Telltale Games Shuts Down: An End to Storytelling Revolutionaries

What made Telltale unique also contributed to its downfall.

On September 21, USgamer reported massive layoffs within Telltale Games, the award-winning video game studio that revolutionized storytelling for the entire medium.

Hundreds of employees were let go from the San Rafael, California-based offices, effectively canceling nearly all the studio’s still-in-development titles, including one based on Netflix’s Stranger Things and a second installment of Game of Thrones, based on the HBO juggernaut. A “skeleton crew” of over 20 are left behind to complete work on Minecraft: Story Mode for Netflix. Existence of that project was first reported by TechRadar in June 2018.

The closure of Telltale Games has rocked the games industry, kicking off larger questions about the absence of unions for video game employees and corporate responsibility. Kotaku reported on Monday that former employees will not receive severance pay, which sparked anger on social media. The hashtag #TelltaleJobs is allowing former Telltale employees to promote their credentials.

While branching storylines based on player choices were not new when the studio’s breakout hit The Walking Dead (based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series) first released in 2012, Telltale immediately developed an enviable reputation for prestige-grade narrative games. And its distribution model, which behaved like actual television with a set number of “episodes” for “season,” was at once a revelation and perfect for the binge-era.

But what made Telltale unique also contributed to its downfall. An earlier round of big layoffs in November 2017 led to an investigation by USgamer, where anonymous sources from within the company revealed a culture of “crunch” that led to employee burnout. “The mentality was work harder, faster, and for as long as you can to hit your milestones,” a source told USgamer at the time. “Churn and burn.”

The dependence of licensed IP from comic book publishers and film and TV studios also proved to be a “hindrance,” one source said. Heavy rewrites often accounted for as much as “80 percent” of a game’s development.”[Sometimes] team leadership would push through [with rewrites] anyway for one of many reasons — time, prestige, actual belief in subpar ideas,” one person told USgamer. “And it would always come back on them in the end. We’d always eventually fix the product. But late fixes were deeply disruptive.”

The Walking Dead: The Final Season, the long-awaited finale to the studio’s trilogy of video games set in the same universe as the popular zombie horror comic book, will be left incomplete with Episode 2 (out of five total) as the final episode.

What’s next: Episode 2 of The Walking Dead: The Final Season is available now. Reviews are calling it “emotionally painful” and “bittersweet.”

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