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Retro Review: Telltale Games and the Art of Choosing Your Adventure!

Hello again, and welcome to the Retro Review!  We’ve had a bit of a hiatus lately, but we’re back and this time we are going to talk about the art of choosing your own adventure.  This concept is nothing new, though the medium has changed over the years. Choose Your Own Adventure books (published by Bantam Books) was a very popular series of books published from the late 1970’s through the mid-1990’s.  These books were unique in that they were written so that the reader could not only assume the role of the protagonist, they could control their decisions.  Most books were gender neutral and each story allowed a pivotal decision early on in the book, usually with the first few pages of story set-up.  Though the books varied in length, they offered no clear path as to what the correct answers would be and boasted upwards of 30-40 different endings!  Many of these story lines ended terribly for the reader, but that was the beauty of the book.  Much like a gaming experience, this experience allowed the reader to become an active participant in the action.  Until these books were released, movies or books were primarily a passive experience, and much like any roller coaster the reader or movie-goer was just along for the ride.  With Choose Your Own Adventure books you could now take an active role in the path of the adventurer, and the idea of “replay” value in a book was unlike anything we had seen before.

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From Maniac Mansion to Chrono Trigger to the Mass Effect series, the art of creating your own destiny has been a trope in gaming for years, and becomes more and more intricate with each console generation.  Decisions you make early on play out in completely different story lines, adding emotional weight to decisions that might otherwise seem trivial. A decision to spare or kill off certain playable characters or entire NPC alien races could have severe consequences in a storyline that doesn’t play out until the second or third game in Mass EffectHeavy Rain, the 2010 PS3 exclusive allowed the player to control multiple characters over the course of the game, many of which you could actually “lose” (read: I got them killed) before the end of the game.  This happened to me, because I’m terrible at QTE’s (quick time events) and that game was full of them.  I ended up accidentally killing off half of the playable characters and was left with what was most definitely the worst ending possible!

In regards to choosing your own adventure, Telltale Games seems to be the king of the hill at the moment.  Where these games differ from others in terms of choosing your path is that these games rely on it as their sole storytelling device.  Unlike games like Mass Effect or Chrono Trigger, there is little traditional role playing in Telltale games.  You are not modifying your physical attributes or stats in The Wolf Among Us, or gaining more and more powerful weapons in The Walking Dead series.  Instead, it’s almost entirely story driven, with almost every decision you choose to make (or not make) at least appearing to alter the course of the story.  Of course, not all of your decisions can have a ripple effect, but Telltale does a fantastic job of getting great voice actors and excellent dialogue to create emotional weight for most every decision you make.  Do you want to save the prince in The Wolf Among Us?  Your decision will change how the rest of the series plays out.  The Wolf Among Us is based on the Vertigo comic Fables, and the game was admittedly what first exposed me to the series.  Since I’ve played the game (which consequently plays out as a prequel to the comic series), I’ve since gone out and purchased most of the trade paperbacks to complete the story I began in-game.  The game and books that follow ask the question “What would happen if you actually transposed these fictitious characters from our books into the middle of New York City?”.  Out of all of the Telltale games, I would list The Wolf Among Us as the most surprising and enjoyable.

As far as overall Telltale game play and depth, the award for best in show goes to The Walking Dead series, hands down.  Even if you’re not a fan of the show, the game offers much to be enjoyed in terms of story and replay value.  Over the course of two seasons and a third on the way, The Walking Dead offers players a chance to play more than one complicated protagonist in the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.  Events in the game occur alongside the beginning of the outbreak, coinciding with the first season of the show.  I was more engaged playing this story than any other Telltale game to date, though I’m admittedly a huge Walking Dead fan.  The writers did an excellent job of making every decision difficult and at least appearing to be consequential.  It may not have had The Last of Us or Bioshock Infinite‘s level of emotional gravity, but I’ll admit I had a lot of feels after playing both seasons of The Walking Dead.

Last, and in my opinion, least, is Telltale’s Game of Thrones series.  The Game of Thrones series is the most recent release with the fewest episodes to date, so my view on the series may be somewhat unfair.  The overall game play in Game of Thrones is similar to the other titles listed above, and it was nice to see the characters in-game being voiced by their on-screen counterparts (not always a luxury games have).  However, minor changes in the UI were distracting and though I’m also a big fan of the Game of Thrones television series, I have yet to get as invested in the playable characters, because everyone in the game is a jerk and difficult empathy has long since left Westeros.

Choosing your own adventure is not a new concept in books or gaming, but it is a very engaging “genre” when done well.  Telltale is one of many companies out there producing games in this category, with excellent examples on every console released since the original NES (Nintendo Entertainment System).  The books in this genre were a great find growing up, giving me a chance to assume the role of fantastical characters and hundreds of story lines.  Likewise, games have given us the chance to escape for a moment and slip into the shoes of our hero, if only for a moment, before getting back to the hustle of real life.  If you’re in the mood for a change of pace, something that you can pick up and put down quickly when you’re short on time, take a shot and choosing your own adventure.  If you don’t like it, just try a different path next time!

Stacy dabbles in the dark side of the force and uses science to teach students to be Batman. When not speaking science he is scouring the internet for information that will probably spoil his favorite movie before it comes out. Little happens in the respective worlds of Star Wars or Batman that he is not aware of. And Han shot first.
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