PAX 2012: We Pick Telltale Games' Brainz

by Sam Kemmis

Telltale Games has a booth (if that’s the appropriate word for a zombie-infested No-Country-for-Old-Men-style motel) at PAX, which is great because they are quietly revolutionizing gaming. Ahem. What was that?


If you haven’t played a Telltale game: Do so. If you were a fan of Lucasarts adventure games: Definitely do so. Even if you’re not a video game person: Do so. Telltale has managed to bridge the gap between intelligent storytelling and compelling gameplay, and the results are nothing short of revolutionary.

I pretty much geeked my pants, therefore, when I got to meet with The Walking Dead project leads Sean Vanaman and Jake Rodkin. I wanted to know what they thought happened to the adventure games of yore, and how Telltale was able to resurrect the moribund genre.

“Classic Lucasarts and Sierra games used the same mechanics over and over,” Sean said, noting that the adventure game audience turned in on itself, so that games were being developed for adventure game geeks, not gamers writ large. The mechanics became so enshrined that, “If you couldn’t combine inventory items in a game, it was off.”

In addition to (or because of) this trend, adventure games got higher-value treatment to keep up with the rest of the field, but failed to keep pace in terms of sale. “As games got bigger, they stopped being responsive.” Jake said.


Telltale has circumvented this problem by overhauling the way story-driven games are released. Instead of selling full games for $50 a pop, Telltale releases episodes of each game. Like comic books, this approach lets gamers pick and choose which games they want to play to completion, and it allows developers to build stories that meander rather than sprint.

Indeed, Sean said that the art direction on The Walking Dead specifically went for the drawn quality of the graphic novels rather than photo-realism. “It lets us being evocative in the way we want,” he said, pointing to the exaggerated facial expressions of the characters throughout the game, which would seem campy if portrayed by L.A. Noir-style wax dummies. And while the old Lucasarts games may be outmoded by the Telltale model, they remain influential. “Full Throttle was definitely the biggest influence for The Walking Dead,” Sean said. “No question.”