Telltale Games and Affecting Narrative

With the release of the latest episode of Telltale’s The Wolf Among Us this past week, I thought I’d talk about their games — The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us specifically — and respond to some of the criticism I’ve heard them receive in the wake of their successes.

For those who do not know, Telltale is a game developing studio known for making adventure games and has gained acclaim recently for the release of the above mentioned The Walking Dead, and more recently The Wolf Among Us, which just released its forth episode of five. Each are based on comic book series The Walking Dead and Fables respectively. They are also developing games for the Borderlands series and Game of Thrones.

The games are not action heavy, focusing a lot more on puzzles, exploration and story, where it engages the player through choice in conversations and options that dictate the path that the plot follows. The studio received very high praise for its storytelling in The Walking Dead, earning game-of-the-year awards in 2012.

The stories of these games which have gained the love of many video game players — myself included — have been unfairly scrutinized by some fans for the same reason that many people love them: choice. I have heard, and heard of, people who criticize the games because they feel that the choice system for conversations and significant moments are hollow, because ultimately each story follow a set paths and reach the same destinations. They believe that because they are making choices along the way a different story should form entirely.

While it is true that the story in these games hit the same narrative beats, confronting players with the same pivotal choices despite different decisions made earlier, it is erroneous and downright impractical to expect a game to be able to forge a completely unique story based upon the player’s choices.

What this group of players is failing to understand from the idea that their choices alter the story isn’t that an entirely new story will be told, but that you can directly affect how a particular story will be told. The story never changes, but how the story is told does, and I think Telltale has done this very effectively. Not only can you dictate areas to investigate first or who gets food in the camp, for instance, but also how your character behaves and reacts in conversation. What I particularly love about this aspect of it is that it doesn’t go about creating a completely different character, or out-of-character moments, but addresses a range of possible ways this individual is capable to reacting, that is influenced by how the player feels about who they are talking to or the situation.

For example, Bigby — the player character in The Wolf Among Us — is distrustful of Blue Beard. You can choose to be outright confrontational to him in conversation, or you can attempt to be civil/polite, but it doesn’t change the fact that Bigby doesn’t trust him.

There is a growing trend in gaming toward stories that the player can influence, and as implied in the subtext of Bioshock Infinite, there are constants and variables. For a game to have a very fluid narrative there has to be a lot of variables, but these variables require constants or the narrative will not work. Though I have no problem with a story that is straightforward and doesn’t take anything from the player’s influence, I really enjoy these types of games because they are a perfect showcase of the numerous ways there are to tell the same story.


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