Telltale Games has been raked across the coals since they announced their shutdown thanks to their terrible (and sadly, not unusual) practices regarding their employees. Long hours, no severance pay and the perennial culling of talent after each title ships have earned them well-deserved ire.
Underneath all that, though, is another recurring criticism. Telltale not only failed to treat its employees right; it failed to innovate. The Walking Dead was an instant classic, and though subsequent games were well-received, they were functionally identical to previous ones.
With one of the biggest name in adventure gaming out of the picture, that begs the question of what will the future hold. What are those innovations that Telltale might have implemented? Here’s what I think.
5. True Multiple Endings
It’s fair to say that most adventure games give an illusion of choice rather than an actual choice. No matter how many times a prompt came up saying “[character] will remember that” it just didn’t change the outcome all that much. Choice-based games are still fairly linear.
There have been strides. The Council, for instance, truly does change a great deal based on your choices. Whole swaths of the game are simply not playable based on what you chose to do. The overall story is still a funnel moving you toward a specific goal, but it is at least a big funnel.
What I’d like to see are true multiple endings, not just one or two big decisions at the end. Something like New Game + mode on Chrono Trigger where defeating Lavos at different parts of the game gave you completely different endings. Have a few “big” endings for players that go all the way, but if we’re going to have story-based decisions as the core mechanic then endings should become what “game over” used to be when you fell down a pit as Mario. Allow the option to walk back and progress down a different path, but give us endings that are truly surprises by making our choices matter. Speaking of…
4. Kill People
I’m replaying Until Dawn for the Halloween season. One of the things that make that game unique is that you can literally have every character killed. There’s an entire spectrum from everyone survives to no one survives.
It doesn’t really alter the game narrative as much as you might think. Then again, most horror films would not change significantly if you started tweaking the body count. This wouldn’t work for all genres, but horror adventure games need to be willing to murder people and mean it. Death, cessation, is how games move forward. That’s as old as Pac-Man. It doesn’t change just because the story-telling toolbox got bigger.
3. Conversation as an Evolving Mechanic
Action games rely on an evolving set of abilities to bar you from some areas and allow you access to others. Hookshots, wall-climbing abilities, remote control batarangs… it doesn’t matter. What matters is that as you learn new skills you can explore more of the world.
The Council managed to perfect a system of doing this with words. By assigning a character class and a level up mechanic to dialogue tree options, it manages to do for conversations what stat boosting does to battle in RPGs. It’s so simple that it’s amazing it took so long for someone to make it workable in a video game.
2. Let’s Talk Dungeons and Dragons…
The single most delightful thing I’ve done in a video game in years is the Dungeons and Dragons segment of Life is Strange: Before the Storm. It’s silly, and completely optional, but man is making a character like Chloe Price jump in a campaign something special. I’ve never wasted 20 minutes more happily in a game.
It’s a very simple set up in that game, but it makes me wonder how hard it would be to take that mechanic further. As long as we’re talking about Telltale, no one brings up the two Poker Night at the Inventory games they did. I still play these to this day because they are the perfect combination of gaming and narrative fun. It’s a game to win but it’s also a chance to explore characters and their stories.
I would love to see the D&D segment of Before the Storm expanded into a full game. Make the dice rolls random and really explore how characters would move along a campaign. Not only that but it’s a mechanic that screams for downloadable content.
1. A Unique Player Mechanic Saves the Game
I don’t fault Telltale Games for putting out cookie cutter, bare bones adventure titles. The draw was never that they were doing something different. It was they were making games based on existing properties that didn’t suck in a medium where that is quite rare. The Wolf Among Us felt like the Fables game we always wanted. Judged on that spectrum, they were amazing.
But, it’s bad for the genre as a whole to stagnate. Monkey Island was a long time ago. You have to evolve. Beyond: Two Souls had its Aiden mechanic and Max Caulfield could alter time. Even Republique, a game I have tried numerous times to like, has the surveillance gimmick that makes it interesting enough to keep me coming back even if I don’t think the title is particularly good.
There’s nothing wrong with exploratory narrative and mild puzzles. Stopping there is a mistake, though. There need to be new ideas and more to the experience than just point-click-talk-use. Unique player mechanics are one of those things. They don’t have to be revolutionary. The “super powers” in The Adventures of Captain Spirit are nothing special, but they work because they make the base play something different. If writing was all that was needed to make adventure games better, they’d be novels. Play has to progress, which is something that Telltale failed to do.