Start asking people you know for their favorite game this year and their answer could very well be a licensed game from a small company of about 125 people.
Telltale Games, known up to this point for creating games in serial format based on CSI and Back to the Future, have made themselves into one of the biggest heavyweight contenders in the world of game development. The Walking Dead has been named Game of the Year by the Spike TV Video Game Awards, Jim Sterling and the rest of Destructoid, GamesBeat, Telegraph, The Auburn Citizen, GamesRadar, Wired, two editors of Game Informer and a myriad of other papers, magazines and publications.
How exactly did this happen? We will examine the year in video games and see how Telltale and a few other independent developers may have ignited just the revolution this industry needs.
Perhaps just as amazing that The Walking Dead is such a critical darling is the fact that no big budget studio production came even close. Dishonored, one of the best reviewed new IP games to be released in 2012, was still not as highly praised as another product from a small company. I’m talking about Journey, and a lot of people had it as their number 2 choice to The Walking Dead. Other people had their positions swapped.
Granted, Telltale has a distinct advantage in that The Walking Dead is arguably the hottest franchise in geek culture right now. Ask any comic book reader, zombie aficionado and gamer if they have heard of the epic tale of survivors in the land of the undead and they will not only acknowledge it but give their honest take on it. The comic was originally created by Robert Kirkman, who wanted to write a story that asked if we were ready for a world without crappy television shows and other needless bullshit. This was all the way back in 2003, and 105 issues later, I think he tapped into what a hell of a lot of people were thinking.
Seven years later, the comic was made into a cable TV series on AMC that exposed the story to an even bigger audience. The Walking Dead is now the most popular show on United States cable television, with the third season premiere attracting just under 11 million viewers. It wasn’t going to be long before the game got licensed out to a game studio, but rather than adapt the TV series (there will be a first person shooter that does just that next year), Telltale Games went to the source. The 5-episode game takes place in the same universe as the comics, and rather than gunning down zombies left and right, your most powerful weapon comes in the form of personal choices.
When Heavy Rain came out in 2010, I was convinced they had made a significant impact on how storytelling and emotional investment in a game can be favored over giant set pieces and explosions. I thoroughly enjoyed playing Resident Evil 6, but I would much rather have learned even more about what happened to each character in the time since previous games instead of blowing up a few dozen helicopters. David Cage and Quantic Dream are hard at work on their next project, but The Walking Dead is sure to fill the void of unique gaming experiences by the time Beyond: Two Souls is released.
Consider this fact: Geist01, owner and proprietor of NSFW Gamer, shared the experience of Lee Everett and 9-year-old Clementine with his girlfriend, a non-gamer. Rather than watch a movie together, she would act as his controller and choose how the story progressed. The lady loved every second of it, and they haven’t even seen the conclusion of the season. I would be a real son of a bitch if I have away anything that happened during any episode of the game, as I imagine there are going to be a lot of new players with all the press The Walking Dead is getting at the end of the year. What I can tell you is that you will remember this game long after you have completed it.
So Telltale Games, working with the creator of one of the most successful comic books of all time, crafts a masterful story and delivers it directly to the consumer through the digital marketplace of the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Store. No marketing blitz, no Super Bowl ads, no Mountain Dew cross promotion. Meanwhile, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 was promoted during the NBA playoffs, written by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight trilogy) and mercilessly shoved down anyone’s throat who was within eye- or earshot of an advertisement. Critical reaction? Mostly “meh.”
Monster Energy binges aside, big franchises served their purpose this year. Meanwhile, Thatgamecompany gave us Journey, an unforgettable piece of art that nabbed IGN’s pick for Game of the Year. Fez, Mark of the Ninja, Trials Evolution…all of these games have skipped out on Gamestop shelves and gone right to the consumer, tapping into a “do it yourself” subculture that has not been especially apparent in video games until now. With the advent of an entirely new generation of consoles started by the Wii U, there are more opportunities than ever before for a group of people who want to tell a great digital story. Some people refuse to be dragged kicking and screaming into the digital marketplace, and I myself still prefer a disc in lieu of hard drive space. I will, however, gladly sacrifice a physical copy of a game if it means I will not only remember it but go back to it after I finish.
2013 should be the year that the digital world of independent game design truly stands toe to toe with the corporate world of game design. There will never be $100 million budgets for advertising the next Walking Dead game from Telltale, and they’re better off for it. Fans have their own way of spreading word about it, and several dozen Game of the Year awards should make publishers aware that you don’t need a focus group to identify the next big thing in video games. All you need is someone with passion, and there won’t be a shortage of it any time soon.