Telltale May Not Makes Games, But They Do Make Magic

25 Jul

There’s something that’s been on my mind for a while (since GDC, for sure, and long before that, truth be told). What prompted me to share my thoughts now was an email I got the other day from an Australian journalist — Patrick Stafford — about something that happened at GDC 2015. Here’s the portion of his email that led me to this post:

“At GDC, I was at a panel about Telltale’s games – a bunch of their writers were speaking. At one point, Kevin Bruner asked the audience something along the lines of, ‘does anyone here think that what we make shouldn’t be called games?’ I looked around, and I believe I saw you raise your hand.”

Truth be told, the guy was right. I did raise my hand in answer to Kevin’s question, and I have to own up to the fact that I was expressing a sincerely held belief. I’ve often said Telltale makes things that are game-like, but not exactly games. I think of them as some sort of interactive experience (obviously), but does that mean “game?” I don’t think so.

Now, before people get their shorts in a knot about this, let me say a couple of things:

First, the definition of “game” is so broad (and ill-defined… and debated…), Telltale’s work can clearly be said to fall under that umbrella, if you want to put it there. And if you do want to put The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones and others in the “game” category (or, to cite a non-Telltale example, David Cage’s Heavy Rain), go ahead. I’m not religious about this. Labels, at the end of the day, aren’t all that important, you know? Understanding how something works is important, but labels, not so much.

Second, I love Telltale’s work. The fact that I think of The Walking Dead et al as wonderful experiences but not wonderful games may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one for me.

So, circling back to Patrick’s email, I figured I owed him a response and, at the same time, thought this was a good opportunity to think through – for myself – my feelings about Telltale’s work. So let’s tiptoe through the minefield.

When I think of games – narrative games — I think of several things: plot (of course), but also challenges, goals and solutions. I think of character progression. Unlike, say, David Cage, I think of systems and mechanics – I think a lot about that. I think of players having some impact on the narrative or, at least, how that narrative plays out minute-to-minute (given each player’s unique skills and the choices each makes in overcoming developer-created problems).

That last one is the most important to me, personally, something to bear in mind here. Nothing else (literally nothing) is more important to me. Your mileage may vary.

I’m absolutely not saying that all games should or must empower players, giving them ownership of the narrative at the minute-to-minute level. However, if you accept that idea, even simple choices can make a difference. You don’t have to go full-on Mass Effect or, if you’ll indulge me, Deus Ex. It’s fine to empower players in small and/or conventional ways:

  • Which weapon do I use to defeat an enemy? A perfectly reasonable, if minor experience differentiator.
  • Do I go up here before going down there? Again, giving players even this amount of freedom is a small win.
  • Do I wait for a long straight piece to fill in a narrow gap or do I drop the L-shaped piece that’s already on the screen? Even Tetris tells a player-recounted story, of a sort.

You can probably think of dozens, hundreds, thousands more of these small differentiating elements, from games that most people wouldn’t think are particularly player-empowering. The ones I’ve listed, and the others you can think of, may be the lamest choices imaginable (though I’m not saying they are). Lame or not, each of these player-driven decisions significantly differentiates one player’s experience from another.

(As a note, the test of whether a choice has made a meaningful difference is whether two players, discussing their experience, describe a unique moment, even if the outcome of a choice is the same for both of them.)

For me, differentiated experience is a defining characteristic of games – maybe the defining characteristic.

By contrast, Telltale’s work, though incorporating a kind of player-empowerment, limits player options in significant ways.
Let’s go back to the list of things I think of when I think about game narrative – challenges, goals, solutions, mechanics/systems and character progression.

If you’ve experienced any of Telltale’s work you’re probably way ahead of me, but here’s my take:

Games like The Walking Dead certainly offer story, challenges, goals and solutions. Isn’t that enough to call them games and put all this seemingly nit-picky labeling behind us? Obviously, I don’t think so or I’d just stop right here and say “Oops. Never mind.” So what is it about Telltale’s work that makes it hard for me to say they’re games?

For starters, they basically have no mechanics (or when they do introduce simple mechanics — shooting while backing up stairs and such — they seem out of place and unnecessary). There’s no character progression to speak of. And there’s no real player control of the minute-to-minute. That last point is key.

Everything Telltale offers is pre-planned — even the game-like qualities they do incorporate. The challenges, the goals the solutions, everything is determined and constrained by the designers through a script that I’m pretty certain utilizes a traditional branching tree structure. (True confession time: I don’t have any inside information about how things work under the hood at Telltale, but I’d love it if someone who did know would chime in and tell me!)

If my experience of Telltale’s work has led me to the correct conclusion, you can’t really go where you want to go when you want to go there and I don’t think there’s ever the possibility of a player discovering a freeform, player-driven solution to a problem.

What that tells me is that Telltale is less interested in empowering players and, like a novelist or film-maker, more interested in the story they want to tell. It tells me they’re not much interested in the player’s impact on the minute-to-minute unfolding of the experience. Nothing wrong with that, though it’s not a choice I’d likely make as a developer. What Telltale clearly does care about is character interaction and dialogue choices that give the illusion that players have a role in directing the narrative. And they clearly value choices that feel meaningful (even when they’re really not). Man, does Telltale get choices.

Paradoxically, these player-limiting characteristics and the focus on linear story elements are, I think, where the Telltale magic happens.

Magic? You bet. The magic is that the choices Telltale offers say little or nothing about the characters’ feelings about a situation… and they’re not about allowing players to min-max or optimize or save-and-reload until they find the “best” solution to the puzzle or problem. Do you know how rare these characteristics are in games?

Pretty rare. The magic of Telltale’s choices – the magic of their work, overall, is that I, at least, and I suspect many of you reading this, forget the character you’re playing. The choices Telltale asks you to make as you wend your way through their artfully crafted stories reveal something about the player’s feelings about right and wrong. Telltale forces you to, within script constraints, think about what would be the best thing to do in a given situation if you encountered that situation in the real world 9or a zombie-infested one…). “Game space” is subordinate to “real space” and character development is subordinate to players’ realizations about themselves.

Despite featuring strong, well-developed characters, Telltale’s scripts force players to think for themselves and about themselves. That’s awesome and, if I may say, what I’ve always tried to do in the games I’ve worked on. I’ll let others decide how successful I’ve been. Clearly, Telltale’s approach is working.

Telltale succeeds at this not because their mechanics are great or their puzzles are challenging or their worlds are open-ended. They succeed because their scripts are flat-out better than other people’s, and even more important, those scripts pose ethical dilemmas that are more subtle and problematic than anything anyone else in the game business has on offer.

Is there more to the magic than talented writers and an interest in ethics? I think there is. Again, I have no inside information, but I think there’s a structural thing going on that’s pretty old-school but still very effective: I’ve already mentioned the branching tree structure. Telltale’s work takes that to a whole new level.

Without meaning to disparage anything or anyone in any way, I often describe the Telltale (or David Cage) approach as jamming several movie scripts together. And, then, refining those scripts so they intertwine with one another to give the illusion of player choice, rather than the reality of it.

That has some interesting side effects that make it hard for me to apply the word “game”:

No matter how convincing the illusion is, I’m pretty sure no one at Telltale has ever been or will ever be surprised by any choice any player makes. Millions of players can play, but because writers and designers carefully craft every choice ahead of time, the possible outcomes all exist, in some metaphysical sense, in “script-space,” regardless of which choices you select.

And no player will ever surprise themselves as they play because they really have very little freedom, if any, to leave the tracks laid by the intertwined scripts. Players will be surprised by the choices and consequences afforded them by the talented, creative people whose scripts they’re experiencing, but nothing can happen unless a writer/designer implemented it in the first place. Being surprised by something – largely a result of interactions between tools/interactions with in-gameworld elements – requires giving players control at a level Telltale simply won’t allow.

That means that the only difference between my experience and yours in a Telltale game is that I chose one script and you chose another. You saw a slightly different scene than I did but, ultimately, your script and my script will converge again, maybe even in the very next scene. In reality, we’re both experiencing a single story, just a well-disguised one. We can compare our choices with other people’s choices – something Telltale exploits in an exceptionally elegant and compelling manner — and the results seem player-driven because branching done in a sophisticated manner works that way. But that comparison of my pre-planned choices versus your preplanned choices is all players can do. They can’t really make a difference. It’s cool that you made the same choices as 42% of players, but that doesn’t add up to a game-defining, player-driven narrative in my book.

That it works at all is part magic trick and part something else (which I’ll get to in a moment – remember the words “familiarity” and “comfort”). And, just to restate in a slightly different way something I said earlier: I don’t believe Telltale’s magic tricks make their work “less than” or “worse than” other interactive narratives or works more irrefutably classified as games – far from it. Magic is cool – cool enough that The Walking Dead was my favorite interactive experience of 2012 and Telltale’s more recent work is compelling as well.

Going one step further, I’m so inspired by Telltale’s work that I actually thought about trying to make a game in that style. I’m sure it’s a lot harder than it looks, but I suspect it would be like writing a choose-your-own-adventure book (with pretty pictures). I wrote some pick-a-path stuff back in my tabletop days and had a lot of fun with it so, yeah, I’ve thought about exercising that muscle again…

Anyway, let me give you a sort of a bottom line (“sort of” because I’m not really done yet – this is just an illusion of closure…).

If you need to put a label on what Telltale does, here’s my answer: No, they’re not making games. They are, as I hinted earlier, making “experiences” (my preferred, if imprecise term). To be more concrete, and at risk of being mocked for resurrecting a term long thought dead, let’s say Telltale is the place that finally cracked the “interactive movie” code.

Terminology aside (and my embarrassment at using it), for those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock for the last 25 years, the true interactive movie has been the holy grail for a lot of developers and, now we know, the experience of choice for a lot of players. And Telltale’s better at it than anyone else.

I know there’s no great insight in trotting out the hoary old chestnut: “interactive movie.” (I fully expect a fair amount of grief about even typing those words from the deeper thinkers among you.) But I think an accurate hoary old chestnut is better than lumping Telltale’s work in with clearly categorizable narrative games that function in fundamentally different ways and offer players fundamentally different kinds of experiences.

One final semi-relevant thought (and now I really am wrapping up): A large part of Telltale’s success probably stems from the familiarity normal people – i.e., non-gamers – have with existing media like movies and television. People get movies and TV and, therefore, have a high level of comfort with a work that looks like a movie or TV show and feels like a movie or TV show – but one that can be redirected in simple, safe yet still compelling ways by the viewer. A lot of developers – I’ll include myself here – would be well-served by focusing a little more on familiarity and the comfort of our audience. Going to them rather than insisting they come to us makes a lot of sense, something Telltale gets (and I do not…).

So does Telltale make “games” or “experiences” or “interactive movies?” Honestly, despite having just spent pages making some sort of case, I really don’t much care what you call them. Call them poodles for all I care. As long as Telltale keeps doing what they do as well as they do it, I’ll be a happy guy.

BTW, I was going to end this post with something along the lines of “If you want to comment on this, I’m eager to engage in a dialogue about Telltale, games and narrative. However, I beg you to refrain from using the terms ‘narratology’ or ‘ludology.’ Those words make my skin crawl. I’ll probably ignore any comments that go there.” I was going to do that, but thought it might be too obnoxious, so I didn’t. Well, now that I think about it, I just did end my post with that comment (foolishly, no doubt). First mine, triggered, I guess. Have at me.

I’m done now. Got to go play some Game of Thrones

14 Responses to “Telltale May Not Makes Games, But They Do Make Magic”

  1. Chris at 12:27 am #

    Do you feel the same way about classic adventure games since they give the player even less ownership than Telltale games do. In something like The Longest Journey every player will do the exact same thing in exactly the same order with no deviation in plot and no way to use different items or solutions.

  2. Warren Spector at 6:19 pm #

    I do basically feel the same way about classic adventure games as i do about Telltale’s reinvention of the genre. However, the old-school stuff is even more on rails than Telltale’s stuff.

    What you call classic adventure games are about reading the mind of a designer in trying to solve single-solution puzzles.

    Telltale’s crew, when they’re at their best, are about ethical dilemmas and player-driven choices about how to deal with them from a broad set of predetermined choices that give the illusion of influence.

    My games are about predetermined problems, ethical and concrete, with players limited only by their creativity and the tools available in solving both.

    The best way to look at it may be to think about a continuum, based on player freedom (not on quality!). On one end of the continuum, say at the far left, you find adventure games; on the other end, far right, you find sandbox/open-world games; in the middle left, you find Telltale; and on the middle right, you find the games I’ve worked on.

  3. Paul at 2:10 pm #

    Very much enjoyed reading this. I would personally consider everything that is played to be a game, even if the player agency is very limited / nonexistent…so even classic linear adventure games, or Telltale games. However as much as I enjoy Telltale games (I finished and loved Walking Dead S1/S2 and Wolf Among Us), I do believe they would actually be more interesting (and for me, enjoyable) if they weren’t just “interactive movies”, as you put it. If they had more mechanics, more player agency, more place for minute-to-minute decision making. For me, best, most memorable experiences I have had have been with RPGs and Immersive Sims – games like Deus Ex and Dishonored, or Fallout New Vegas and Witcher 3. When both player agency AND well written script come together, that is where the best kind of magic happens, for me at least.
    That said, I did buy Life is Strange just yesterday and very much look forward to playing it.

    • Warren Spector at 8:33 pm #

      I appreciate the kind words about Deus Ex and agree about how memorable “immersive sims” can be.

      The one thing I’d disagree with you on is the idea that Telltale’s stuff, or interactive movies in general, would be “more interesting” if they were more like those games we both love. Difference is fine and doesn’t have to lead to value judgments.

      Your opinion is your opinion, but I’ve come to a point where I value Telltale’s stuff as much as I do more mechanically-driven games. I just think they’re different enough that thinking about the differences is a worthwhile exercise.

  4. Murphy at 3:57 pm #

    Make another deus ex ❤

    • Both my sons and I have been huge fans of the Spector, especially since Deus Ex! I still use the old Unreal Engine with my high school game design students! Mr. Spector, after reading this excellent article, I was wondering if you are aware of any projects, that would offer narrative style developers tree generating functionality? The closest to what you speak sounds like Chris Crawford’s Siboot/SWAT StoryWorld Authoring Tool, but at it’s present pace, I’ll be retired before it’s released 🙂

      • From Chris Crawford’s site : “Siboot will demonstrate the efficacy of the technology we have developed for interactive storytelling — technology that we will give away.

        I won’t bore you with the twenty-year history of how I developed this technology, and the many sucesses and failures along that path. The technology reached its culmination with a development environment (a program for creating programs) that we called the StoryWorld Authoring Tool: SWAT. It’s huge and complicated, so huge and so complicated that people couldn’t master it. It could do fantastic things, but only if you could juggle lots of mental balls at once.

        For Siboot, I stripped away half of the complexity in SWAT. If the Siboot project succeeds in exciting interest in the technology, we will set to work cleaning up SWAT, simplifying it and making it easier to use. We’ll release it — for free — when it is ready for use by indies.

        We’ll release the technology in stages. At first we’ll release only the end program, not the source code. We’ll give the community time to play with and learn the technology. We’ll probably need to make lots of improvements at first.

        Once we’ve gotten the technology working adequately, we’ll set to work cleaning up and documenting all the source code, then release it as open source.”

    • Warren Spector at 8:34 pm #

      I’d love to make another Deus Ex (and actually think I know what direction I’d take it), but Eidos Montreal has the corner on that market and they’re doing a fine job of it without any kibbitzing from me. 😉

  5. Florian at 12:55 pm #

    Forgive me if I’m missing the point, but what analytic purpose does the term “game” serve to you?

    Very obviously, you’re not after Huizinga or Caillois. If I read your definition right, your main qualifying criterion is – to use your own term – emergence, or the potential for emergence. I’ll cheerfully agree that a fair few great experiences came off of games that focus on that concept.

    However, I’m not convinced that emergence or player freedom are good lenses to view major parts of our industry’s output through. Is Pac Man well characterized by its capacity to generate surprising solutions? Is Rock Band? Mario Kart?

    When you delineate a clear distinction between your work and Telltale’s, I agree (and easily come down on Deus Ex’ in personal preference). But why must one wear the label “game”, and the other not?

    • Warren Spector at 8:42 pm #

      As much as I love emergence in games, I wouldn’t say that it’s the be-all, end-all that defines the word “game.” The key for me is player-driven differentiated experience. All the games you listed deliver that.

      Differentiated experience is the one thing games do that no other medium can do. Not movies, not books, not anything. We’re unique in our ability to embrace players as partners in authorship and allow them to participate in real, meaningful, significant ways to the telling of a story. For me that unique quality is best expressed through the idea of “choice and consequence” or the two-word summary I’ve used, “playstyle matters.” And for me, if a medium can do something no other medium can do, there’s almost a moral obligation to do it. (I’m going to talk about this more in another blog post pretty soon.)

      As far as labels go, I guess in writing about them, I’m hoping, at least subconsciously, people will apply my definition, but that wasn’t really my point. I believe in dialogue as the key to learning and I think we all have a lot to learn (myself included) before we call games a “solved problem.” Sometimes extreme statements of genuinely held beliefs are necessary to get people talking.

  6. Gamemaniac3434 at 7:47 pm #

    I respect the arguments here and the discussion, even if I differ on what I think constitutes a game. Personally,I feel these are games, as they require player agency and interaction.
    They require player choice, and the game diverges depending on that choice, in some pretty interesting and jarring moments for some of those divergences.

    Yes some lead to a similar end anyway, but the same can be said for deus ex in regards to many ways to get to the same place, though admittedly that can get a bit hazy and perhaps is lacking as a good example.

    Some games don’t have character progression either, at least not in as concrete as sense as something like Deus Ex, but I feel not having that doesn’t mean something isn’t a game . I guess we can argue that the label is pointless…but isn’t it important to have some label to accurately know if something is a “game”? A label lets us know what something is or what its about, and can serve as an important informational tool to tell us what a product is or what it mirrors. Positivity or negativity is something placed upon a label by those who use it, but I digress.

    Regarding telltale games, there are pre-planned divergences that do tend to wrap around to a similar result and as I have played more of their games, I have noticed the seams a bit more( i.e. the walking dead who you save in the convenience store), but at the same time, I feel like the trees help you immerse and identify with the character.
    It requires your investment, both clicking, making decisions and getting emotionally involved in what your character is saying or doing.
    It makes you put yourself into the continuation, rather than being aware you’re just clicking buttons, like some games can do.

    And if you define a game as one having failure states, then these pass the test there as well-even if I don’t put much stock in that idea. Failure-or poor results-are possible due to what you say or the actions you take. You aren’t passive, even if the paths are similar, moment to moment you shape your character and that sort of investment makes me feel like it is a game. To me, that is what a “game” is.

    A “game” to my eyes, is something that requires active investment and involvement and input and Deus ex was an example of story paths, but perhaps not the best case for my argument.

    However, perhaps Call of duty is a better one. You can pick different tools, but ultimately its all the same end, and in certain cases you must use one tool, others being inferior. Different choices…same result. Different paths…to the same end, that being the passage and completion of the level. The game is incredibly linear, and player choice is far less meaningful that it may seem. In a way, both of these hold similar concepts, though admittedly gunplay is more visceral and demands more input…..but the way cod does it invites far less investment. I care a lot more about bigby than “soap” or “roach” or any of the nameless, faceless characters these games tend to cultivate.

    Both of these games posses aspects of each other, they just peak higher or lower on diff portions of the chart, akin to a similar chemical with different concentrations of the same materials. Different….but in a way the same.
    Whereas dear esther does not invite real input, does not invite me to interact and get invested and demands none of my involvement beyond passively observing.

    Which is why I hold that its not a game. It doesnt fufill the interaction quota, or the involvement beyond pressing the movement keys and looking at a map around you while a narrator appears sporadically and spouts nonsense. It failed to get me invested, and therefore fails to meet any of my criteria in any meaningful way. I didnt finish the game, because it gave me no reason to. I play games to get involved a unique world, learn and become invested in a story, or for fun input. If it can do one of those three things right and have enough of the rest to satisfy, it meets the criteria of game.

    Gone home, though, is different and proves my thoughts further because to some it is still a walking simulator, ala Dear Esther. But unlike that game, it requires me to interact, to explore which demands my input and presents a story that invests me in continuing on. It requires you to interact with things, to explore and demands attention and investigation-which to my mind makes it a game, rather than a passive walking simulator like Dear Esther.

    • Warren Spector at 8:52 pm #

      Wow, there’s a lot to digest here. I think you wrote more in your response than I did in my blog post. I agree with a lot of what you have to say, but not all.

      As far as player agency and interaction go, I think “interaction” is simply too broad a term to be of much use to us. (It’s like “fun” – I mean, define that for me, will you? I wish you luck. And if you can’t define something, it’s a useless concept. Raph Koster comes close, but his definition is highly personal and not necessarily generalizable.) And as far as player agency goes, I’d argue that Telltale offers the illusion of agency without the reality of it. If that’s enough for you, that’s great. Seriously. No attitude.

      I love your point about failure states as part of the definition of games. I’ll probably end up stealing that and expanding on it as I think about this topic more… 😉

      The Call of Duty discussion is interesting. If I’m not careful, I’ll end up saying that CoD isn’t a game either and then the fur will really start flying! No way I’m going there!

  7. Robert Brackenridge at 8:54 pm #

    Hey Warren – very interesting discussion. I am a big fan of the TellTale experience for many reasons which involve both pure enjoyment of the form as well as the associated business model. Coincidentally, I also believe this model helps us begin to engage with developing content for this new VR paradigm. Not trying to dig up your previous posts about VR… But I thought I would mention we use the term VR experience instead of VR games for the content we are producing. Some of our content clearly falls under the game category, while other projects, more narrative in nature, fall into a very limited form of the TellTale experience.

    • Warren Spector at 8:46 pm #

      First, I completely agree about the Telltale business model. When I left Ion Storm back in 2004, the first thing I did was draft a proposal for digitally distributed episodic content. Everyone told me I was 5 years too early and I guess they were right! I’m just glad someone’s doing it (and wondering why everyone doesn’t jump on board…)

      On the VR comments, I’m fine bringing that up. What people don’t seem to understand is that I personally hope VR succeeds. I just think content isn’t enough to put it over the top. (I also think AR will far outstrip it in terms of, well, everything – from mainstream adoption to coolness of content to everything in between, but that’s just one man’s opinion.) As far as the connection between what Telltale does and what VR developers are doing, I admit I don’t quite see it, but (a) I’ll have to think about it some more and (b) I hope you’ll come back here and expand your explanation to help me understand exactly what you’re saying. Interesting stuff…

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