I’ll believe it when I see it
Last week’s Game Awards were full of lots and lots… and lots of announcements, but one that particularly stood out to me was the trailer for Telltale Games’ return with their new title The Expanse. It’s a bit jarring to see the studio’s name nowadays, like it’s the zombified corpse of a once dear friend.
When I was a little baby gamer who really loved story-focused games but didn’t have the mechanical skills to play anything else, Telltale was my go-to. From the tough but lovable characters in The Wolf Among Us to the kickass licensed soundtrack from Tales from the Borderlands, they’re still some of the most stylized narrative experiences you can find in games today.
Telltale was beloved not only by me, but basically the entirety of the gaming community, so I think I can speak for just about everyone when I say we were devastated to hear that the studio was shutting down in 2019. I also watched the Noclip documentary about the breakdown of the studio, which made the heartbreak of it all the more palpable.
If you aren’t familiar, Noclip is a production company that makes crowdfunded documentaries about games. In May of 2019, they released a near hour-long film interviewing some of the former Telltale employees about the company’s final days. They speak of backbreaking crunch, poor leadership who bit off more than the studio could chew, and the constant looming threat of layoffs and closures. Many of the employees were completely blindsided by the news that the studio went under, who were told that they only had thirty minutes to gather their things and exit the building after the meeting.
Anyone who was on social media at the time of Telltale’s closing, though, will remember the outpouring of love and support for the former Telltale developers on social media. Plenty of game companies made posts directed specifically at those affected by the closure, as they could provide them jobs at their own studios. Even the release of the Noclip documentary was cathartic, as one developer wrote in the comments on YouTube: “As another Ex-Telltale dev, thanks for this. This provided so many of us with some serious emotional closure, thank you.”
So I was shocked to hear in December of that same year that Telltale would potentially return with a second Wolf Among Us game. Surely they had rallied up everyone who had been fired and reformed the team to keep going, right? Nope. The name and rights of the studio had in fact been sold to LCG Entertainment, a new holding company that had been formed in an attempt to revive the brand. “There is still a huge fanbase of Telltale players and that’s one of the main reasons we decided to make this investment, said LCG co-head Brian Waddle, while at the time only hiring back a few, if any at all, of the previous Telltale developers.
In fairness, there’s a chance that LCG has in fact brought the former devs back on board, but there hasn’t been much coverage of the topic since the initial media storm died down. So that brings me to my main point: as far as we know, henceforth all of the Telltale games we’re going to get will be with a team that is at best mostly new to the brand, and that makes me skeptical beyond all belief. Recapturing the magic of the originals is difficult enough as is, but that’s made even more difficult when you’re missing major players that made our favorite games what they were.
I’m not saying that a new group of people won’t be able to make awesome games, it’s just that something about Telltale’s return leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Maybe it’s the part of me that was also hurt from a project I cared about getting shut down with little warning, but something feels wrong about the previous devs being unceremoniously let go, just for all of their work and assets to be sold to the highest bidder, who can then use that to ride the coattails of the name that they worked so hard to build. It’ll be hard to enjoy something new if it feels like it was built on top of the graveyard of the thing I loved.
That initial hit of dopamine when we see our favorite developer’s name flash across the screen can be addicting, but every once in a while I want us to stop and think about how that name got there in the first place. I want us all to be able to play amazing games all the time, but I also want them to be created in the healthiest, happiest, least-exploitative way possible, and regardless of the sketchiness of the current Telltale situation, the evocation of its name alone should be enough to make us stop and think.
Besides the labor practices, I also just want them to make good games that are fun to play and pay homage to the Telltale formula while also iterating on it. We’ve launched into a new console generation since the studio’s shutdown, and the fans and the namesake deserve only the best if we’re going to do this again. If we must revivify the corpse of Telltale, then by god, just make it good.
One encouraging moment we also got from The Game Awards, though, was a trailer for the narrative adventure game Star Trek: Resurgence from a new indie studio called Dramatic Labs, whose team is comprised of former Telltale employees. If they weren’t able to be rehired by the LCG, it’s heartening to see that these devs are still out here making the types of games that they love. I’m glad they can return on their own terms.
The current team at Telltale recently released a short update, but it was cryptic at best, and focused entirely on the games rather than the teams making them. From where we stand, there’s really no way to know the full story, unless some of the former or current devs speak out more substantially. Part of me is curious to give the new titles a try when they come out, but until then I’ll definitely be taking everything they say with a grain of salt. Shutdowns can happen out of nowhere.