The Rise of Story Games: Telltale Games and Episodic Gaming

How has Telltale Games changed the way we think about storytelling and gaming, and what does the future of story games hold?

From my perspective, video games have always been telling great stories. The games I played growing up like Final Fantasy X and Kingdom Hearts were known for their intricate stories. How convoluted has the Kingdom Hearts franchise gotten over the past few games? Seriously. 

With the rise of new types of gaming over the last few years, people outside the RPG world have come to learn the joys of games focused on storytelling. I've previously discussed why episodic gaming is great for grown-ups, but today I'd like to discuss another added benefit of episodic gaming: focus on storytelling. 

Telltale Games has made a name for themselves in the last few years by making episodic games based on popular franchises like Jurassic ParkThe Walking Dead, and most recently the Fables comic series.

Storytelling in Video Games

While many companies have made games based off movies, books, or comics in the past, Telltale's approach of making their games story-oriented appears to be the mark of their success - for good reason. 

In video games, unlike literature or cinema, the player is the subject of the game (for the most part). You're not watching someone else beat up the bad guys and save the kingdom, you get to do it yourself which heightens the overall effect a game's story can have on the average player. 

The reason most players want to play games based off of intellectual property (IP) is to continue experiencing the world they are a fan of. Like Star Wars? There's a plethora of games ranging from Knights of the Old RepublicStar Wars BattlefrontStar Wars the Force Unleashed, to Star Wars Episode I: Racer that allow you to engage with the Star Wars Universe in various capacities. 

However, what many games based on intellectual property overlook, is that many people's favorite movies, books, and comics make fans want to interact with their worlds because of the storytelling. People don't just want to experience their favorite worlds, they want to get caught up in the stories - be a protagonist - in the worlds they love. 

Episodic Gaming

That's where Telltale's approach begins to truly demonstrate its brilliance. By focusing on story-telling games in conjunction with IP, Telltale is able to give many players what they truly crave: true insertion into the IP they love. 

When you play Telltale Game's The Walking Dead, you're not inserted into a Left 4 Dead or World War Z type of game where zombie killing and survival is the foremost goal (although it is). Instead you're dropped into a world where characters, relationships, and actions are the key to your survival - just like a regular episode of issue of The Walking Dead

You're playing in the world, in a brand new story, and your decisions matter. This decision-based game mechanic not only puts the player into the character shoes, but it also puts the player in the shoes of the storyteller - allowing the player to choose how their story will play out (within the game confines). 

Similarly, Telltale Game's The Wolf Among Us lets players enjoy the world of Vertigo Comic's Fables by giving them a new story in the world of Fables that the player is inserted in and controls. On the Telltale Games website itself there is an emphasis on storytelling, the description of The Wolf Among Us says:

"Your choices matter and will change and define the story you experience."

 The user defines the story and their own playing experience, giving them the perfect avenue for which to explore their favorite properties. 

Tales of the Borderlands

Tales from the Borderlands, while offering the same game mechanics and storytelling focus that Telltale Games has become known for, is slightly different from previous games mentioned. While The Walking Dead and Fables are properties involving a high level of story-telling, Tales from the Borderlands is based on the Borderlands video game series - where the player is already inserted into the game-world. 

By offering an episodic game based on an already prominent game franchise, Telltale Games is allowing players further access into the history of Pandora, and also demonstrating that there are gamers out their crying for games with more storytelling depth. 

While games like the Mass Effect trilogy or Heavy Rain have lauded for their focus on narrative, the average AAA property still hasn't made too many advances in adding advanced storytelling into games. 

The Future of Story Games

By offering a story-centric Pandora experience, the development of Tales from the Borderlands offers an oblique critique that the average gaming narrative isn't enough for discerning players. Players, as a whole, just want more. 

Does this mean that storytelling should become the primary focus of games based on IP? No. Going back to the Star Wars examples, there are many different types of Star Wars games that offer players different types of access to the Star Wars universe. Knight of the Old Republic grants you access to the narrative, Star Wars Battlefront grants you access to the epic battles, and Star Wars Episode I: Racer grants you access to pod racing. 

However, this does show that there is a growing demand for games that offer in-depth narrative access to worlds previously only accessible through fighting or even puzzle-solving. 

Published May. 8th 2014

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