more responsive movie, naturally. It goes without saying that part of working in a medium that gives so much power to the audience gives untold freedom to the creators. But if you’re drawn to open worlds and decision making and the power you find in your video games, you’re indulging in the same game you always played as a kid.
So get to your playgrounds, and tell me a story.
An article by KleinerKiller
This article contains some spoilers for most Telltale Games content, as well as a minor one for Until Dawn.
“This game series adapts to the choices you make. The story is tailored by how you play.”
This is the slogan standing proudly at the front of every episode in every series Telltale Games releases. It’s become the most iconic signifier of a Telltale production after “X will remember that”, carrying a simple message: this is your story, and your choices matter. And depending on who you ask, it’s either an ominous message that sticks with them every time or one of the most blatant lies in all of gaming.
The first and lesser-used complaint is easiest to get out of the way. Whatever your opinion of the tropes Telltale tends to use – “conflict characters” who initially exist just to divide the cast with their outbursts, situations where everyone is judging you, etc – it’s undeniable that they don’t lack for overall ambition and variety. All three current seasons of The Walking Dead have dealt with vastly different tones, themes, narrative structures, and emotional payoffs, despite continuing the same story. The Wolf Among Us’ hardboiled murder mystery and emphasis on handling your character’s fearsome reputation couldn’t be more different from the screwball adventure antics of Tales From the Borderlands, and Batman’s uneven but creative reimagining of a traditional superhero tale is distinct from both.
Even the weakest entries, Game of Thrones and Minecraft Story Mode, couldn’t be less alike and fail for far different reasons. GoT suffers from trying to navigate a source material where most corners have been thoroughly explored while maintaining some sense of canonicity, resulting in more rigid scenarios and mostly uninspired encounters with some of the show’s cast. It only thrives when it’s able to tell a completely original story in its isolated setting, wherein character arcs can be explored properly and there’s room for major choices. Meanwhile, Minecraft is constricted from its odd potential by the need for its story to be broad and linear enough that all audiences can play it (ending up feeling much more like a wince-inducing Minecraft YouTube video than the base game itself), and it has dragged on well past its welcome for no other apparent reason than popularity.
So it’s apparent that at the very least, Minecraft Story Mode excluded, the writers at Telltale do care about their stories and have a mostly great track record for them. But then, the majority of critics outside of the most ardent will admit this by calling them “great movies”, and that watching one will provide the same experience as playing it. The biggest point of dispute is over the choices that line and influence the stories, and whether they even do that.
Well, yes. In two ways, actually.
First off, there are indeed major choices that significantly shape the story, and the number of these has only increased as time has gone on. The Wolf Among Us tallies up your interactions with various characters throughout the story to determine who takes your side at the end, customizing the scene even though the outcome is ultimately the same; Tales From The Borderlands uses a similar but much more effective system to determine which characters from throughout the season can help you fight the final boss, resulting in one of the best sequences Telltale has ever created. Season 2 of Walking Dead was the first season with multiple distinct endings, and the final choice of Game of Thrones’ penultimate episode featured a choice that would radically alter most of your final episode, including your player character. And the list goes on.
I could go into further detail about the other major choices throughout each game, most notably Walking Dead Season 3’s unprecedented variations, but the point is made. The idea that Telltale’s choices are as fake as pro wrestling isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s verifiably wrong, regardless of whether you think the games are any good. But aside from that, it’s missing the point of the choices that don’t directly influence the plot: they’re supposed to matter to you. They’re moral, ethical, and personal choices that test how you would react in a particular situation or character dynamic. A random choice in dialogue might or might not impact the core plot, but it’s a measure of you and it can be meaningful if you let it.
What are people expecting? Why is there an expectation attached to player choice that Telltale is seen as not living up to? The Mass Effect games play out largely the same way, with the primary result of your choices being which characters live and die; most other choices are moral and don’t really affect the overall plot outside of a few passing references. Similarly, 2015’s Until Dawn was lauded for its amount of player choice (in addition to being generally fantastic), but despite the illusion of danger, meaningful choices that could result in death mainly popped up in the second half – and no matter what, the game would always end in the same place.
Games that offer the amount of choice expected from Telltale are few and far between, but despite Telltale games increasingly living up to what the slogan promises, they’re still the popular punching bag. The expectation is as unreasonable as the number of people who expect every game to fit the same kind of mold, be it with hardcore challenge or certain story elements – an issue that might play into a future article.
All this to say that when it comes to the criticisms of Telltale’s writing and choices, the critics don’t have as much of a leg to stand on as they think. But while this article has so far mostly been an endorsement of Telltale’s efforts, you know from the title that a “but” is coming, and there is one common point of criticism I haven't yet addressed.
Telltale, please… fix your games.
For as much as they may have excellent writers and typically good designers, the programming at Telltale Games has remained inexcusably poor. It would be almost pitiful in their earlier days of popularity, but it seems like their games have gotten progressively buggier as time has gone on, even though they have more time and budget than ever. These days, character models regularly T-pose or have their faces freeze, textures fail to load in, sound effects stop playing, sentences are cut off for no apparent reason. Ingenious sequences like the final battle of Tales From The Borderlands slow the framerate to an awkward crawl trying to handle all of the possible variables because the engine wasn’t built for them. In the most extreme cases, characters will refer to choices that didn’t happen instead of their proper lines, giving more fuel to the fire that they didn’t matter.
And these are not random occurrences; very often, they’re set points that happen for everyone, and there’s plenty of video evidence to back this up. The more variables there are in a season, the more glitches that season will have. Telltale have claimed in the past that their games are impossible to patch without affecting peoples’ save files, but they’ve never given a reason why they don’t seem to do any playtesting whatsoever. Even if they don’t want to bring in others for whatever inexplicable reason, even giving an episode a quick once-over themselves would catch the glitches that are always there.
Not to mention that the “impossible to patch” thing doesn’t quite hold up when they’ve patched something far more major in the past, by patching out a whole series of choices and scenarios that allows the characters Bonnie and Mike to die in The Walking Dead Season 2. That’s right, they “fixed” a critical series of decisions allowing major characters to be removed from the story, erasing all of the prompts and voice lines and animation work in the process, but repairing a simple audio or graphical bug is beyond their reach.
I don’t get it.
What differentiates Telltale’s games from the rest is not that the choices are meaningless, but that the programming is garbage. If you want their games to be better, focus on that instead of rallying around a tired and incorrect criticism that’s basically a meme at this point. Make their programming deficiencies and refusal to properly update their engine into the primary point of contention instead of a side note. Change the discussion.
Your choices matter, after all.