Published Dec 17, 2013When Telltale Games began releasing their episodic adaptation of The Walking Dead last year, the title could have been referencing the company itself. Founded in 2004 by refugees from '90s point-and-click powerhouse LucasArts, the California game studio began quietly releasing licensed adventure games based on cult comics Bone and Sam & Max. Even moving onto mainstream properties like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future didn't lift Telltale out of its tiny niche.
"It was still dead," says Telltale director Nick Herman of the company's chosen genre. "People got excited about new things. Obviously we're all now saturated with Battlefield and Call of Duty, and I think [point-and-click adventure games] are coming back because they're new again. Walking Dead was our first breakout hit, and the first time we went outside of our comfort zone."
Carving out an all-original tale set in the post-apocalyptic world of the zombie comic, Telltale transcended the TV show by turning players into virtual parents of Clementine, one of gaming's greatest digital creations. Pierre Shorette, already a fan of the series and the old LucasArts classics, came onboard as a writer for TWD's final episode.
"There aren't a lot of games that you remember emotional moments in, sticky moments where you just wanna talk to someone about," he says. "That was one of the few times I've ever experienced that in a game." By the time "season one" was complete, they'd sold 8.5 million episodes and racked up countless Game of the Year accolades.
At the same time they announced TWD, Telltale also had revealed they were adapting another award-winning comic, Bill Willingham's Fables, about fairy tale folks forced to flee their homelands and live in Fabletown, a refugee camp in the "mundy" realm of New York. In October, they finally released the first episode of their cell-shaded Fables prequel The Wolf Among Us, a canon story co-directed by Herman with Shorette as the five-episode season's lead writer.
"Fables is a really vibrant world with so many stories all coming together it opens up unlimited possibilities of directions we could go. A cool tenet of the series over the course of its run is it wears different hats in terms of the genres it touches on," says Herman.
The hat they went with was a film noir fedora as sheriff Bigby Wolf (as in Big Bad) investigates an apparent serial killer decapitating the seemingly immortal Fables. In case that wasn't evidence enough that this detective yarn is no fairy tale, the Woodsman who once saved Red Riding Hood is now an alcoholic woman-beater.
"If you remember in the first trade there was a gumshoe Bigby plot that went through it," says Shorette. "Fables can be a complicated set up, so grounding it in a genre that people know and love helps."
He says Willingham was heavily involved early on, with weekly calls to ensure, "we weren't going to do something that would ruin this comic he's been doing for 100-plus issues" but eventually his faith allowed them to tell their own tale.
They won't discuss what's coming in the remaining two-hour episodes. ("I got scared hearing you ask that," laughs Shorette, nervously, though he reveals, "the writers' room is like an FBI corkboard — post-its and pictures and yarn.") But who can blame them when Telltale games are fuelled primarily by emotionally wrenching player-driven plot twists? Traditional game mechanics like puzzles and combat are the cherry here, not the sundae.
"It's interactive so there's actual investment that you're putting into the game to tell the story with us," says Shorette. "It's about what you're feeling during a sequence rather than managing stuff in your inventory. I hope it has everyone realizing [narrative] doesn't need to be an afterthought. A lot of game writing is about filing in the gaps, so it's a lot of bandage work as opposed to looking at it holistically."
"The meat of the game and the heart of the game is the choices you have to make," adds Herman. "It can be scary to do something as radical as focusing on just the story, but hopefully we've proven that's a viable way to go."