Toonstruck, Telltale, and Ken Williams

Recently I was chatting with friends about this article: Toonstruck (or, A Case Study in the Death of Adventure Games)

It’s an interesting retrospective, especially for people like my friends and me who grew up on Sierra and LucasArts adventure games but lacked the perspective to understand the genre’s decline in the mid-to-late 90’s. It pins at least part of the downfall on an adherence to a vision of games as interactive cinema, as championed by Sierra’s Ken Williams. Toonstruck in particular was an overoptimistic overinvestment in this vision that went way past deadline and over budget (though this write-up also makes it sound pretty fun and makes me want to finally get it off my backlog and play it).

In our conversation, my friend asked me, “With some distance, what do you think about Telltale’s attempt at a revival?” I turned out to have a lot to say about this.

I was going to start by saying I haven’t actually played any Telltale games, but that’s not quite true. I just haven’t played any of the ones people think of. I played Poker Night at the Inventory (very much not an adventure game), Puzzle Agent and Puzzle Agent 2 (kind of adventure games but not really, closer to Professor Layton-style narratively-wrapped puzzle compilations), and the first two chapters of Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (an early not-super-well-known-or-regarded part of the revival).

That said, there are a couple different angles to address here. First, one of the major flaws of the Ken Williams vision as described in the Toonstruck write-up is that at the time, making that kind of game was more expensive than making movies and had much worse-looking results. Neither of those things is anywhere near as true anymore. Tech has advanced on both sides so that kind of game would be much easier and cheaper to make now and people could more easily view it on nice big screens in high resolution with lots of colors and stuff.

There’s a sort of rising-tide-lifts-all-boats effect from tech advancement in games. I think my friend said this before me, but as a rule of thumb, anything that’s AAA today can be replicated by a small indie team in ten years and by a single person in another ten. So as games-in-general become more mainstream and it becomes easier to reach niche audiences, it’s inevitable that things that used to be AAA mainstays and then declined get revived as indie/niche later on. I’d expect to see most once-popular genres eventually get reborn with proportionally smaller teams and lower budgets but similar (or even superior) levels of quality.

Adventure games absolutely did that, even aside from Telltale. Telltale just ended up being maybe the best-known studio for it. Which brings us to the second angle I want to get into: Telltale’s specific approach.

The first few adventure games they made (Sam & Max, Strong Bad, etc.) got some notice because they were licensed IPs with built-in fanbases. But my understanding is that their gameplay, writing, and puzzle design was actually basically… standard/middling. The effect was just: here are some more adventure games. That genre you knew is back now. Not evolved over the intervening time, except in that the tech has improved and they used the episodic model. So the games were only ever going to appeal to the people who’d already liked adventure games as they’d previously existed. Which is very much a niche, especially in today’s larger market with more alternatives. (Even I only played the first two episodes of Strong Bad.)

And then Telltale made The Walking Dead.

This was significant in a couple of ways - one, it was a currently popular property rather than a nostalgia one, so it got the attention of more new players. And then, those players (as well as reviewers/influencers/tastemakers) liked what they found and talked about it, because it also had a shiny new gameplay formula.

This is where it becomes relevant that I haven’t actually played any of these games, because I can’t speak from experience. But my understanding is that The Walking Dead moved its focus from puzzles to characters, relationships, and consequences. It was less about vacuuming up items and then clicking everything on everything else, and more about getting to know these characters and then making choices that have effects on them that you then get to see play out (which also meant that the episodic setup actually became beneficial instead of just a quirk of the business model). The writing was also quite good, as it would need to be to actually support that formula effectively.

The game was a huge success. And it was superficially similar to adventure games of yore, and Telltale was that company that makes adventure games, so it kind of got lumped in as one in the popular consciousness. But I feel like this is when Telltale actually pivoted from just “doing the old kind of game again” to pushing the format forward.

The Walking Dead looked around at what you could do in the modern landscape with modern tech and actually took advantage of it. It was like, “Hey, we can have voice acting and animations where you can actually see facial expressions and body language. We can actually tell emotional stories now and not just rely on jokes that work in text.” (It also did some internet stuff on top, I think? I want to say there was a thing where when you finished a chapter you got to see how many people made the same choices you did, which was good for social media and helped the game spread farther.)

So, this is the game that made Telltale blow up… in both senses, as I understand it. What happened was basically the same thing that happened at Halfbrick after Jetpack Joyride, and probably at many small studios that had a sudden hit. The sudden success attracted people who smelled money rather than sharing the creators' vision who then pushed the company into going all-in on trying to catch that lighting in a bottle again and milk it before it ran out.

Telltale rode on a great reputation for a while just on the strength of that one game. While I haven’t played them, my understanding is that Telltale then basically started churning out more games with the exact same formula as The Walking Dead for various other licenses, and there was a period where people assumed they’d be good because The Walking Dead was so good, but largely they weren’t. I’m sure different people would give you different rankings but I’ve heard that basically the only other good game they made was Tales from the Borderlands. (And maybe The Wolf Among Us.) The later you go, the more universally their games were considered bad, and ultimately they shut down.

Telltale veterans are now at other places doing things like Star Trek: Resurgence. (From their FAQ: “Star Trek: Resurgence is created by Dramatic Labs, an independent collaboration of 20+ former Telltale writers, developers, designers, artists, and producers. Star Trek: Resurgence will be familiar to fans of Telltale’s unique style of gameplay, but it also brings some welcome additions and refinements from Dramatic Labs.” I’m really keeping my fingers crossed for this one.)

There are still standard-bearers for the Telltale-like evolution of adventure games. The most notable are probably Quantic Dream (Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, Detroit: Become Human), Supermassive (Until Dawn, The Quarry), and Dontnod (Life is Strange, etc.) These studios don’t usually get lumped in with Telltale, for a few reasons, but honestly I think you could reasonably argue that the natural categories here are old-school Sierra or LucasArts point-and-clicks in one bucket, and Telltale/Quantic/Supermassive/Dontnod/etc. in another bucket that hews much closer to Ken Williams' vision of the future of adventure games.

It’s also worth noting that there are other buckets here: hidden object games are another evolutionary offshoot that change up the emphasis in a different way and which have been thriving in their own niche for quite a long time.

So, Telltale brought adventure games back into the mainstream spotlight and then faded away, but the revival itself started before Telltale and has outlasted it. There are still other small studios making old-school adventure games, in that niche-rebirth way I mentioned before, and others making other niche offshoots like hidden object games. And other larger studios took notice of the ways The Walking Dead actually did evolve the formula and have continued to push that envelope in their own ways. Even if most people don’t think of the results as “adventure games”, I think they’re showing that Ken Williams’s vision was ahead of its time and is now coming to fruition with exciting results.