As the studio seemingly winds down for good, it’s important to remember what they did for modern gaming.
Adventure games are some of my all-time favorites. I was more of a LucasArts guy than a Sierra guy, but both studios made incredible stuff in the late ‘80s through the ‘90s: The Monkey Island series, Space Quest, Sam & Max, King’s Quest, Full Throttle, etc. They were smart and, in an era where video games had never been thought of as comedies before,often funny. They were also successful by any and all metrics.
Until they weren’t.
Telltale was doing everything it could to bring adventure games back into the mainstream – they just needed the world to listen.
As gaming moved into the third dimension, adventure games, by and large, didn’t come along for the ride. And so they were left behind, with layers of dust gathering on them. They were forgotten, seemingly bound to a specific time and place in the industry’s history. That is, until Telltale came along.
But what many may not remember is that Telltale didn’t come out of the gate with the wind at their back. The Northern California company — founded by Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander and headed by ex-LucasArts veterans like Dave Grossman (whose credits included Day of the Tentacle and Monkey Island 1 and 2) — wanted to make adventure games but they hadn’t quite figured out how to make them for a 21st-century audience yet. Their big idea was episodic; they were sure about that. They started with traditional point-and-click fare like a Sam & Max revival and adaptations of known properties like the graphic novel Bone and the claymation series Wallace & Gromit, finding more critical than commercial success in the early-going.
They adapted and evolved, continuing Guybrush Threepwood’s adventures in a new episodic Monkey Island series, bagging the Back to the Future license, and even landing the rights to Jurassic Park to make a (not particularly good) adventure that took place on Isla Nublar following the events of the first film. Telltale was doing everything it could to bring adventure games back into the mainstream — they just needed the world to listen.
Telltale’s The Walking Dead was watercooler-talk-worthy every time a new episode dropped.
Enter Sean Vanaman, Jake Rodkin, Robert Kirkman, and a new approach to Telltale’s games. Jokes were traded in for drama, laughter for emotion. Telltale’s original season of The Walking Dead took the exact right approach to the exact right franchise at the exact right pop-culture moment in time. Lee found Clementine, frightened and alone, in the treehouse at her parents’ house in the premiere episode, and suddenly Telltale’s The Walking Dead was watercooler-talk-worthy every time a new episode dropped, right up through the duo’s heartbreaking last meeting.
Awards and Game of the Year nominations (including from Tech) followed, and Telltale continued to play it smart with their new winning formula. They adapted the Fables graphic novels into one brilliant season of The Wolf Among Us, partnered with Gearbox on the stellar Tales from the Borderlands, gave us our first true Bruce Wayne game with their take on Batman, and more. Telltale had done it: they’d successfully revived adventure games. You could play them on PC, consoles, tablets, and smartphones. They were everywhere, enjoyable by anyone. They weren’t perfect, by any stretch: their game engine should’ve been replaced years ago, and they probably spread themselves too thin after they found success. But the adventure game genre – and indeed video games in general – were better off because of Telltale, and I will always remember the company and the incredibly talented people who worked there fondly for that.
Ryan McCaffrey is Tech’s Executive Editor of Previews. Follow him on Twitter at @DMC_Ryan, catch him on Unlocked, and drop-ship him Taylor Ham sandwiches from New Jersey whenever possible.