While a "majority studio closure" isn't the same as bankruptcy or "complete studio closure", the decision to lay off all but 25 employees of the once 400+ workforce that made up Telltale Games certainly represents the end of an era and - depending on how things play out - we could still see the company filing for bankruptcy or shutting down.
With that being the case we thought this would be the right time to look at the studio's legacy, the games that have been released over the years that have delivered innovation, and the incredible range of subjects covered in their games. It should be noted that Telltale Games also had a publishing arm (which is now on hold), although this article focuses specifically on the games developed at the studio.
Humble beginnings - Post-LucasArts era
Telltale Games was formed by three former LucasArts leads - Kevin Bruner, Dan Connors, and Troy Molander - back in 2004. The trio had been working on a Sam & Max game at LucasArts when it was cancelled in early 2004, and so they set up shop on their own. The first game released, Telltale Texas Hold Em, was meant to test the Telltale Tool, the engine that came to define the studio. It was clear from the beginning that licenses were a key component of the Telltale formula; they licensed Jeff Smith's comic Bone and created a couple of standalone titles, and they teamed up with Ubisoft to release four CSI titles (2006, 2007, 2009, 2010). Perhaps most notably they also struck a deal with LucasArts to license Sam & Max, which resulted in three games, with the studio also teaming up with LucasArts for the episodic Tales from Monkey Island.
Game Spotlight: Sam & Max Save the World (2007)
Sam & Max proved that Telltale could do justice to a license, and while nothing will compare to the pure irreverent joy of the LucasArts original, Telltale did a fine job of capturing the zany spirit of the comic books by Steve Purcell. After snapping up the rights following LucasArts' cancellation of Freelance Police, Telltale went on to craft three episodic series based on the exploits of the canine detective and has rabid rabbit sidekick.
Commercial Breakthrough and New License Strategy
Licensing had always been a big part of Telltale Games' strategy, but the deal with Universal to create episodic releases of Back to the Future and Jurassic Park upped the ante. All of a sudden the stakes were higher, and where previously Telltale had been proud to say that sales of 100,000 would make their games profitable, working with Hollywood talent and big licenses obviously changed that.
Game Spotlight: Back to the Future (2010/2011)
The Back to the Future trilogy was in many ways the quintessential 1980s film franchise (even if the third part landed in 1990), providing a brilliant look at how the future and past was perceived during the decade, with Michael J. Fox delivering the signature character performance of his career, Marty McFly (sorry, Alex P. Keaton and Mike Flaherty). With no hope of a fourth film, the closest thing we've gotten is the Telltale title that was a collaboration with co-creator Bob Gale and featured some of the original talent (Fox did a couple of cameos, but did not voice the main Marty McFly). It's a traditional adventure game in many ways, and it was fairly light on the puzzle elements.
Path Chosen - The Walking Dead
The big break for Telltale Games came with The Walking Dead. In many ways it was a watershed moment for the industry, as up until then the sort of episodic narrative games Telltale had been doing were seen as niche releases at best. Now, however, they entered the big leagues, and in many ways The Walking Dead formula would inform how future Telltale titles were designed, with choice as the main gameplay mechanic.
Game Spotlight: The Walking Dead: Season One (2012)
The first season of Telltale Games' The Walking Dead saw a man named Lee take care of a young orphaned girl called Clementine as the zombie apocalypse brought about the collapse of society. The game offered a strong narrative focused on characters and relationships, and while there were puzzle elements, the main mechanic here was clearly the choices you'd make during the conversations between characters. The game not only saw commercial success but garnered Telltale numerous awards and Game of the Year considerations.
Licensing comics had always been part of the Telltale formula, from Bone and Strong Bad (from webcomic Homestar Runner), and The Walking Dead was, of course, the poster child for this strategy. However, the license deal for The Walking Dead was struck along with another comic license, Bill Willingham's Fables, back in 2011.
Game Spotlight: The Wolf Among Us (2013/2014)
This largely overlooked game represents some of Telltale's best work. For some reason, the combination of a dark, sarcastic world, along with meaningful choices and strong characters was a great fit for the studio. It's interesting to note that accounts from inside the studio note that they really struggled with the concept, and that it took a very long time to arrive at what was ultimately a very successful final product.
Telltale would go on to release much more of The Walking Dead, starting with the bonus episode 400 Days (2013) and continuing with season two (2013/2014), the three-part mini-season about Michonne (2016), and the third season, A New Frontier (2016/2017). What's more is that, back in August, the first episode of the final season of The Walking Dead appeared too.
Telltale takes on other video game licenses
After TV shows, films, and comic books, what would be more natural than to tackle video games from other developers and give them the Telltale treatment? A deal was struck with Gearbox to adapt their highly successful co-op loot 'em up Borderlands into an episodic narrative adventure called Tales from the Borderlands, as well as Mojang's Minecraft, which to a large degree meant that Telltale were given a blank canvass to work with.
Game Spotlight: Tales from the Borderlands (2014/2015)
Another somewhat overlooked title out of the Telltale library that we'd like to highlight is Tales from the Borderlands. It turned out to be a rather hilarious "big fish tale" rollercoaster ride with more plot twists than we can count, also showing off a new-found flair from the studio turning intros into musical bits (reused for Guardians of the Galaxy to great effect). It allowed Telltale to show off their comedic touch while keeping a high pace and lots of action throughout.
Game Spotlight: Minecraft: Story Mode (2015/2016)
While the phenomenon that is Minecraft has a life of its own, many were scratching their heads at what Telltale Games would make of the license. As it turned out they created a light-hearted adventure starring "player character" Jesse and his/her friends, which was in many ways a huge success for the studio, providing them with a different audience than the one they created through The Walking Dead and its similarly mature-themed brethren. It may not represent Telltale's finest work, as the word "basic" was thrown out by one of our editors, but it's a key title and a milestone. The first season got extended beyond what any other episodic Telltale title has - a total of 13 episodes with the adventure pass - and got a second season in 2017.
Doubling down on DC Comics and Marvel, Netflix and HBO
With the success of The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, there was natural interest from other parties to team up with Telltale Games. After all, the format they pioneered lent itself incredibly well not only to consoles and PC, but also to mobiles and tablets. Deals were signed with DC Comics to adapt Batman, and with HBO and George R.R. Martin to adapt Game of Thrones, while Marvel signed a deal for Guardians of the Galaxy. Later on Telltale would strike deals with Netflix to create a game based on Stranger Things, while Netflix would distribute interactive episodes of Minecraft: Story Mode and potentially other Telltale titles (and even if this is said to be the one thing Telltale will continue to work on, pretty much everything is a question mark at this point).
Game Spotlight: Guardians of the Galaxy (2017)
The story goes that out of all the potential Marvel licenses Telltale could hunt, they went after Guardians of the Galaxy. It made a whole lot of sense, since there's a group of characters, a universe to save, and a light-hearted comedic element. We really enjoyed the game, as it had a bit more exploration and more puzzle elements than some other recent Telltale titles even if it continued the trend of relying heavily on conversation choices. The season structure meant a focus on one character for each one, and the strong themes made for a memorable ride.
The Lost Telltale stories
There is a great risk that we won't see an end to the final season of The Walking Dead. A devastating blow, but that's not the only unfinished or unreleased project Telltale Games would leave behind. The long-awaited second season of The Wolf Among Us has been cancelled outright, and a second season of Game of Thrones was put on ice in 2017 (now being completely cancelled). At one point Telltale Games also held the King's Quest license, but it's unclear whether any proper work was ever done on a Telltale King's Quest, since Activision pulled the license back and had The Odd Gentlemen do their take on the Sierra adventure classic. The Stranger Things game is another casualty, and hopes of seeing more of Tales from the Borderlands are slim at best.
In 2015 Telltale announced plans of a "supershow" concept, combining a TV show format and their interactive formula for games. Lionsgate invested, but what was to be the first "supershow" was a new intellectual property never got out of pre-production. Given the size of the company at its peak we suspect there are more lost projects and plans for sequels that never got off the ground; such is the nature of game development after all.
It is with a heavy heart that we sum up the accomplishments of Telltale Games. We know their games weren't without flaws, and perhaps they should have relied less on the formula that proved successful in The Walking Dead (Telltale Games fatigue was a real thing), but their legacy and the change they've brought to the industry will live on in the work of others. This week, we'll pour a cold one and boot up the second and potentially last episode (we haven't given up hope of some sort of rescue) of The Walking Dead's unfinished final season. Cheers, Telltale!