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Monday, June 20, 2016

12 Series Telltale Should Adapt Next

Edited by Robert Beach 

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Another E3 has come to an end, and even though I’m not a video game blog (I leave that for my day job), I am a citizen of the Internet. Thus, I am aware of the goings on in the nerd domain.  There wasn’t much comic book-related stuff coming out of this E3, but we did see some interesting stuff about Telltale Games’s new Batman game.  

While many folks love their morality test set-up, I had trouble contextualizing it before I realized what kind of games I’d like to see it deployed in. I’m more on board with Telltale now compared to the past, even though I’m not a big fan of them doing a Batman game.  As such, I came up with 12 series that would really benefit from a Telltale game; let us list them. 

Starting out in the realm of comic books, Hellboy and his adjacent universe of Lord Baltimore, Witchhunter, and the B.P.R.D.are all incredibly ripe for video game adaptations. Hellboy’s heavy nature is perfect for brawling, and the B.P.R.D.’s massive history is rife with historical eras for great settings. Both comics impress with a sundry collection of bizarre, compelling monsters. 

Why I think it would make for a great Telltale series is the complex relationship Hellboy and the other members of the B.P.R.D. have with the various freaks and monsters they hunt down. I’m drawing a bit more from the films than the comics for this as the films emphasized the idea a bit more. But the thing about Hellboy’s universe is how much his existence and action acts to destroy the world he emerged out of. Being forced to destroy the various creatures of the mystic world only serves to further isolate him in the world.

All of the B.P.R.D. members have similarly conflicted natures, like Abe Sapien’s struggle to define his identity between his past humanity and his role as a harbinger of the next race. Liz Sherman has always held a tenuous control of her powers and is informed by guilt over the destruction they’ve wrought. Even Professor Bruttenholm has a unique role in this universe as Earth’s lone protector and head of a massive organization while also father to someone who could annihilate reality. There’s real conflict there that isn’t automatically informed by pragmatism like a lot of Telltale’s previous iterations. 

Another "monster hunter"-type franchise, this one is much more informed by detective work rather than action, which would be a perfect fit for Telltale. So far the Telltale game I most enjoyed was easily The Wolf Among Us. That was owed to the detective elements, which fits Telltale’s slow boil morality play set-up much better than anything else they’ve done. It just makes sense that solving a mystery would be a better setting for moral choices and deliberate gameplay. The X-Files would be a great place for those forces to converge in unique ways.  

Much like Hellboy, the X-Files emphasis on fighting monsters and government conspiracies comes tinged with elements of complexity all their own. As often as not, the monster the agents are chasing down will end up to be something human with an identity and personhood all its own. Bringing that idea to the surface, highlighting Mulder’s obsession and Scully’s analytical detachment could be a great way to inject the humanity that was missing from the recent revival.  

Additionally, the bigger government conspiracy angle is fertile ground for questions of transparency and truth. This came up in the show as well: the question of whether or not the Syndicate and its various machinations were really in the public’s greater interests and whether or not Mulder and Scully were actually causing more problems than solving by intervening. If you wanted to highlight that, especially in a decade that’s come to be defined by questions of government transparency, you could turn out a really great subversion of the X-Files core identity. 

This might seem like a weird addition, but the central morality at play at the heart of The Day the Earth Stood Still would be a perfect fit for Telltale’s set-up. To be clear, I’m referring to the original Day the Earth Stood Still rather than the remake. Although the newer version wasn’t that bad, it just didn’t have the same gravitas and evocative dialogue of the original film.  

However, I think the linear nature of the central narrative would be an interesting element to incorporate into a Telltale game, and there’s enough within the plot to make a game out of the proceedings. If you don’t know the story, it’s about an alien named Klaatu who comes to Earth in the wake of the development of the atomic bomb and determines that we’re too war-like to be left unsupervised. It’s a trippy concept and gets into some heavy stuff about human brutality, our fear of the other, and even applying religious conceptions upon the alien.  

It was the first major story since Superman where the alien visitor wasn’t trying to destroy us, but bring us peace even if that peace was enforced by a killer robot. The story’s emphasis on the worth of human civilization, an exploration of our cultural achievements and ugliness, and an ultimate decision being made on whether or not we can be trusted to make our own decisions would perfectly fit Telltale’s emphasis on ethical decisions as a driving game force. 

Getting pretty obscure with this one, Southern Bastards is an excellent independent comic from superstar author Jason Aaron and brilliant artist Jason Latour. It’s a gritty crime comic set in the deepest part of the Deep South and exploring ideas of masculinity, violence, and heritage in excellent fashion. It’s one of the best books currently being published, and it’d be incredible for Telltale’s adaptation. I’ll get to Southern Bastards’ moral stuff later. Just off the bat, the artwork of Jason Latour is perfectly suited to the cell-shaded rendering style of Telltale’s games.  

The Telltale system of environment and character modeling emphasizes big color and clear definition that speak to a heightened, impressionistic vision of reality that would suit the visual style of Latour’s artwork in Southern BastardsAside from fitting the artistic requirements, Southern Bastards is loaded with questions of morality, identity, and pride can collide in violent fashion.  

It’s an incredibly brutal comic that’s all about the evil we do to each other and to ourselves. What’s more, the book is filled to the brim with great characters to follow and is thoroughly willing to break from a single point of view, which would sit well with Telltale’s episodic game structure. Throw in the more fantastical crime elements of the series, and this could be a real winner. 

This one feels so obvious I’m genuinely surprised Telltale hasn’t already tried to make this one. Telltale’s episodic structure pairs perfectly with The Twilight Zone’s short story narratives. The Twilight Zone’s ironic fate twists would be a great complement for Telltale’s morality tests. 

I suspect that particular element is part of why Telltale has been more hesitant as most Twilight Zone episodes didn’t really hinge on a character’s moral choices. By the same token, the structure of a Telltale game is that your choices don’t have an impact on the precomposed narrative, so it could be worked around. 

Given the plethora of well-known Twilight Zone episodes, you could craft a game around which corner of The Twilight Zone the player is going to fall into as befits their uniquely ironic fate. Structuring the game around an opening sequence where the player cements their twisted ironic fate would be a good use of the “multiple endings” gimmick that’s often so tedious in other games. What’s more, the black and white color set-up would be a great moody enhancement of Telltale’s visual style. 

Well, this is probably going to sound like a weird one. If you don’t know it, Timecop was a 1994 sci-fi movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme that was, in turn, based on a comic book published by Dark Horse. The story is set in a distant future where time travel has been invented and immediately picked up for criminal and terrorist use. To combat these incursions in time, the Time Police was formed, a law enforcement agency that travels through time correcting attempted changes. It’s a crazy, high concept idea that was endemic to the slick and glossy blockbusters of the ‘90s. It remains a really great idea for a series and fertile ground for a reboot. 

Cop fiction matches Telltale’s set-up on a multitude of levels. Firstly, the gamified investigation set-up is a better answer for Telltale’s non-morality game elements than the QTEs they usually use for chases or fights. Secondly, police situations are some of the best suited for moral quandaries owing to the unpredictable nature of the justice system, the aggressive human ugliness of crime, and the intoxicating power of getting to BE the law. Any one of these questions could make for a great central concept for a story. Throw in the backdrop of time travel and all of history to draw from, this could resurrect the Time Cop franchise in a terrific way. 

Another comic turned movie, 30 Days of Night was a hit vampire comic that became a beloved vampire movie about a group of monstrous vampires preying upon a town in Northern Alaska that’s bathed in darkness for 30 days out of the year. The comics were popular enough to spawn a whole vampire universe set-up. Aside from a great astronaut story, the Alaska stuff is the only one that I think would make a great Telltale game. 

See, I didn’t really like Telltale’s Walking Dead games. I’m aware that everyone else in the world loves the hell out of them, but I always found their moralism compromised. This could just be my own ethical stance. In a situation like the Walking Dead where the world has fallen with no hope, all morality basically HAS to take a backseat to pragmatism.

Asking those same questions of survival, the ends justifying the means and the strong’s relationship to the weak, would work like gangbusters in a situation that was definably temporary like 30 Days of Night. In 30 Days of Night, there’s an unquestionably set time limit for the vampiric infestation, but the vampires are infinitely more brutal and deadly than zombies. The question stops being about prolonged survival and just surviving till the end of the month, which makes the question of morality far more worth exploring and complex. 

I am an unapologetically big fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I’m hard pressed to say exactly why I like the story as much as I do, but there’s something about its bizarre blend of 1800s sci-fi, the uniqueness of having a morally complex genius like Captain Nemo be Indian, and the fact it predicted/inspired the submarine. Either way, it’s fertile ground for broad and epic storytelling tinged with unique sci-fi aesthetics and worthwhile moral questions.  

Captain Nemo is one of the most compelling and unique figures in early genre fiction and positioning players in a situation where they’re caught between the nobility of his existence beneath the waves and his bloodthirsty piracy is a great way to create a moral wedge out of the basic narrative. A new version could also address the racial divide that would undoubtedly emerge from such a story told in a more sobering light.  

Add in the various creatures of the deep to create fight scenes, and Nemo’s own mysterious island as an additional location to explore, and this would make for a really cinematic and compelling narrative for Telltale painted in their own unique brand of aesthetics and ethics. 

If you’ve never heard of Farscape, it was a space opera about a human astronaut named Crichton who gets thrown across the galaxy by a wormhole. Crichton falls in with a band of alien fugitives on the run from the local powers and must navigate a strange and hostile universe while searching for a way home.  

Despite not being too huge when it happened, the show is damn good sci-fi TV and plays a lot like a proto-fusion of future hits like Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s all bathed in a beautiful exotic color palette that would be a great match for Telltale’s aesthetic designs and sensibilities. Additionally, the ship and crew’s limited resources mean that most of the time they avoided big ship-to-ship battles in favor of trickery and fleeing, which would be much easier to slot into Telltale’s action set-up. 

Then there’s the moral component. What makes Farscape really stand out from a moral standpoint. More than even Star Trek or Doctor Who is that the characters we’re following are all criminals.  Now, how much their criminality is informed by genuine greed and anger or simply bad luck, but the criminality still defined them.  

They were a group willing to make amoral decisions for their own good, and there really was a moral debate in the situations that they encountered. With someone like Captain Picard or the Doctor, morality is always a strict code. With the Farscape crew, they could just as easily destroy the world to save it. 

Another superhero entry on the list, The Spectre was a character from the ‘40s originally envisioned as a superhero ghost. As time went on, that vision of The Spectre gave way to a more horror/crime-inflected idea. That idea made The Spectre take on the role of the divine Spirit of Vengeance bound to a ghostly host. They were the spiritual embodiment of God’s wrathful vengeance tasked with meeting out brutal and ironic punishments against the murderers of the world.  

However, The Spectre doesn’t work alone, but he is tied to a human spirit, usually a cop, who serves to investigate crimes and point The Spectre towards the recipient of punishment. The Spectre’s host has some power over him as they’re able to increase the severity of punishment, extend it to those complicit in the act, grant leniency, and even manifest The Spectre to impact the real world in an effort to gain the truth. 

Everything about this set-up is great for episodic storytelling with a moral twist. Forcing the player to act as The Spectre’s human host, investigating the various human uglinesses that require divine vengeance, would be a great way to put you in the position of judge, jury, and executioner while also showcasing how brutal and deadening that role really is. The additional abilities of the host add a great dynamic to inform the moral choices the player makes in the game, for the grimy nature of the stories creates a great pulpy palette to work from. 

A little bit of history to explain this choice. Nowadays, the works of Agatha Christie are considered a quaint, amusing subsection of mystery story referred to as “parlor mysteries.” These are mystery stories that involve a large cast of characters, usually confined to a single location, and each harboring a secret that could implicate them in murder. The whole thing is the baseline form of the mystery genre and a pretty popular set-up for the “who done it.”  

And yet, this idea of Christie’s work is one that comes after decades and decades of historical distance approach to her books. Even though her books are structured in that manner, her murders tend to be decidedly gruesome and the secrets at hand are always incredibly lurid. In 2015, the BBC featured a 2-episode adaptation of her story And Then There Were None, and it played more like Shutter Island than some quiet fireside read. That’s the Agatha Christie I’d like to see Telltale bring to life. 

Adopting a slicker, more minimalistic approach to Christie’s world and imbuing it with a lived in, almost sleazy aesthetic could help break the stereotype of her stories. What’s more, the dialogue and clue-driven tales complement an investigation game; something in the same vein as L.A. Noir with more emphasis on the investigations is the right way to go. Throw in the option for the player to reach moral conclusions on how they should react to the information, and you’ve got a great set-up for a really strong mystery game. 

And so we come to the “Wild Card” of the choices on our list. Hear me out on this one because the Muppets would make an amazing Telltale game. The Muppets have had a seriously rough go of it in popular culture lately with both their reboot films and reboot TV shows crashing and burning pretty quickly. Maybe their true future lies in the realm of video games. Their basic set-up of puppets so obviously fake and unreal that they make it impossible to not get meta could work wonders to the tired and glum narratives of video games.  

The Muppets are perfectly suited to episodic comedy crafted out of satirical jabs and meta jokes about the rigid structure of genres. There is nowhere more genre rigid than games right now. Dropping the entire Muppet family into a game environment and letting them constantly make fun of their own place as video game characters, confined by mechanics and genre, could be a real winner. 

More than that, the Muppets are a great example of how much meaning and sincerity can come out of comedy rather than dramatic tragedy. Far too often, people employ binary thinking that so long as something is dour, oppressive, and tragic it must also be meaningful. Being light or fun immediately negates any meaning a piece of art might try and convey.  

This simply isn’t the case, comedy is every bit the tool of depth and comedy that tragedy and drama are. It’s already proved immensely powerful in video games. Games like Portal or The Stanley Parable are innovative explorations of the medium that rely on comedy to make some of their cleverest observations and commentaries.  Telltale diving deep into the comedy well through the meta nature of The Muppets could be another great installment in this under-explored facet of game design. 

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