Once you’ve landed a deal to tell Game of Thrones stories, where do you go from there?
Telltale Games is at the dawn of a new era. It’s been just north of 10 years since veterans of the golden age at LucasArts founded the studio. One of those founders, Dan Connors, recently set aside his CEO position to make way for co-founder Kevin Bruner to take the reins. As Bruner describes it to Digital Trends, it’s not so much a new job as it is a new title.
“Dan and I founded the studio together, and have been running the studio together for the past 10 years. So it’s more like he’s tagged out and I’ve tagged in,” Bruner explains. “We just had our 10-year anniversary and there’s a huge amount of opportunity-slash-work in front of us. Leading the charge is all-consuming and taxing, so I guess I’m tagging in for the next 10 years and then we’ll see what happens.”
Bruner says Telltale’s new normal is really just “business as usual,” but that’s a modest description from the soft-spoken exec. The studio’s “usual” business these days feels like a non-stop parade of critical accolades and near-ubiquitous cross-platform releases. There may be a smart toaster somewhere in China that hasn’t yet hosted a Telltale story, but that’s about it as far as unsupported platforms go.
No longer second-class citizens
To hear Bruner tell it, this is all part of the grand master plan. Ubiquity is crucial to Telltale’s core business, which is to tell stories for as wide an audience as possible. Video games as a medium generate incalculable amounts of money, certainly more than most, if not all, other forms of entertainment. But there’s still this notion that they’re second-class citizens within the public consciousness.
“Games are huge, right? But they’re not mass market huge, where all the great stories and the great storytellers work,” Bruner says. “You walk down the street and say ‘Game of Thrones,’ and everyone’s like, ‘I’ve heard of it, I’ve read the books, I’ve watched the TV show.’”
The same thing doesn’t often happen with video games. Take one of the most popular examples from 2014, Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Bruner rightly points out that, in the scenario above, mentioning a game, even an established one like Mordor, would not elicit nearly as much recognition.
“One out of 10 people know what you’re talking about,” he says. “So the games industry is huge and video games are huge, but storytelling at large – television, films, novels — is way bigger than games. And that was a big thing of moving to these [non-console/PC] platforms, places where people are consuming stories.
It’s not a question of picking one audience over another, but rather, catering to everyone that likes a well-told story.
“Tablets are real interesting because there’s a lot of people who would never say that they’re gamers, but they stream Netflix on their smart TV and they’ll play Tiger Woods golf on their tablet. But they’re not gamers. They’re not techies. They would never go out and buy a game console.”
Bruner doesn’t see it as leaving gamers behind, and the results so far support that assertion. Episodic releases like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us aren’t unpopular on gaming consoles, but the full experience that they offer ports very easily to more mainstream platforms like mobile devices. That level of ubiquity helps to ensure that no potential fans are left behind. It’s not a question of picking one audience over another, but rather, catering to everyone that likes a well-told story.
A fresh start
Really, that’s what Telltale is about: The stories. “It feels like we’re in this really exciting time where storytelling is evolving really, really aggressively. We want to be as much of the tip of the spear of that as we can,” Bruner says. “So you’ll see us announcing new IP, developing our own IP, announcing new partnerships. All kinds of really cool stuff that will paint a clearer picture.”
Making Telltale a (Virtual) Reality
Telltale’s works appear on many screens, but has never made the leap beyond them to virtual reality. How could a Telltale game work in VR? Would it just be the player sitting in a virtual theater, watching a virtual movie screen? Or is it a completely platform-specific experience, built from moment one as a first-person, story-driven experience?
“I think both are super interesting. Certainly the escapism is really profound in both scenarios, whether you’re in a virtual theater watching it on a big screen, or whether it’s from a first-person point of view,” Bruner says.
“Telltale’s never released a first-person game. There’s a lot of cinematic storytelling tools, composition and editing and things like that, that have to be reimagined in a first-person world. I think we’re really excited that that’s going to happen really aggressively, and we want to be a big part of that. So it’s something we spend a lot of time thinking about. We have a lot of VR advocates in the office because there are a lot of VR advocates in the world. It’s exciting, because it’s a new storytelling language.”Original IP. The first hint of that plan came up at the same moment Bruner was confirmed as Telltale’s new boss. There’s no word yet on what type of original story Telltale will be tackling — Bruner isn’t saying yet — but the notion of crafting a unique world of its own is very appealing to a team that has exclusively worked inside of familiar constraints for the past decade.
“We’ve always kind of invented new characters and new stories within the worlds that we work with. We’ve never really done, like, the game of the movie or the game of the book,” Bruner says. “Over the years, we’ve been getting to this critical mass of knowing what would be the perfect fuel to really check every box that we wanted to check. It just felt like the time is right to green light it and move forward.”
Specifics are left to wait for a more formal reveal, but Bruner readily elaborates on the team’s larger goals in tackling an original creation. “It’s really most grounded in a desire for the completely unconstrained way of leveraging the platform that we’ve built to tell stories with,” he explains. “It’s a lot of fun and super gratifying to work within all the worlds that we work with, but being able to invent a new world that can do interesting things for us is really liberating. The sky’s the limit on that.”
Building stories from building blocks
It’s a somewhat similar scenario with Minecraft: Story Mode. Little is known of the upcoming episodic release, which was announced shortly before Bruner stepped up to take the reins. It’s a homemade adventure set within the confines of Mojang’s blocky survival/construction game. Though the word “confines” needs a redefinition when you’re talking about a game like Minecraft, which lives and dies by its near-limitless flexibility.
“Being able to invent a new world that can do interesting things for us is really liberating.”
“I think a lot of people look at Minecraft and they’re like, ‘Why does that make sense?’ But there’s already a lot of stories in Minecraft if you look on YouTube,” Bruner says, referring to the game’s healthy and ever-growing “Let’s Play” community. “And there are good rules to the Minecraft world: It’s about survival, it’s about building things. There’s a lot of footholds for us to kind of craft story inside of.
“That’s the best thing about Minecraft: It comes with a world, with a really rich set of rules. There’s a logic to the world that you can work inside of.”
Bruner says “People really like Minecraft narrative,” but that’s a difficult thing to define in the context of Mojang’s game. There’s an element of fiction in the world, but nothing in the way of lore. Creepers and Endermen are unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the real world, but there’s no explanation inside the game for why they exist. Stories in Minecraft emerge more from the community; YouTubers, whether they know it or not, craft their own narratives simply by playing, whether it’s alone or among friends.
Telltale is well aware of Minecraft‘s unique narrative makeup, and Bruner has some encouraging things to say about how the team is engaging with it. “Certainly community is a big part of the Minecraft experience, so we want to capture that in the game that we’re doing. The fact that different servers can … have totally different tone and character,” he says.
“Minecraft is so expressive and you can do all kinds of crazy things inside of it. Those are all elements that … are going to be really important to our story. The rules and logic of the world, it needs to feel like a Minecraft experience. Hopefully we’re checking off all those boxes.”
Putting gamers first
Story Mode and the unannounced original creation both circle around Bruner’s earlier point about how games and the people that play them factor into the present-day public consciousness. We are “first-class media consumers,” he says, the cord-cutters of the world who turn not to a cable box but a game console when they get home from work.
“That’s not weird anymore. That’s becoming normal. It’s not so ostracized to be a gamer anymore,” Bruner says. “And I think it’s going to happen really, really fast, where people just don’t categorize themselves as much. They’re just media consumers, whatever that means.”
He continues, “It’s a beautiful time for gamers, because we really get to shape the future of pop culture. I love all the filmmakers and novelists in the world, but I think this new medium is where all the action is. Films and novels and television [aren’t] going away, but all the good stuff’s gonna be happening on your game console, on your tablet. That’s where the awesome stuff is going to be.”
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