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The Telltale Legacy

As Telltale faces a "majority studio closure" we take a look back at the games we remember best.

  • Text: Bengt Lemne

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While a "majority studio closure" isn't the same as bankruptcy or "complete studio closure", the decision to lay off all but 25 employees of the once 400+ workforce that made up Telltale Games certainly represents the end of an era and - depending on how things play out - we could still see the company filing for bankruptcy or shutting down.

With that being the case we thought this would be the right time to look at the studio's legacy, the games that have been released over the years that have delivered innovation, and the incredible range of subjects covered in their games. It should be noted that Telltale Games also had a publishing arm (which is now on hold), although this article focuses specifically on the games developed at the studio.

Humble beginnings - Post-LucasArts era

Telltale Games was formed by three former LucasArts leads - Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander - back in 2004. The trio had been working on a Sam & Max game at LucasArts when it was cancelled in early 2004, and so they set up shop on their own. The first game released, Telltale Texas Hold Em, was meant to test the Telltale Tool, the engine that came to define the studio. It was clear from the beginning that licenses were a key component of the Telltale formula; they licensed Jeff Smith's comic Bone and created a couple of standalone titles, and they teamed up with Ubisoft to release four CSI titles (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010). Perhaps most notably they also struck a deal with LucasArts to license Sam & Max, which resulted in three games, with the studio also teaming up with LucasArts for the episodic Tales from Monkey Island.

Game Spotlight: Sam & Max Save the World (2007)

Sam & Max proved that Telltale could do justice to a license, and while nothing will compare to the pure irreverent joy of the LucasArts original, Telltale did a fine job of capturing the zany spirit of the comic books by Steve Purcell. After snapping up the rights following LucasArts' cancellation of Freelance Police, Telltale went on to craft three episodic series based on the exploits of the canine detective and has rabid rabbit sidekick.

Commercial Breakthrough and New License Strategy

Licensing had always been a big part of Telltale Games' strategy, but the deal with Universal to create episodic releases of Back to the Future and Jurassic Park upped the ante. All of a sudden the stakes were higher, and where previously Telltale had been proud to say that sales of 100,000 would make their games profitable, working with Hollywood talent and big licenses obviously changed that.

Game Spotlight: Back to the Future (2010/2011)

The Back to the Future trilogy was in many ways the quintessential 1980s film franchise (even if the third part landed in 1990), providing a brilliant look at how the future and past was perceived during the decade, with Michael J. Fox delivering the signature character performance of his career, Marty McFly (sorry, Alex P. Keaton and Mike Flaherty). With no hope of a fourth film, the closest thing we've gotten is the Telltale title that was a collaboration with co-creator Bob Gale and featured some of the original talent (Fox did a couple of cameos, but did not voice the main Marty McFly). It's a traditional adventure game in many ways, and it was fairly light on the puzzle elements.

Path Chosen - The Walking Dead

The big break for Telltale Games came with The Walking Dead. In many ways it was a watershed moment for the industry, as up until then the sort of episodic narrative games Telltale had been doing were seen as niche releases at best. Now, however, they entered the big leagues, and in many ways The Walking Dead formula would inform how future Telltale titles were designed, with choice as the main gameplay mechanic.

Game Spotlight: The Walking Dead: Season One (2012)

The first season of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead saw a man named Lee take care of a young orphaned girl called Clementine as the zombie apocalypse brought about the collapse of society. The game offered a strong narrative focused on characters and relationships, and while there were puzzle elements, the main mechanic here was clearly the choices you'd make during the conversations between characters. The game not only saw commercial success but garnered Telltale numerous awards and Game of the Year considerations.

Licensing comics had always been part of the Telltale formula, from Bone and Strong Bad (from webcomic Homestar Runner), and The Walking Dead was, of course, the poster child for this strategy. However, the license deal for The Walking Dead was struck along with another comic license, Bill Willingham's Fables, back in 2011.

Game Spotlight: The Wolf Among Us (2013/2014)

This largely overlooked game represents some of Telltale's best work. For some reason, the combination of a dark, sarcastic world, along with meaningful choices and strong characters was a great fit for the studio. It's interesting to note that accounts from inside the studio note that they really struggled with the concept, and that it took a very long time to arrive at what was ultimately a very successful final product.