An Open Letter To Telltale Games

Everybody loves The Walking Dead, right? If you don’t read the comics then you probably watch the TV show, and if you devour, zombie-like, both of those things then you’re probably well aware of Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, a downloadable episodic interactive narrative that’s sweeping critics off their feet.

The first episode came out in April, with the promise that the following instalments would be released on a monthly basis. I thought very highly of the first episode but came to it a month after release, so I thought it prudent to wait until the second was released so as not to be behind the times. Well, that wait ended up being a little longer than most anticipated, with Telltale keeping quiet on dates and announcing Episode 2’s release on (most) platforms at the end of June, with the unexplained exception of PlayStation users in Europe, who had to wait an extra week while being kept in the dark. Being a UK PS3 user, this was somewhat irritating, though I didn’t descend to the depths of name-calling and outright threats displayed in the comments of TTG’s blog posts.

Despite being kept in the dark and pulled this way and that by the publisher, I can’t help but feeling that…God damn if it wasn’t all worth it.

…And that’s where my official review of the first two episodes is going to turn into an actual review. I chose not to go on because the purpose of a review isn’t to talk about release dates and company policy and procedure; it’s to tell you whether I enjoyed the damn thing or not. Here, I have no such boundaries, and I’ve got a little more to say on the subject.

If TTG weren’t as at the top of their game as they are (design and execution-wise, at least), then this would be a much bigger deal in the videogames world, and I think that’s a bit of a problem, at least for a company that has set itself up as the prototype for sustainable episodic gaming.

The clue to the problem’s in the last sentence: ‘episodic’. Let’s cast our gaze to other media and see if we can’t rustle up another format where folks use that word a heck of a lot. Oh yeah; it’s TV.

In the beginning, Telltale promised monthly instalments of The Walking Dead, beginning at the end of April. The next episode came out two months later, and in their most recent blog estimated (very optimistically) that Episode 3 would be out mid-August.

In the TV world, that would be like airing the first episode of a season only to go on a two-week hiatus without telling anyone. Viewers would be upset and many wouldn’t stick out the next few episodes, let alone the entire series, and the makers of said show would be harangued by their superiors for damaging the reputation of the show and network/company. Of course, having such a tight schedule can result in sloppy writing and lacklustre television, but that point’s been made rather moot by the last decade’s increase in extremely high-caliber premium shows, with an emphasis on better storytelling in fewer episodes rather than longevity of seasons and ratings.

Which is why it’s a problem that Telltale is an independent games studio. That might sound strange, and of course I’m glad they can tell the story they want to (I can’t stress enough how much I like the game – it’s a true breath of fresh air, ironically blown from a decomposing corpse’s mouth), but I just can’t help feeling that having a couple of corporate paymasters to whip them into shape would help keep them on track and in their fans’ good books. Fear, after all, is a great motivator.

And on the subject of fans: some of the people who are justifiably miffed that they were sold something slightly different than what they were promised won’t be coming back for more, and if TTG don’t get it sorted, then sooner or later the strength of their product alone won’t be enough to keep them from the jaws of bankruptcy.

Those gamers who bought the ‘season pass’ – a one-off advance payment for all five episodes – will have to play the games to get their money’s worth whether they’re happy or not, but those who only plumped for Episode 1 have the choice to throw in the towel after witnessing Telltale’s poor handling of the situation, especially in the communication of vital information side of things. Questions have been asked repeatedly about release dates, about specific and general issues, and they’re only vaguely responded to a week later in a half-hearted apologetic blog post telling them to get geared up for the next episode. It’s akin to dangling a dead rat over a starving dog for a day after feigning dropping it again and again, finally throwing it to the poor animal and then whistling to it, catching their attention just as they dig in to reveal that your coat’s full of 30 oz steaks, starting the cruel cycle all over again.

Sooner or later that dog’s not just going to let you dangle it any more.

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