The excitement and concern around the revival of Telltale Games

Telltale Games, much like its former flagship franchise, refuses to die. Telltale has been reanimated with investment capital and met with mixed feelings. As a fan, I couldn’t be happier. As a person concerned with labor practices in the game industry, I am much more cautious.

Fan squee!

THE WOLF AMONG US. This noir investigation into the hideous underbelly of a scummy 1970s New York was a rorschach test written in blood.

BATMAN: THE ENEMY WITHIN. Anthony Ingruber’s Joker deserved a place in the Joker Hall of Fame, right next to Heath Ledger and Mark Hamill. I’m not kidding. He’s that good. If you don’t believe me, play it.

The previous seasons of these Telltale licensed franchises were some of my favorite moments in all of gaming. Now, they might get the sequels they deserve. Even if we just got more of the same graphics and systems, with a cool new plot, I would’ve been satisfied.

But when you look at The Walking Dead’s excellent final season, you can see that Telltale was stretching itself creatively and reinvigorating its formula. The environments were painfully gorgeous. The facial animations, writing, romance, and voice acting were top notch. Its combat sequences were imperfect, but you could see the possibilities like deeper systems for Batman and Bigby.

Both franchises ended on cliffhangers, promising bigger choices written with more drama. The Walking Dead is fully complete and the license has reverted to Skybound, and that’s fine; Clementine’s story is complete.

But now there’s a chance that we’ll see another Batman, another TWAU. As a fan, I’m psyched. I know they won’t be exactly the same - many of the old writers and designers are gone - but I’d love to see these stories continue.

Labor grimace...

Telltale did their staff dirty. Management crunched their employees hard. Earlier, smaller layoffs came with severance, but after the final studio closure, Telltale dumped their staff with no warning and no severance.

I understand that new management has nothing to do with the old management. But that’s an even better reason to try to find a way to do right by the old team. These are the people that worked themselves to the bone to create a name that was worth buying and reviving. They are owed something. It’s been a year, so many of them have moved on, so it’s not like they could rehire the whole studio.

In an ideal world, there would be some kind of severance pay, even a month’s worth. It would be an acknowledgement that, yes, we know that you helped build this. I also realize that this is probably a total fantasy.

Some of the old staff members are getting freelance jobs. I can’t imagine that there’s a ton of job security or benefits available. Is it better than being unemployed? Sure, but only marginally. That argument leads to a race to the bottom, and that’s a practice that should not be encouraged.

In an ideal world

Telltale’s management should invite Game Workers Unite into their company and have them organize and unionize their workforce. GWU is not a union, but can connect workers to the alphabet soup of local unions that exist in every major city. No, there isn’t a game workers union yet. But the United Auto Workers organized The Strand bookstore in NYC - give a union organizer a chance, and s/he can make a union shop out of any business.

Jamie Ottilie, one of the new studio heads, said “we’re working very hard not to make similar mistakes” to the old management. One of Telltale’s first and worst mistakes was crunching the hell out of their employees. Their last was laying off everyone with no severance or insurance. A good, strong, collectively bargained union contract can prevent these things from happening. Do you want to avoid the mistakes of the past? Prove it. Vague promises are cute. Union contracts mean business.

If there isn’t enough investment capital to hire workers and treat them ethically, then someone in upper management made a terrible miscalculation. If you can’t make games ethically, then you shouldn’t be making games at all. No matter how much I want them.

In terms of the gaming market as a whole, the new Telltale needs to accept that the market has grown past the adventure game genre again. Tacoma didn’t see nearly the same success as Gone Home. Sea of Solitude passed with little fanfare. Even Life Is Strange, the other standard bearer of the adventure game genre, doesn’t seem to have the same fan engagement as the first season.

But people are still hungry for stories and choice in gaming: look at the breathless enthusiasm around Cyberpunk 2077 and Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines 2.

Despite my earlier harsh words, I think Ottilie could be on the right track creatively. He mentioned binge watching and new pacing structures of episodes. This is vague but good news. Even the best Telltale games had seriously weak moments, filler episodes, and choices that seemed utterly irrelevant. Don’t make us wait months for episodes - give us the whole thing, upfront, and let us playthrough it over and over and see all the potential choices. The new Man of Medan does this, to great effect.

Telltale needs IP of its own. Licenses for IP like Game of Thrones, Batman, and The Walking Dead were expensive that makes it harder to turn a profit. Indeed, there are rumors that most of Telltale’s games were flops. Original IP isn’t weighed down by the cost of a license, and you can break free from the creative constraints of other writers’ timelines and ideas. While I’d love to see Telltale’s licensed IP end with a flourish, rather than whimper, I’d be willing to let those series go if it meant original, sustainable IP and better working conditions for their workers.

And I think, in the end, it’s up to us, the gamers, to make our voices heard on these issues. Some have suggested boycotting “new” Telltale. I wouldn’t go that far. But I think journalists and the general public should watch Telltale Games very closely. How are they treating their workers? Are they crunching them? Do they have benefits? Job security? A severance package in a worst case scenario?

No matter what happens next, gamers should remember this.