I’ll be honest with you. I’d fallen out of love with Telltale Games. I’d been spurned one too many times before by the seemingly unfair contortion of my choices. Probably the worst example would be Game of Thrones, which at every turn seemed to have no regard for the player, despite how many strings they were pulling.
Some may attribute this to the harsh realm of Westeros, but something was just a few marks off. Games aren’t designed to give us ultimate freedom, but when you demystify the illusion of choice by showing me how the cogs turn, everything falls to the wayside.
This is why when my finger hovered over the checkout button for A New Frontier, the developer’s history flashed before my eyes. Sam & Max, Tales of Monkey Island, precursors that managed to capture the joy of the puzzle-laden adventure games of yore with a nice thick splodge of great writing worked into its pores. Since then, Telltale have been inconsistent but perhaps more successful.
Whilst I can’t sit here and tell you I regret playing any of their games, it feels like since they’ve started down this new path, what they define as ‘free will’ in their narrative has been slowly but surely taking a nosedive.
There are no more puzzles that require intelligence beyond ‘connect x with y’ and the games are sold on how they adapt to your playstyle. This doesn’t mean that the quality has suffered, usually they still spin a meaningful tale, but they’ve been characteristically devoid of that special something that I’m looking for.
We can look at games like The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead, diamonds in the licensing rough, utilizing the cult favourite comics to tell an exciting story. Telltale Games can’t give you that limitless freedom you crave, that’s impossible, but what makes it a bad game is when you feel alienated from the narrative because of a distinct lack of agency.
It’s that sinking feeling when you realize that whatever you did, maybe over a few episodes to push in the other direction, it didn’t matter because the game had its cards on the table before you even booted up.
“Games aren’t designed to give us ultimate freedom, but when you demystify the illusion of choice by showing me how the cogs turn, everything falls to the wayside”
With that, I’d like to move on to the third season of The Walking Dead. Perhaps regarded as one of the finest contemporary point and click adventure games, Season 1 introduced gamers to a new medium of storytelling in the palms of their hands.
Weaving an intricate tale about the end of the world with well-voiced, complex characters, Telltale chose to throw away the canon and introduce the world to Lee and Clementine. A bold move, and easily one of Telltale’s best.
Despite being fabricated in studio, these two are perhaps the most memorable characters in Telltale’s modern library. Established characters are limited by what we already know, but with a blank canvas, we can push boundaries and tell difficult stories that were once just hiding in the forgotten corners of a zombie infested America.
Why should Rick and his small group get all the credit, anyway?
Flash forward to 2016, and Season 1 is collecting dust. It’s been 4 long years, but the grave choices I made that shaped the childhood of a young girl still play fresh in my mind. The survivors Clementine met, the bonds she’s made and lost, and the trauma she’s endured are all worn like armour both by myself and the character I was controlling. From father figure, to the girl herself, and now… Javi.
“The survivors Clementine met, the bonds she’s made and lost, and the trauma she’s endured are all worn like armour both by myself and the character I was controlling. From father figure, to the girl herself, and now… Javi”
Season 3 starts on apocalypse eve, introducing you to the Garcia family, and our new player character, a young, former professional baseball player disgraced after betting on his own games, and being decidedly absent during his father’s illness. A fateful night of reanimation and distress would then set him out into the unknown, leaving him with his brother’s wife and their two daughters in his care.
Before this point we’ve never played a character who didn’t have a direct relation to Clementine, but already, after finishing the first two episodes I’m feeling like I know him, and can empathize with his way of life.
A rough relationship with his brother creates problems between him and what’s left for his family, and the introduction of Clementine coaxes this narrative dilemma. Javi has no reason to give a shit about this young girl lost in the apocalypse, but the player certainly does, and the way Telltale plays with that notion in this game is fantastic.
What’s more important, your own life and family, or your previous bond with this series’ poster child? Each decision starts to hold weight in a completely new area, one built on provenance, and fresh tracks that no point and click has really dared to cross just yet.
Telltale could have quite easily had you play as Clementine, or even just create a bland NPC for you to express your love through, but Javi is limited by his experience, when you are not. You have to decide how far to inject your own feelings into this game, which is something I’ve never really experienced in this much depth in a Telltale title.
All I want is to make sure she’s safe, to put her on the straight and narrow, but this unique perspective forces you to take a difficult angle when making decisions, some of which are the best this genre have seen. I need to keep Javi and these young children safe, but what about Clementine? She’s older now, and has her own ideas and way of life that you helped to mould, so when she’s in danger, it’s even harder to bear.
Ties That Bind feels like a lesson in parenting as well as a compelling opening tale in its own right, from both a player and developer perspective. Eventually, you have to let go of the ones you care about so they can live their lives.
“Ties That Bind feels like a lesson in parenting as well as a compelling opening tale in its own right, from both a player and developer perspective. Eventually, you have to let go of the ones you care about so they can live their lives”
Beyond the story, the game also excels in its art direction. They’ve decided to stick with the line art and the cartoon visuals that made it so outspoken back in 2012, but refine it into something beautiful.
This is easily one of the most unique, aesthetically pleasing titles I’ve laid eyes upon, and it makes Batman (which only concluded in December) stick out like a sore thumb. Overgrown buildings and rugged characters fall prey to a delicious new lighting engine that bathes them in a radiant glow, exposing unique detail in a world left to the call of nature.
The gameplay is the same old situation, with dialogue choices and quick time events making up most of your time, but this is simply the formula which Ties That Bind weaves its compelling story around.
Whilst I would like to see some actual puzzles, and I do think it’s a bit of a pointless effort to include an inventory system in a game that doesn’t let you manage it, I understand that it’s a natural consequence of Telltale’s focus on human stories and emotion.
Luckily, the game doesn’t try and shoehorn in puzzles like Batman does with its painfully obvious ‘connect evidence to cause’ detective mode. It just replaces them with set pieces and moral dilemmas that keep you engaged, and fog that part of your mind dwelling on the futility of your choices.
Like I’ve said, I don’t expect freedom, but I want to be entertained with illusory agency, and thankfully, there hasn’t been a moment yet when I don’t feel like I’m there, trying to survive in a dangerous world.
The big moments will shock you, and the discourse will tantalize you about what’s in store. The only thing I wasn’t too keen on was the introduction of an established character, but because of their malleable appearance, I still have trust in the writers that they won’t let the licence get in the way of an excellent story.
The only thing I wanted when Episode 2 concluded was more of the same, and I can’t wait to follow this story as it develops.
This copy of The Walking Dead: Season 3 was purchased by our Editor-In-Chief, Jordan Oloman. He spent 3 hours navigating zombie diplomacy.