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It took me a while to warm to Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead, an entire game series built around two of my least-favorite mechanics: quick-time events and dialog trees. Yippee. Pass the digital Ambien.
What eventually brought me around, and prepared me for an even better use of the system in The Wolf Among Us, was a change in thinking. A lot us make pleasing noises about narrative and character elements in gaming, but the truth is that gameplay comes first. The telos (purpose, or end) of a game is the play. The narrative is what gives the play resonance and depth, and forms the binding element, but the key thing is what you do.
Telltale’s latest work inverts that, finding a way to place the narrative first, while making the gameplay merely a driving element.
All of the screen-scanning, gathering, talking, and fighting work are just fine, as long as they stay out of the way. Make it more complex, and the narrative stalls. Place it in a game with poor writing and no cinematic sensibility, and the gameplay is merely laughable.
Serial, episodic games are a welcome addition to videogame storytelling.
But place it at the service of storytelling skill that is equal to the best we’re seeing on television these days, and it works like a dream.
Television is the most appropriate analog, particularly as it’s grown more sophisticated in the post-Sopranos, post-Lost, Breaking Bad era. Television’s embrace of serial storytelling—lavish plotlines, deep characters, and serious world-building spread out over dozens of hours—is giving the medium new heft.
The Wolf Among Us nails this sweet spot, creating a noir mystery light on action and heavy on character, atmosphere, and story, then ending with that most tantalizing tease: “Next time on….”
We’re seeing the flowering of something great here: a game you return to once a month or once a week for a new two-hour installment. As TV matures in its mastery of this serial format, so will games, and at some point, the two will merge into new forms of mainstream entertainment.