The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones have thrived on both the page and the cable TV screen, but there’s a third medium which they’ve also conquered, and it’s there that they may truly be at the forefront of a new entertainment revolution.
In April 2012, Telltale Games released the first installment of The Walking Dead: Season One, an interactive video game for computers, consoles and mobile devices that was split into six episodes—all of them released over the course of seven months. With 8.5 million episodes sold by the end of 2012 alone, it was an immediate hit. And this past December, they returned to the same well, with similarly enthusiastic results, via a Game of Thrones title whose episodes are still rolling out today. Those games have parlayed their source material’s popularity into what are now lucrative spin-off franchises, but for Telltale, they’re just the first step toward something bolder—redefining episodic television.
Early last week, Telltale announced that it was partnering with Lionsgate—whose small-screen productions include Mad Men and Orange is the New Black—on “The Super Show,” a scripted TV series featuring playable elements. From the sound of things, it will be a bigger-budgeted, live-action version of the games that have made Telltale a current industry giant, and it would seem to have immense potential to revolutionize the way we interact with traditional content. That’s because no game-maker has ever exhibited Telltale’s gift for serialized storytelling, and their unparalleled ability to make users active participants (rather than just passive viewers) in their sprawling stories makes one think that Telltale may have found a recipe for seamlessly—and compellingly—combining the various things for which we most use our phones, tablets, and streaming devices.
Those unacquainted with Telltale’s games might justifiably think an interactive TV show—in which one makes intermittent decisions using a remote-style interface—sounds like a clunky gimmick. Yet a closer look at Telltale’s track record suggests otherwise.
Founded by a group of artists who’d previously worked for LucasArts, the studio that made its name with hilariously scripted point-and-click adventures like Monkey Island and Sam & Max, Telltale had its first smash with 2010’s Back to the Future: The Game, which helped set the studio’s now-formidable template. Divided into five episodes, each of which lasts a few hours, it recounts the post-film-trilogy exploits of Marty McFly and Doc Brown (the latter voiced by Christopher Lloyd). Those are told through graphical sequences that occasionally ask for the player’s input, which could involve moving Marty around the screen, choosing dialogue choices for characters, or searching for clues and items to examine or employ. The experience is akin to helping move along a scripted show via gameplay that’s less about strenuously challenging users than it is merely involving them in creative ways.
The Walking Dead follows Back to the Future: The Game’s lead, with a significant catch: one’s choices in the game have reverberations for how the story plays out. That sort of branching storytelling, where the game’s trajectory is partially based on your own choices (to be good or bad, kind or cruel, selfish or altruistic), is the lifeblood of The Walking Dead, which puts you in the shoes of African-American murder suspect Lee Everett as he attempts to protect a young girl named Clementine during the zombie apocalypse. An adult-oriented narrative that’s populated by original characters but also features run-ins with personalities from AMC’s TV series, it was an instant smash that’s since led to a second, equally profitable sequel (28 million downloads in all), thanks in part to a sprawling story full of breakneck action, poignant moments of emotional depth, do-or-die dilemmas in which you have to decide who lives and who becomes zombie food, and shocking cliffhangers.
By giving players only a few seconds to make conversational choices, as well as interrupting prolonged cutscenes with sudden interactive-combat moments, The Walking Dead’s form amplifies its tension, as well as one’s need to remain constantly engaged in the proceedings. You simply can’t zone out while play-watching (or is it watch-playing?), because at any moment, all hell can break loose and your input is needed to keep things going. Moreover, your choices have genuine consequences for the long-term composition of its story, so that if you choose to save a young boy instead of a teenager at the start of the second episode, the ramifications are long-lasting. Far from cosmetic, The Walking Dead’s choose your own adventure moments fundamentally personalize one’s own experience, and in doing so, provide players with an agency that’s enlivening.
The Wolf Among Us, a 2013 noir-ish murder mystery based on Bill Willingham’s graphic novel series Fables—about fairy tale characters secretly living in Manhattan—further improved Telltale’s fighting system while boasting even more beautiful cell-shaded graphics and tantalizing cliffhangers. Like its predecessor, its success stems from its nuanced sense of setting, atmosphere, and character—the last of which is also developed by user choices.
While The Wolf Among Us focuses on mythic icons cast in a unique light (you play as the Big Bad Wolf, who’s the sheriff in this covert fantasyland), this past December’s Game of Thrones operates more like The Walking Dead in that it gives you control of new characters operating in a TV-established universe populated by familiar faces like Cersei and Tyrion Lannister (voiced by Lena Headey and Peter Dinklage, no less). Game of Thrones suffers a bit from a fractured focus that puts you in charge of multiple, only semi-compelling characters—like the show, the game cross-cuts between numerous people in different places . Nonetheless, it gets its source material, with its intricate story of scheming, deception, and tactical maneuvering commencing at the infamous “Red Wedding” and then running concurrently with the HBO series’ third through fifth seasons.
For anyone who’s navigated Game of Thrones’ Casterly Rock intrigue, or The Walking Dead’s Macon, Georgia zombie mayhem, Telltale and Lionsgate’s “Super Show” holds thrilling promise, even if the forthcoming venture will be an originally conceived idea, rather than one based on an existing property. Given Telltale games’ simple interface—directional keys and a couple of buttons are all that’s required—it’s easy to imagine a cable, Apple TV, or Roku remote handling controller duties, and when it comes to drama, the two studios’ respective pedigrees leave little doubt that they have the talent, and wherewithal, to pull off such a project. Whether they will, of course, remains to be seen. Yet in a 21st century landscape dominated by devices that split our time between content that plays and content that’s meant to be played, the “Super Show” may be an instance of two great things also going great together.