Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.
Telltale Games has always focused on interactive storytelling in its games, and it came into its own with the episodic release The Walking Dead, which is now in its third season. The San Rafael, Calif.-based company makes slow-paced games with a lot of story, player choice, and fast-reaction button mashing. For a while, such games were an oddity. But with the spectacular success of The Walking Dead in 2012, that all changed.
“The critical years, if you look at it, are from Back to the Future to Poker to Jurassic Park to Walking Dead. That was when we transitioned,” Connors said. Telltale has taken its formula of creating episodic games and is now broadening out with titles such as Game of Thrones, Batman, Minecraft: Story Mode, Tales from the Borderlands, and The Wolf Among Us. Season Three of The Walking Dead is coming soon.

Connors, who was CEO of the company until early 2015, gave a talk at the Gamelab event in Barcelona. I interviewed him there. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. Connors is still working on Telltale games, even without the CEO title.

Dan Connors, cofounder of Telltale Games, at Gamelab 2016.

Above: Dan Connors, cofounder of Telltale Games, at Gamelab 2016.

GamesBeat: E3 had me thinking about story in a couple of ways. The new God of War is presenting this complex father-son story in a series that was traditionally lighter in that area. Doom had an intricate story layered in different ways over a pure action-shooter game. I wonder if you see some patterns in game storytelling as a whole, where the industry is moving in your direction?

Dan Connors: I think people see value in it. Gamers are asking for it, in the right balance, in the right expectation. There have always been gamers who are more interested in the campaign. Those gamers now have a few things to go to, like Telltale or Naughty Dog. Uncharted is an action game, but it’s still very much about the cinematics and the story. You know you’ll get a big story in those games.

The shooter folks, sometimes they seem like, “Get that stuff out of here. I just want to go play.” That’s always been a battle. I haven’t seen the new God of War, so I’m not sure what their execution is all about, but I know they’ve always tried to do cool story things. No matter what, context around the characters makes a big difference. That’s the reason why Madden NFL works and made-up names on the back doesn’t. You don’t have the same context.

It’s a good movement. I hope Telltale has had something to do with people realizing there’s value in story.

Ooo boy.

Above: Ooo boy.

Image Credit: Telltale Games.

GamesBeat: How did you guys happen upon your formula?

Connors: It’s funny you would ask that. I was thinking about the transition period. We stayed pretty traditional in the early days, but we were always thinking about how to move forward. Any time we took on a franchise that wasn’t a traditional adventure game franchise, we tried to streamline things and make it flow better for people who didn’t know how to play adventure games. There are examples of everything that became Batman throughout those eight years. It’s evolution.

We set out to do it from the beginning. We build this system to allow us to evolve through it. It’s hard to build something out of the box that just captures genius. I’m trying to sound humble there. You can’t just come out with an idea that instantly works and everyone says, “Wow, that’s brilliant.” Everything is a process. Telltale’s greatest strength is that we built the organization to support the process that got us to solving the problem of interactive narrative in games.

The critical years, if you look at it, are from Back to the Future to Poker to Jurassic Park to Walking Dead. That was when we transitioned. Jurassic Park introduced quick times. Poker introduced dialogue you could interrupt, with natural speech and natural conversation. And then Walking Dead put it all together with consequences.

GamesBeat: It seems like the level of emotion that players get from your games really spiked with Walking Dead. There was a difference between what came before and what you achieved there. Does that feel like a milestone for you guys?

Connors: Some of it has to do with the content. We weren’t trying to make people cry in Back to the Future. It had a lot to do with the quality of the writing and the character development. We had better tools to work with. But it was really sinking ourselves into—I remember some of these moments. All we were trying to do with that game was get the emotion. That was what the license was about. We wanted to show [creator] Robert Kirkman a moment from the game and we wanted him to feel sad after he played it. We focused all our energy on getting there, and once we got there, we realized, “This is something we can use. It’s powerful.” So many forces came together and drove it there.

Dan Connors gives a talk at Gamelab 2016 in Barcelona.

Above: Dan Connors gives a talk at Gamelab 2016 in Barcelona.

Image Credit: Gamelab

GamesBeat: Those storytelling opportunities, where can it go from here? How can you guys improve?

Connors: I’m a big believer in taking serial content right now, some of the most popular content in the world, and making it interactive. I don’t know that it needs to be non-linear anymore. At some point it’ll seem quaint that it’s not interactive. We’re just going to continue to push entertainment in that direction. Everything’s interactive. You get at your game on your interactive device. The menus that you use are interactive. Things on the side, the second-screen experiences are interactive. You’re always pressing and clicking and pointing around your experience.

At this point a TV show is like a 59-minute cutscene around navigating your device. But everything has the capacity now to have interactivity introduced to it. I’m not sure to what degree it will be, but from my perspective, it should be like a Telltale game.

GamesBeat: If you have this range from Minecraft to Game of Thrones or Walking Dead, can Telltale make a story-based game out of anything?

Connors: We always thought we could. As long as the world is rich and the characters have understandable rules that the player can get in there and try to navigate with their interactions, then you can make a Telltale game. It’s always funny when people say, “I can’t believe Telltale did that. That’s crazy.” It’s like everything we do, people scratch their head at. Except for the no-brainers. But we’ve done enough stuff that people didn’t expect by now that I’m surprised people still get surprised by us.

GamesBeat: In some ways, people put you in a genre with Quantic Dream’s games. Do you feel like you do something similar?

Connors: I think so. Quantic Dream is a good example of dramatic storytelling, of capturing tension, making people feel immersed in the drama of a story as if they’re there. That’s the key defining thing.

Minecraft Story Mode (image: Telltale Games)

Above: Minecraft Story Mode (image: Telltale Games)

GamesBeat: Their graphics are very different. Is there a deliberate view you have as far as your visual style?

Connors: It’s more stylized, yeah. We want to make something everyone can play. We don’t want to have it only be something for the highest end of users. We’ve always had a very democratic idea about that. And then from there, we’ve always believed that our art direction could make something interesting and fun to look at. Our writing could make the characters work.

I said to someone yesterday, “You could have the best facial animation in the world, but if the voice acting was bad and the line coming out of their mouth was stupid, it wouldn’t work.” Those are the things we focus on, that are most important to us. And we like to put out a lot of content. We don’t want to come out with a masterpiece every two and a half years. It’s important to us to keep a steady stream of content going and keep people engaged with Telltale on a regular basis.

GamesBeat: The Doom folks talked about the approach of layering story. You could watch a bunch of these AR recording scenes, or find a bunch of these tablet things to read, and get the story that way, but you didn’t have to. It reminded me of Pixar movies, where there’s this layer of adult humor that kids will never get.

Telltale's The Walking Dead adventure game.

Above: Telltale’s The Walking Dead adventure game.

Image Credit: Telltale

Connors: We definitely do that with Minecraft. There’s a lot of different audiences to serve there. We want to keep it interesting for older gamers as well as the younger kids who are going to buy it. That Pixer style of layering inside jokes and stuff like that is definitely there.

As far as the meta-story idea, it’s interesting. When Doom does that, they’re saying, “I recognize that a percentage of my users want a good story, but there’s also a percentage of my users that feel like the story will prevent them from doing what they really want to do, playing a shooter.” They’re trying to give people what they want, which is cool, but we rely on the story completely. We can’t say, “Sure, you can skip the story” because the story is what you’re creating yourself, what you’re responsible for.

From a meta perspective, though, we’ve always wanted to extend the game beyond just the single device it’s on. We want to make that month in between have elements of ongoing conversation. Part of the choice mechanic, people having different playthroughs and different results—having that have some impact on the next episode that people can see, stuff like that is really interesting to us.

GamesBeat: What do you feel about this notion of one story with one ending, versus multiple stories with multiple endings, versus infinite stories with infinite endings?

Connors: Infinite stories, talking about open world games—that’s a cool thing to do. At that point the user is basically just creating the story in their head. But the dramatic relationship between the characters, the tension and the release of a good story, you don’t get that. You get a fantasy fulfillment thing, but you don’t get the elements of storytelling that a good book or a good movie brings to you.

When it comes to how diverse you make the endings, you can do it both ways and still have people satisfied. At the end of a Telltale game everyone feels differently about the character they created. Everyone feels like they own the character they created. My character acted this way in this situation and that’s the type of guy he is. He’d never do anything different. They can own one or two moments where they made a decision based on the character they’re crafting.

What’s happening to them—the fact that I feel like my Bigby Wolf was always honest and by the book and never did any harm, versus people who came back to me and said, “In my ending I slapped everyone in the head and threw them under the bus and everyone thinks I’m a jerk”—that’s the way they chose to play the game. That’s the way our endings change. It’s the way you make it through the circumstances more than the circumstances themselves changing dramatically.

GamesBeat: With the percentage guides at the end, it seems like you want people to talk about the choices they made and the endings they got.

Connors: And why they made those choices. That’s the biggest thing. We used to talk about it when we’d bring people in to do playtests. They’d say, “I couldn’t have done that. Kenny’s my friend.” Or, “I would never do that in front of Clementine.” They had relationships with the characters that they valued. They still do. That’s the value of the product.

GamesBeat: People can go to a lot of extremes with an interactive story.

Connors: Right. There’s a great breadth. The art is creating an experience for people, making them feel something with it.

Borderlands game from Telltale.

Above: Borderlands game from Telltale.

Image Credit: VGX