A Farewell to Telltale

Opinion by Mark Delaney,
There's a post-hardcore band named La Dispute whose lyrics deal regularly in real-life tragedies. One such song has the vocalist singing about how he's watched everyone around him suffer losses in their lives and how he's anxiously waiting for his turn, knowing it's unavoidable. The stakes aren't nearly as high as losing loved ones or suffering a terrible tragedy, but I couldn't help but think of that message when I heard the news of Telltale's impending shuttering. For years, I've dodged directly feeling the blow of a studio closure. As a gamer and just a human being, I feel for the losses of jobs, stability, and creative opportunities that irremovably accompanies the event of a game studio permanently closing down, but miraculously none of them have even been so close to my heart. That was the case until this week.

As you likely know by now, all but 25 people have been laid off at Telltale Games. Citing a brutally difficult past 12 months and poor sales, the company that seemed to be quietly teetering on the edge of closure has now fallen over that cliff. The fate of the 25 remaining employees is publicly unknown, but different rumors point to them staying on to wrap up a few obligations, at which point they'll sadly be let go too.

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In retrospect, the writing was so clearly on the wall it feels a bit silly to be stunned by the news. They had just laid off 90 employees last November, at which point they announced a company shift to making "fewer, better" games. They released the third season of The Walking Dead as The New Frontier rather than calling it season three, which was at least a sign that they wanted people to feel they could jump on and not lose much of the story. They re-released the entire The Walking Dead series to date, recolorized and offering new achievements, but overall it was a collection that felt unnecessary at the time. Even the latest ongoing season of the series, dubbed "The Final Season," featured just four episodes instead of the usual five. This final season even shifts back to the series' main star, Clementine, after season three left her in the background for much of the story. It reads as though they saw the end coming and diverted back to Clem to give fans a satisfying send-off, which leaves season three permanently weird.

These subtle maneuvers, viewed in the context of this week's news, tell the story of a studio desperate to remain afloat. Time ran out, and today, as developers scramble for employment and other studios heroically come to their aid with #TelltaleJobs on social media, presenting job opportunities all over the industry, fans are coming to terms with the news as well.

As others demand developer unionization, decry Telltale's treatment of its employees, and band together to get these free agent devs into comfy new studio chairs, I root for them all in each of those endeavors. The industry is quite obviously long overdue for unionization, and I think the silver lining of Telltale's closure is it feels like the event that could truly set that in motion in ways that have not been done before. Their ex-employees are vocal on Twitter about mistreatment by the higher-ups, mentions of unpaid overtime and the industry's gross reliance on "crunch," or in other words, 16-hour days six days a week for several months. There are a lot of angles to this story and hopefully a lot of good will come out of it. I really believe that's true.

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For me, this marks the first time I can recall ever really feeling gutted by the news of a studio closure. Through sheer coincidence, none of my favorite studios have closed up shop in this way. There have been some that came close, recently saying goodbye to Visceral, creators of the Dead Space series, or even Dead Rising's Capcom Vancouver this very week, both stung quite a bit, but I've mostly been fortunate enough to merely look on as others wallowed in sorrow at the sight of their favorite game creators disappearing. It's never easy, and one can always sympathize with the suddenly jobless and their fans that miss them, but not until it happened this week was I really able to empathize with others who have lived out this far too common story thread in this industry.

As we say our goodbyes to Telltale Games, all I can do is look back fondly on the studio that brought me and my family so many memories. Their post-2012 catalog wasn't for everyone. As rather simple story-driven adventure games, some argued they're not games at all. Not only is this argument absurd, but it's also irrelevant. Telltale's last half-decade of output reimagined what family gaming night could look like. How involved the gameplay portion felt to some didn't change the fact that for me and many others, Telltale was a collection of creative people that birthed characters and stories we'll remember forever. My siblings and I played through the first two seasons of The Walking Dead together, as well as The Wolf Among Us. Making decisions together, anxiously waiting for subsequent episodes to release, laughing, crying, experiencing all the ups and downs, season after season, series after series. It brought us closer and did so with an approach no one else was really doing at that time.

As years went on, some things changed. I moved across the country, and began playing Telltale's work with my partner, but discussing choices with my brother back home was still a big deal — in fact, to this day I can't agree with the decision he made at the end of season two of The Walking Dead and I remind him of this. Last night, we were playing PUBG when I broke the news to him. It genuinely shook him up and took him out of his game for several rounds. My partner adores their work too and she's taking the likelihood of an abrupt cliffhanger for The Walking Dead as especially frustrating news, while of course recognizing it's not how any of the creators wanted it to end either. For some, it was LucasArts, or Midway, or Irrational, or Disney Interactive, or countless others. It's a story everyone experiences eventually, the loss of a studio that feels crucial to who you are and what you love about video games. I'm finally feeling it myself this week and — surprise! — it sucks.

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But I refuse to think it's all bad. With the unethical practices being shared by these newly unemployed devs, the hope is they can be the spark that lights the industry ablaze with cries for unions and better treatment of its workforce. Few studio closures have been this high-profile. More pleasantly, these developers are now free to find new homes in the industry and bring their love for narrative-driven video games to new offices, new platforms, new players. We've seen former Telltale employees depart before and go on to make awesome new titles like OXENFREE and Firewatch. Telltale was an imperfect experiment with video game storytelling that worked out more often than not. They rose from being a quirky point and click game studio to a household name working with some of the biggest IP in the world. As details continue to come out about how we got to this point, fans do their best to look back on how Telltale inspired us, delighted us, brought us to tears, and showed us characters and worlds we thought we knew from whole new perspectives. Players will remember that.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.