Dev Review: Telltale
This new section is exactly as any other player review over the internet.
The first thing you`ll notice is that my game review is not about a single game but a game company. The second thing is that I`m a developer and not a reviewer. The third is that I stalked developers and really stay tuned with good stuff.
Telltale is a company founded by ex-Lucas Art developers. They all worked on Sam and Max so that`s probably the game who created the synergy between them. The fact that Telltale published several Sam and Max titles makes this theory stronger:
Kevin Bruner: Kevin is a programmer. Kevin was the first Telltale CEO so he was the captain that make a cruiser from a boat.
Troy Molander: Troy isn't at Telltale anymore. Actually there`s a huge list of stuff he did after Telltale. He is a hybrid professional, the kind that they don`t create anymore. The kind that I want to be in a near future. He worked as Manager of Tech Art at Lucas Arts on several titles including Grim Fandango (which is like say: He`s a painter, the kind who painted the Sistine Chapel). At Telltale he did stuff from the infrastructure side to raise money.
I love adventure games and Telltale evolved this genre more than any other company since Lucas Arts. Also they have a very unique market vision.
Telltale is all about provide frequent remarkably experiences by presenting meaningful choices to a broad audience. On less fancy words, episodes, digital distribution, several platforms and strong narrative.
For sure, this can lead to any game genre but, looking for Telltale`s history, this means Adventure games.
For that purpose they've created a tool called, in a rare case of total lack of imagination: Telltale Tool.
I never saw Telltale Tool but I`m pretty sure that it started based on GrimE (That was based on Scumm) and also pretty sure that it had being re-writed at 2011 (and evolve since then).
It`s really hard to say something bad about a company that you admire with bullet-proof professionals but I really can`t miss the fact that the first Telltale games are terrible. Really, I love Telltale`s games but it took a long time until they learn how to keep the thing on the track. I didn't play all Telltale games from that period but I was unable to play for too long the games I did, mostly because they were all too hard or too boring.
The first Telltale game was an awesome adventure that... wait... a poker game???? Really??? Yep. Believe or not, Telltale Texas Hold`em was the first game from Telltale and not the only one. Looks like Kevin Bruner shared his vision with Brendan Q. Ferguson, a developer who also was part of Sam and Max team from Lucas Arts and they used that game to test online distribution market.
The lesson learned from this first experiment isn't public but we can infer some useful stuff since, after that, the company start to work with some strong IPs as CSI, Wallace and Grommit and, of course, Sam & Max. In my opinion, Telltale discover that a strong IP can ensure ROI and they use that to mitigate risk.
We can also presume the low profit from Texas Hold'em from the new distribution method tested on CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder, the first CSI title from Telltale. Probably as a way to improve ROI, the used that title to test the revolutionary episodic distribution. Since then, the company become addicted to such distribution format, so, even not have an inside perspective, looks like it works.
If as developer, Telltale was too conservative, as publisher, they were revolutionary.
Some creative refresh comes in the form of less renominated IPs as Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People. Telltale also publishes some games as Hector: Badge of Carnage, an adventure about a very distinct gross detective using a school-like humor.
Tales of Monkey Island
But the dark ages comes to an end when the company put it all together to an episodic-online-distributed-sequel from one of the most loved adventures ever. Yes, I'm talking about Tales of Monkey Island. Telltale formula for this title was unbeatable, it was almost the dreamteam of adventure games. They call Dave Grossman himself to direct the game. Lock him in a room with no one but Ron Gilbert on the planning phase. Yes, Tim Schafer wasn't there and that is the only reason to use the word "almost" on the late phrase.
If you don't know one of the names from the paragraph above, just think on your top three adventures ever. I can ensure you, at least, one of this names was involved.
Actually, the role of Ron Gilbert, isn't clear. Some sources points to some help on planning phase, at the credits, he is an Monkeyology Consultant and IMDB points list as a writer (characters). Whatever...
Due the strongly narrative nature of Adventure Games, Game Designers, Writers, Directors and producer are, somewhat the same guys. Also, some source list programmers and artist on those roles since they've contribute on such aspects.
So to complete this awesome team: Mark Darin (Current Creative Director from Telltale), Michael Stemmle (Current Project Leader at MunkyFun), Willian Armstrong (Current Lead Programmer at Campo Santo), Chuck Jordan (?), Brendan Fergusson (Current GD at Telltale), Jake Rodkin (Current Co-Founder of Campo Santo), Joe Pinney (On Sabbatical :) and Sean Vanaman (Current Co-Founder of Campo Santo).
To deal with the codes, they call for Randy Tudor. Probably you don't know this programmer for his name. He is not a celebrity yet as John Carmack, Tim Sweeney or Aras Pratinovich, but if programmers are horses, I bet all my money on this one. Randy Tudor is the current Lead Programmer at Telltale but, at that time, he were the programmer from Tales of Monkey Island and an experienced programmer with some Lucas Arts and ToeJam and Earl titles on his resume. Also, Randy Tudor is the one to blame for most parts of Telltale Tool.
Tales of Monkey Island isn't the best Monkey Island title (Monkey Island 3 and Monkey Island 4 still dueling and insulting one another for this title), but, undoubtedly, is an awesome title and a real turn over on Telltale overall quality.
Back to the Future
Other titles were released by 2009 and 2010 but this one deserves a special chapter. Back to the Future is one of the strongest IP's ever. Telltale game isn't bad but it isn't a good game either. For sure, Back to the Future deserves something better.
What capture my attention on this titles are technical aspects.
From the design side, poor camera positioning is a lesson here. Every movie maker is always aware about do not cross the action line. In a movie, the Action Line is responsible for the sensation of side, when a camera cross that line, right is perceived as left and vice versa. The sensation is that the target object is coming back. This is a very basic concept for movie makers, but, sometimes, game developers don't pay attention on that. For an adventure game that use fixed cameras, it's a tragic error and Back to the Future did it several times.
Also, the notion of direction, the boundaries of the screen, the scope of choices, all that, are key aspects of an adventure games and again, Back To The Future shows an amateur side of Telltale when dealing of such characteristics.
The script is ok. No more, no less.
From the artistic side, the game is ugly. Really, really, ugly. Not because of technical limitations (I will talk about that soon), but, the art direction is poor. Good Art Directors adapt art to technical boundaries. This phrase is repeated over and over around the world. Is a new cliché. Actually, never on game industry, developers was so aware about Art Direction as nowadays. Turn limits into straight, that's the ultimate objective of Art Direction for games.
I love to remember some old games that are successful on that as Super Mario Bros, Megaracer and Grim Fandango. So it's a little bit funny that a company who inherit Grim Fandango DNA has failed on that when working on Back to the Future.
BTW: Art Direction is signed by both Telltale Art Directors: Dave Bogan and Derek Sakay.
From the code-side. Back to the Future is probably the first adventure game made with Telltale Tool. I deduced that based on technical aspects as:
- Almost all the game uses a simple diffuse shader. A very simple specular shader is used in a character glass on chapter 2. After that, specular shader appears on key elements from other chapters.
- Animation is very dull with a very simple cross between animations.
- Light and shading looks like the ones used in the 90's.
- Deploy for multiple platforms
With that characteristics when can infer:
- They aren't using a commercial game engine
- Someone is implementing functionalities by hand during the project
My bet: Telltale used this project to turn Telltale Tool into a real solution for further projects. Randy Tudor and his guys were in crush time the entire project refining Telltale Tool and the schedule of Back to the Future were very tight so they don't have too much time for test and refining.
There's an aspect in Back to the Future that's amazing: Voice Acting. And between me, you and all other Back to the Future fans, Christopher Loyd voice is enough to turn whatever voice act into something amazing.
About the team: Looks like they've received some support from Universal including from Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale.
I didn't play this one yet. For what I saw at Internet, Jurassic Park feels pretty much as Back to the Future 2.0 with a more mature Telltale Tool, some improvements on design and a more reasonable art direction. Maybe we can say that this game is the bridge between Back to the Future and what comes next.
The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead is really something. We can see some bad aspects as poor UI and ugly vegetation shader (improved for the Walking Dead 2) as a cons but, the fact is: The Walking Dead is revolutionary in several ways.
The Walking Dead is a turnover in the entire adventure genre, actually, maybe it deserves some fancy term as "interactive novel" to describe it's game experience.
Art Direction recalls to the original series and most problems from Back to the Future are gone.
Camera positioning and movement really acts as a clue to the space of possibilities. No obstacles or invisible walls are needed to communicate where the player can go or where is expected to move, camera programming and positioning solve this question.
About the script, I's not exaggerate to say that it's better than the original series. For a narrative experience, that's like say: He plays like Michael Jordan but a little better.
Voice Act is very mature and engaging. From the historic point of view, The Walking Dead is a turning point as the first of a new wave of AAA adventures, a new age of interactive narrative.
The game was so representative that demanded several sequels. An interesting fact is , the main character dies at the end of the season 1 so, season 2, has a very complicated ground as a start point.
Clementine is a little girls and she becomes the main character. Almost all character of season 1 were dead. So make a sequel is a narrative challenge. Just think about the briefing makes me scare. However, somehow, Telltale was able to rebuilt the Storyline and creates a new narrative arc. Heroic. I really want to handshake each one involved on that.
Season 3 is coming and I'll play for sure.
The Wolf Among Us
When you're a game dev and breath game development you can observe some patterns on game references emerging. Since The Wolf Among Us was released, I saw a huge number of solutions and propositions based on that title.
"Shaders like the ones used in The Wolf Among Us" is a new cliché at this industry. From the Art perspective Looks like every Art Director put The Wolf Among Us on their initial studies these days. The reason is simple: The game is visually astonishing.
From the narrative point of view, The Wolf Among Us proves that Walking Dead wasn't an exception but the new standard and the new formulae can be even better. The Wolf Among Us asks for a sequel, not only because of the lack of "period" at the end of the history, but because that`s an undeniable feeling of "I want more" sparkled when the credits arises.
As directors, three guys from cinematics comes to a new role: Nick Herman (Current Creative Director at Telltale), Jason Latino(Current Cinematic Artist/Director at Telltale) and Dennis Lenart (Current Creative Director at Telltale) .
Tales from the Borderlands
I've played the original Borderland Title for about one hour. Maybe two. The universe was so rich but the original genre and narratives are just too boring. Looks that someone else had this feeling too. Tales from Borderlands expand the original universe and give you a much richer experience.
From the Art Direction perspective, it's not impressive as other Telltale Titles and not beautiful as the original Borderland Title, however, the careful narrative crafted into the environment really helps to get into this Universe.
I'm still playing this title, so I should expand this description later.
BTW: A movie and a MOBA are coming.
Game Of Thrones
One of the most loved narratives from this decade is Game of Thrones. It's not a secret that George R.R. Martin takes a long time between each book because of such complex script. Creates a narrative "George Martin"-like is the kind of challenge that we learn to trust that is impossible for anyone but George Martin.
Surprise! Game of Thrones is really that good. Developing a narrative from different points of view, Game of Thrones successful creates engagement with several characters. This emotional engagement leaves the player to some powerful moments affected by player's meaningful decisions. This characteristics was already on previous Telltale's games but in Game of Thrones for, at least two times, the consequences of your choices explodes the forth wall and screams into your brain. If you played until the start of the chapter 5, you know what I'm talking about.
The Art is not-so-ok. The overall look and feel recalls to the series and the presence of original cast is awesome. I loved the matte paint used to scene transitioning but I must admit that, sometimes, the game ask for better shaders and 3d models.
Telltale aligned strong narratives and evolve adventure games to another genre. When doing that, Telltale assumed to be a Interactive Novel Company more than a game company. That don`t diminished the awesome experiences, but, points to a new market guided by similar but different rules.
I saw a company evolving across Telltale titles and saw myself as a consumer who moves their flag trying to share this new media with everyone else.
From the technical point of view, Telltale engine looks pretty appropriate and from the narrative point of view, they represent the state of art. Art direction has it`s highs and lows. On the other side, Telltale really needs better Tech Artists, Environment Artists and a better light system.
I`m not sure what paths can derive from the one toked by Telltale. As a cross-media company looking to increase the market share, I can bet some news for VR. I could figure out some ideas from my experience with 360 stereoscopic images, 360 stereoscopic videos and my experience with mocap but that`s just speculative. For now, Telltale formulae uses 3D models and some mocap so that's probably the next great new things.