The gaming industry is an innately subjective field, where everyone has their own flavor of entertainment. Simple, complex, 3D, 2D, sport, role-playing, arcade, or open-world, games vary immensely from one another, but do you know what nearly ALL of the highest rated games of the past thirty years have in common?
From Super Mario to Uncharted, Zelda to Grand Theft Auto, compelling story-telling has always been at the root of gaming’s greatest compositions. Heck, even Pong tells the tale of the bitter rivalry between the left paddle and right paddle families. Over the past five years, the game developer Telltale has released a slew of engaging narrative experiences, rooted in some of pop culture’s most captivating fictional worlds. The Walking Dead, Borderlands, and Game of Thrones are just a few of the huge franchises that Telltale has used as a foundation to give us expanded story telling and character development in the worlds fans already know and love. The success of these games have given the gaming industry exactly what it needs, a reminder that the art of story-telling must not be forgotten. Telltale’s games have received numerous awards and high rated reviews by avoiding cliche gimmicks and continually focusing on character development, player investment, and overall powerful storytelling.
Character development is the meat and potatoes of a good story, and Telltale’s games revolve around players molding their character and witnessing relationships rise and fall. Throughout all of Telltale’s episodes, players see their character happy, sad, angry, and watch them mature all together, even if sometimes for the worse. But a good story takes more than a protagonist, and Telltale’s villains and supporting characters are sometimes the most interesting part of a series. Whether it involves a fellow apocalypse survivor who is in desperate need of supplies or a short-tempered frog who has a son to protect, Telltale’s stories always have a deeper layer of context. As a player traverses throughout the world, they become increasingly invested in the world as the characters grow and the story evolves. It’s that feeling of caring about what happens next, and to whom it happens to, that’s one of the payoffs for having great stories in our video games, something that the simple mashing of buttons could never provide on its own.
Player Decision Making
What makes Telltale’s storytelling more than just a show you watch with a controller in your hands is the scope of their games’ decision making. Yes, every video game has some type of decision making. Should I use this weapon or that weapon? Should I use stealth or rush in? Should I be bad at Call Of Duty or just mediocre? But Telltale uses a decision making formula that makes the player think twice before making their choice. The mechanic involves two simple components, a depleting time bar that races down every time the players prompted, and a reaction pop-up at the top of the screen that gives the player immediate, but brief, feedback regarding the consequences of their actions. The depleting time bar adds a sense of panicked urgency to the decision-making. There’s been a lot of times in my play throughs when I was prompted to speak but couldn’t completely make up my mind in time. Being rushed with this sense of urgency turns “what do I want to say/do” into “AHHH I DONT KNOW WHAT TO PICK THIS IS TOO MUCH IM GUNNA RUIN EVERYTHING”. The reaction pop-up that gives the player some instant feedback will sometimes contain phrases like “He believed you.”, or “She is happy you said that.”, and other times the prompt is more questionable, saying things like ”She will remember that” or “He noticed your anger”. These prompts add an extra level of immediate concern for the player. She’s going to remember that? Why? When? What did I just do? FORGIVE ME! I WON’T BE AS ANGRY NEXT TIME, I PROMISE! Since Telltale gives player choices so much weight, involving sometimes literal life and death situations, these big decisions make player feel responsible, since their decisions from a game’s beginning to end can influence nearly every aspect of a character’s storyline. This ultimately makes them want to play on, much like watching a television series where you just need to know what happens next, especially because what happens next is based on the trouble YOU caused throughout your play through.
Yes, there are video-games with great stories and much more functionality than dialogue decisions and button prompts, but Telltale games has continually proven one thing that other developers don’t even attempt. That, if you do it right,
All you need is a story.
Incident, Action, Climax, Action, Resolution. Plain, simple, and to the point.
By pairing basic decision-making game mechanics and popular fictional worlds with a well written story full of characters both easy to love and whom we love to hate, Telltale has crafted a masterful storybook video game genre that reminds the entire industry of how powerful the art of story-telling is.
Have you played any of Telltales games? What did you think? Do you think a good story is important in video games? Let’s start a discussion in the comments down below!
Author: Alex McNeal
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