Why the Telltale’s Game of Thrones series has been ten years in the making

Rumors of the Telltale-helmed Game of Thrones series came to fruition this weekend at Spike’s VGX awards. The accompanied trailer revealed next to nothing aside from confirmation that there would be a game and, well, that’s about it. Telltale’s CEO Dan Connors suggested that the game was in the earliest of stages, lacking, most notably, characters.

In addition to the announcement of Tales from the Borderlands, the release of season two of Walking Dead, and the Fables-inhabited The Wolf Among Us, it’s clear that Tellatale has become a studio on the rise. More importantly, they seem to be utterly unimpeded in the realm of story-driven episodic experiences. This, of course, begs the question: in an medium so rife with copycatting, why hasn’t (with the exception of Tim Schafer & Double Fine) anyone else stepped in?

…an infinitely branching array of consequence and meaning…

The answer lies in something called the Telltale Tool. We don’t talk much about game engines at Kill Screen. Not exactly our jam. But part of what’s allowed Telltale to adapt licenses so well is the investment in technology that facilitates the creation and transmission of story-based games. I discussed this allocation of resources in my PBS episode of Game/Show this week. While other creators invest manpower and resources to focus on graphical capabilities, Telltale, led by its CTO Kevin Bruner, has focused their attention at creating better stories.

The point is that the problem with Telltale’s output hasn’t been how they’re telling stories, but what stories they’ve been able to tell. Universes like Jurassic Park and Back to the Future don’t stir with the same gravity as The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones. It seems that Telltale has finally lined up their technique with their ambition.

One of the clearest manifestations is the collection of rigorous statistics on collective decision-making that informs how story will ultimately roll out in each title. The Walking Dead was “a game that analyzes itself,” Bruner told us. “We have thousands of data points on what [players] did in certain circumstances that help inform our creative process.” This helps to make every player choice in the game feel important.

And that makes all the difference. Telltale smartly realized that choice is what makes story effective and those choices can be leveraged by authors to push players to make difficult decisions. The end-result, as Bruner told me, is a Holodeck-like experience where every element in the game-world is customized to your particular choices, an infinitely branching array of consequence and meaning.

Telltale seems to have taken Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to heart: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

Or maybe what ever it is that the White Walkers have.