From LucasArts to Telltale Games to the Future: Thoughts on Recent Events
Growing up playing LucasArts classic adventure games gave me a deep appreciation (nostalgia, perhaps?) for games that capture that feeling I remember so fondly. The feeling of looking at unvoiced dialogue text over pixelated graphics and listening to crude MIDI music while contemplating what to do to progress the story may not sound appealing, but game developers at that time had to artfully use the means they had available to create and entertaining and engaging experience. LucasArts mastered that art, and even with the incredible advances in game development, their games have stood the test of time. Before the Internet was a staple of everyday life and instantly available in our pockets, we had to actually take the time to retrace our steps and Look At, Pick Up, and Use everything, sometimes for hours or more, in an attempt to solve often abstruse puzzles. I remember discussing the games with friends, sharing how we got past difficult parts and trying to figure what to do next when we were all stumped.
As computer gaming became more advanced, adventure games advanced as well, featuring primitive 3D graphics and poorly acted voiceovers. But they still had uncompromisingly linear stories and zany humor that gave them their distinctly LucasArts personality. Although these games had evolved, they still evoked the same basic experience. LucasArts adventure games were a genre of their own.
A few months after LucasArts halted development of their last adventure game and laid off most of the teams working on them in 2004, a few of the developers went on to found Telltale Games. For a while I thought of Telltale Games as a kind of an impostor, co-opting the remnants of LucasArts but actually being something entirely different. Many of their games were entirely new franchises and had a completely different feel. For a long time I didn’t even consider playing their games, but when I learned they were continuing some LucasArts series, the pang of nostalgia and hunger to play any game like the ones I once did overcame me. I thought that Sam and Max and Tales of Monkey Island were, while distinctly different from their LucasArts origins, reasonably faithful continuations. Or, maybe I let my excitement to return to these characters and worlds cloud my judgment. Regardless, I’m grateful to Telltale Games for continuing these beloved franchises.
Since then, my appreciation for their games has only grown. I played several more of their titles, including The Wolf Among Us, Tales From The Borderlands, and Game of Thrones. While they are all a departure from the LucasArts formula, they are still story-based adventure games. To me, the most notable differences were the shift toward serious, intensely emotional storytelling supported by professional writing and voice acting, and offering the player choices that actually affect events in the game. Telltale’s many years of success suggest that these changes were well received.
Putting plots and storytelling first strengthened the sense of realism and immersion, setting them up for a broader cultural impact on par with TV and movies. That being said, the real innovation was leaving important choices to the player rather than leading them down a predetermined path. There’s some debate about how much those choices actually change the story, but as with all new ideas, the concept needed time to mature. Perhaps in an attempt to dissuade that notion, many Telltale Games showed a message that the character “will remember that” after an important choice, and this became a signature of the studio. As they released more games, the influence of decisions became stronger, but it rarely significantly impacted the course of the story. But other developers, perhaps inspired by Telltale Games, began to use and improve upon the concept.
The most advanced iteration of these concepts I’ve played is in Quantic Dreams’ Detroit: Become Human, and to some degree their prior game Beyond: Two Souls. I’ll talk about Detroit: Become Human, but most of the same things can be said about Beyond: Two Souls but to a lesser extent. The most notable thing about Detroit is the complex plot trees, which split at every choice you make or don’t make, every quick time event you pass or fail, and even which areas you go to. A decision tree is shown at the end of each chapter which shows the many other choices you could have made. Most of them don’t affect the plot outside of the current chapter or seem like Easter eggs to discover that aren’t integral to the plot. But the ones that do vastly change how the story progresses, although the ending mostly depends on a few choices you make toward the latter parts of the game. The story is also very impactful on many levels, well written, and compellingly acted. I could go on, perhaps in a future article.
Developing a game with a complex decision system like in Detroit is an arduous task, to say the least. Each significant decision point exponentially increases the number of variations of the story that must be written, animated, and voice acted, which is the main reason developers are wary to introduce too many significant choices. Without a new approach, it seems unlikely that games will ever have decision trees much more complex than in Detroit. As a programmer myself, the only possible solution I see is a breakthrough in AI research. An intelligent algorithm that can write, animate, and voice act a story in a compelling way could completely change the nature of story-based games. Perhaps in the future, we won’t buy games with specific plots, but rather bespoke experiences tailored to the individual player’s traits and dynamically adjusted with each decision, with potentially endless replay value. An AI this advanced may be science fiction, but algorithmically generated storylines would fundamentally change story and decision-based games. It will be interesting to see how these problems are solved and what other new ideas will be introduced as adventure game development unfolds in the future.
The abrupt termination of approximately 225 employees and the announcement of Telltale’s impending closure was a surprise to many and a disappointment to the fans who will never know the fate of beloved characters, but most importantly an affront to the many dedicated developers who are suddenly jobless and without the safety net of severance pay. With the fate of the developers in mind, it feels disrespectful to write about something as seemingly petty as video games when in the real world the many people who made them possible are left in limbo. I wish them all the best and in no way mean to undermine the human toll taken by Telltale’s recent actions. However, I think there are a few positive things that could arise from these developments.
These events have brought to light issues about how the game development industry, and to some degree, the tech industry as a whole, tends to mistreat, overwork, and otherwise exploit their employees as standard practice. Earlier this year, The Verge wrote an in-depth report about the management issues that plagued Telltale Games and are also endemic in the tech sector, perhaps foreshadowing the current situation. Moving forward, game development companies, developers, and players now face their own choices, choices which will certainly determine the outcome of this story. Some of the decisions that could alter the course of events are: Will game development companies take steps to improve working conditions? Will developers in the industry attempt to stand up to such companies and to the industry as a whole through legal action and/or unionizing to demand reform? Will gamers stand with the developers by boycotting companies engaged in unethical practices? Even though these issues are nothing new, the current focus on the events at Telltale presents a distinct catalyst for change.
The fate of the adventure game genre is also at stake. While there are a handful of companies still developing adventure games, including some started by former Telltale employees, they are a fragile few. The decision by a group of LucasArts developers to found Telltale Games helped continue the genre and evolve adventure games into what they are today. Their new beginning gave them the freedom to innovate. Now, the career decisions made by the former Telltale developers could similarly determine the future of adventure games. Whatever they decide, this could be a turning point for the future of the genre, and hopefully for the working conditions in the gaming industry. Whatever the outcome, gamers, developers, and future generations certainly “will remember” the choices that are made in the coming months and beyond.