NVM Interview: Telltale Games on Interactive Storytelling's Evolution, Episodic Videogames, and Minecraft: Story Mode
Telltale Games has become one of the foremost creators in interactive storytelling. With series like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Minecraft: Story Mode, not only is Telltale changing the kind of stories that are told in games, but the way they are told as well. Telltale is a great example of a modern developer making itself historically significant by evolving games as a medium–in their case, in terms of storytelling in video games. In anticipation for Minecraft: Story Mode Season 2, we had the opportunity to speak with Telltale’s Job Stauffer about Telltale’s approach to creating stories in games, the upcoming Minecraft: Story Mode Season 2, working with popular properties, the episodic formula and how they feel story in games has and continues to change.
The first episode of Season 2 launches on July 11th
NVM: So, you have Minecraft Story Mode: Season 2 releasing…
TT: “Yeah! We’re doing a second season of Minecraft: Story Mode. We did our first, we announced that in 2015, and had an amazing run with five episodes that became eight episodes. And now we’re gonna go full on in with a Second Season.”
How many episodes do you have planned for Season 2?
“It’s gonna be five. Can’t quite commit to or announce anything beyond that but we love making those and we love working with Mojang. It’s super awesome to be working with another game studio that we’re just fans of. You know, in 2012, after The Walking Dead was doing pretty well and getting a lot of attention. We were at an awards show, and after the awards show, we were getting drinks with Randy Pitchford and the guys at Gearbox Software, who had done really well and won some awards for Borderlands II, and we did for Walking Dead–we were all good friends just working in the games business. We got to talking, you know, what if we worked together, and made a game based on your game? And they were like ‘Oh man! That’d be awesome!’ And you know, one thing led to another, and then we have Claptrap in our Poker Night game, and then we’re doing a full on Borderlands game. And at the same time, we’re also big fans of Minecraft. We were all playing it in the office and playing it with our kids and playing with family at home…So, we just dropped an e-mail over in their direction. Just asked if ‘Hey, not sure if you know our stuff, but if you guys would like to talk…’ It didn’t even take 20 minutes for us to get e-mailed back, and it just said ‘Hell yeah!’”
Wow! So Mojang seemed thrilled to jump at the opportunity to work alongside you?
“Yeah, so we met up at GDC, and one thing led to another, and as it turns out, they were big fans of Telltale, big fans of The Wolf Among Us–and yeah, after that we just kind of clicked. It’s awesome to be in this position where we get to work with not only the biggest and best storytellers in the world; the guys at Marvel, Skybound, DC…but also the best game developers in the world. So we’re excited to work with Mojang again for Season 2!”
For the new season of Minecraft: Story Mode, is there a new direction, whether in story or gameplay that you’re trying to take the series, or should we expect more of what we know and love from the first season?
“Definitely doubling down on these relationships that you’re having with your friends. Friendship is kind of one of…Friendship, survival, and crafting are kind of the core of Minecraft and playing together. Learning how to survive with your friends…There’s the story arc with Jesse in Season One of going from a hometown nobody to being the hero that saves the day and is now the mayor of the town–and what is it like when your friendship dynamic changes with your core group of friends over time, and how do you navigate that? Those are life lessons that younger players are learning all the time and we continue to learn as adults. There’s gonna be a lot of that happening in Season Two. Obviously a lot of off the wall action and humor. A lot more instances where the story is digging into the lore of Minecraft. Lots of surprises and ultimately just a lot of good family fun.”
Friendship, survival, and crafting are still the core tenants of Minecraft in Story Mode
Telltale seems to have become this premiere studio for doing these episodic, story focused games. A lot of different places are handing these licences over to you work with, which is great, because Telltale has really revitalized and changed the way that a lot of licensed IP are treated in video games.
“Well, that’s the thing, is that nobody really ‘hands’ anything over to us. We wouldn’t really say that we do licensed video games. We don’t. We forge creative partnerships with these studios and these developers. It’s not about having the license to Minecraft, or Guardians, it’s about working with Marvel and working with Mojang. Especially working with like, HBO on Game of Thrones, or Skybound on Walking Dead. It works because we’re all speaking the same language as storytellers. We think about script first and story first…and we’ll write a script and we’ll have table-reads and we’ll think about what’s happening in the story. And typically, when, in the world of games, when there are “licensed” games based on big properties…It’s kind of about taking things about a story and turning it into a different kind of game. You know, taking this universe and turning it into a shooter, or taking this universe and turning it into a puzzle game. But for us, it’s ‘No, let’s take that universe, and let’s make that universe interactive. Let’s tell more of that story in that universe.’ So, it’s really–we don’t consider it to be licensed work. It’s deep, creative partnership storytelling.”
That’s so interesting. I can sense that Telltale has a lot of pride in that, and the pride you have in being part of these partnerships and the work that goes into creating these complex and interesting stories really shines through in all of your games.
You’ve been doing the episodic structure for a while now. What do you think it is about that structure that appeals to people in a way that more traditional, single installment games might not?
“I think it’s appealing to me personally, and to a lot of people that enjoy the episodic structure, is that it makes gaming a little more consumable? Especially for mature audiences or people who might not have enough time to sit down and invest 60 hours in the next Skyrim game, as awesome as that may be. I always liked the idea of games that I can start after dinner and finish before bed–games that respect my time as an adult. Just like going to a movie! If games are sort of feature length, it becomes more consumable. What’s great is, you don’t feel like you’re missing out. There’s no FOMO! You feel like you can keep up and play something tonight, and then talk about it with your friends right afterwards or the next morning at the water cooler. Being able to divide it into chunks also gives us the ability to incorporate feedback. So, when you start a Telltale series, there are things that happen over the course of the development process that are really driven by reactions from the fans. We’ve changed certain story lines and certain aspects of all our narratives based on what we’re hearing from the audience because we’re developing them live. We start with one, we’re already working on two, and we know where we’re going with the final episode. Although as feedback comes in, what happens in three, four, and five, they can obviously become very different from what we originally intended. But it’s still not always about giving the audience exactly what they want, it’s about staying one step ahead. Delivering on things that they love, but continuing to subvert their expectations.”
The heart-pouding drama of The Walking Dead brought Telltalle to the forefront of interactive storytelling.
Has Telltale had any particular influences, whether it be in games or any other media, for the way that you present and develop your stories?
“Yeah, it’s interesting. It really depends on the stories we’re trying to tell. It’s very easy for the industry to kind of ‘singularize’ Telltale as one genre, and that’s so far from the truth. We’re a multi-genre studio. HBO and Netflix, or Amazon, are actually huge influences on us. Studios that are forward thinking, very digital audience minded, but also thinking about groundbreaking entertainment and narrative that can span any genre. Building Telltale into more of an interactive TV network, we have games that sort of feel more like shows for different audiences. We have our sci-fi action comedy, like Guardians of the Galaxy, or Tales from the Borderlands. We have our harrowing apocalyptic undead drama that’s really mature, like Walking Dead. We have epic fantasy in Game of Thrones. Family driven action-comedy with Minecraft. These are different genres of video games, so, continuing to think as storytellers in the way that a lot of TV networks that inspire us do, helps us remember that when story defines the gameplay, it’s story that defines the genre. Just like watching TV, you’re watching different genres of television with every different show. I think with gaming, it’s easy to say ‘Oh Telltale is point and click. Oh Telltale is this one genre.’ but we kinda span it all. That’s kinda how we see things.”
Has there been any partnership that has been particularly challenging? Whether it be incorporating the franchise you’re working with into the video game story, interactive space or otherwise?
“Every single one of them is challenging. It’s by no means an easy task for any of us. But we’re fortunate enough to be in a position where the partners are so great that they all make it very easy for us. And they give us the tools and we’ve earned the trust, and that’s a big part of working in this environment and working with these partners creatively as opposed to just making ‘licensed’ games. The space is there for us to be doing great things and having trusted partnerships with these amazing storytellers, and it takes a lot of blood sweat and tears and passion to really make it all sing. That’s always hard, but it’s always worth it.”
Telltale and HBO teamed up for a six episode Game of Thrones series
Interactive games have evolved so much as far as these choice-based games and how many different dots you connect with each choice goes. Can you speak to how that’s evolved from your earlier stuff to what you’re doing now?
“I think that Telltale. For the last…13 years, we’ve been driving towards finding more of a singular format that we could eventually hone in on and kind of iterate and iterate. Things kind of started as very throwback to the LucasArts era where there was a lot of point-and-click, moon logic puzzles and things that made sense to a really core audience of players that knew that things don’t always make sense when you’re trying to advance a story. Moving away from that over the years into a format that makes logical sense for people that maybe don’t consider themselves gamers or play games and makes emotional sense on an interpersonal and relationship level. That’s kinda where we’ve taken it, where this format is now a platform for interactive drama, and interactive comedy and interactive sci-fi–as opposed to building games that would push players along in a story and completely lock them for hours. People would get stuck and they couldn’t progress the story. I think that’s been the biggest chance for Telltale–is over the years getting to the point where our format is now able to bring in any audience and lower that barrier to entry into video games. That makes us incredibly proud, when we hear that people that never play games…Like for instance, my Mom, huge George R.R. Martin fan, and we were doing Game of Thrones. She’d never played a video game in her life, but she would download that onto her iPad and she totally understood how to control an interactive, scripted narrative–and that made me proud. Being able to welcome everyone into video games through story is what really drives us, keeps us passionate, and keeps us doing what we’re doing.”
That’s amazing. You guys are doing such incredible work here, and it’s so impressive to watch Telltale grow and continue to innovate in the space of interactive storytelling and video games.
“Thanks! It’s been quite a ride, so as long as people keep playing it, we’re gonna keep making it.”
Minecraft: Story Mode Season 2 will release on July 11th, for Windows, macOS, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, iOS and Android.