I’m a fairly big fan of TellTale Games. They make excellent games and more importantly they make games that play differently than just about everything else on the mainstream market today. I don’t own all their games, but I own quite a few. Currently I have all the Sam & Max titles, Tales of Monkey Island, Back to the Future: The Game, Jurassic Park: The Game, The Walking Dead Season One, Poker Night 2, The Wolf Among Us, Batman: The TellTale Series, Guardians of the Galaxy: The TellTale Series, and currently I’m playing Game of Thrones. Now I have to admit that I have not yet completed all these games. In fact I’ve only completed a few of them. But I purchased them because I really like the studio and I enjoy their work, for the most part.
The first Telltale Games title I ever played to completion was The Wolf Among Us (TWAU). This is also the game that made this studio memorable to me. Before then it was just a name I may have heard from time to time but never took to heart. TWAU changed all that. That game is spectacular. It’s one of the most memorable point and clicks, if it can be called that, I’ve ever played. In my opinion, it is perfect in every way except for the inconclusive ending, which was intentional according to the studio. I am so glad they are finally making a season two and I will absolutely be buying it.
Currently I’m playing Game of Thrones for the first time. I’m only past Episode 3. A few things to note right away are that I don’t love the art style but I’m ok with it. I love the writing, as per usual with modern TellTale Games titles. The story is weaved into the canon of Game of Thrones, the TV show, perfectly. But I am not happy with the way things seem to be playing out overall. There’s always a question of agency in games that let you make decisions. Whether it’s something epic like Mass Effect or Fable or something smaller like titles by TellTale Games, the ability to make choices must be executed properly or the whole experience is destroyed. In fact, I think that’s why so few games let you make decisions. It’s hard to manage the experience when the player gets to take the reins.
With all the TellTale titles I’ve played in the past that offered plot contingent choices, it always felt real. The decisions and their repercussions were executed correctly. Here correctly shall be defined as giving you an outcome that makes sense to the player based on the decisions they made that doesn’t appear to be the only possible outcome. That last bit is extremely important. Many games that have decisions are actually on rails. This is common knowledge. You make decisions and things branch out but ultimately they weave right back into the same path as everyone else’s choices. But the true art of making a game with decisions is making it seem like your choices actually mattered and led to the outcome you got. Mass Effect does this very well. TWAU does an equally good job considering the scale of the game. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much and why I took the time to platinum it, which required multiple (at least two) playthroughs. Game of Thrones however does not have this same effect when it comes to making decisions.
I like playing Game of Thrones but I rarely feel like my choices matter that much in the grand scheme of things. I noticed this at the end of Episode 1. If you haven’t played the game please be aware of spoilers ahead. The game centers on House Forrester. This is a house loyal to the Starks that have been plunged into turmoil after the Red Wedding, which is where the game starts. You play as multiple characters who are all members of House Forrester. One of them is the young Lord Ethon. He becomes Lord of the House after his father and oldest brother die at the Red Wedding. When playing as him you are tasked with making serious decisions about the future of the House and its struggles with House Whitehill, a rival house that been in conflict with House Forrester for generations. The Whitehills have the support of the Boltons so they now get to walk all over House Forrester. You make a number of choices and at the end of the episode Ramsay Bolton murders Ethon with no warning. It’s a shocking moment and was perfectly placed for that classic Game of Thrones shock value. But what I didn’t like was that I felt like I didn’t deserve that outcome. I made very conservative and politically minded decisions. Not the decisions I wanted to make but the ones I believed were the best way to prevent violence from breaking out and House Forrester being driven into a war they couldn’t win at that moment. Even with all my eggshell walking, Ethon still got stabbed in the neck.
I usually don’t look these sorts of things up because I do replay TellTale Games titles when I feel like I could get vastly different outcomes. But in this case, the death felt so undeserved that I had to look it up. To my surprise and disappointment, it turns out you can’t save Ethon. No matter what you do he will be murdered by Ramsay Bolton at that meeting. For a TellTale title that’s a load of crap, and it feels like it. When you play TWAU everything feels authentic. You always feel like bad outcomes are your fault. Even when I played it a second time, making all different decisions, things felt authentic and different. That’s the way it should feel. With each episode of Game of Thrones I have continued to feel like I was trapped within a locked narrative and that my decisions were of little consequence. That’s not how these games are supposed to feel.
Sadly this seems to have become par for the course for TellTale Games in recent years. Upon doing more research, I found out that you get a platinum trophy on PS3/4 just for completing all the episodes in Game of Thrones. The same is apparently true for Batman: The TellTale Series, The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, Tales From the Borderlands, and Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series. In all these games you get a platinum just for reaching the end of the game no matter what you do. This is not the case for TWAU and it leads me to believe that not much difference occurs from playthrough to playthrough. Why else would it be so easy to get a platinum? The only logical explanation is that you won’t gain much or possibly any additional plotlines if you replay these games. That’s a shame and goes directly against why I originally became a TellTale Games fan.
Now I can understand why things like this might occur. All these titles are based on currently existing film and/or game properties. This means that the story has to follow certain paths in order to stay within the canon of the work. For instance, they could never have a scenario in Game of Thrones where Ramsay Bolton dies at the hands of House Forrester because he dies at the hands of Sansa Stark after the Battle of the Bastards. This is show canon. Now that might excuse the more set in stone plot(s), but it doesn’t excuse the execution of them. Even if my choices don’t really matter, they still need to make me feel like they do. Otherwise this is just an ugly, fairly uneventful as far as gameplay is concerned, rails story game. While that might be fine in a game with great gameplay, it’s not ok in what is for the most part a glorified point and click.
I am very much saddened by what seems to be the current and future state of TellTale Games titles. This is especially disappointing if it ends up ruining The Wolf Among Us Season Two. If this change in style is the result of all these big franchise adaptations then that’s terrible news because that’s basically all the studio is doing these days. I’d like to see a return to true form and I hope that one day in the near future they make authentic stories that don’t feel hollow once again.