It's been five years since Telltale released The Walking Dead, a landmark in storytelling that provided a template it's been riffing ever since, tweaking the formula as it's adapted everything from Borderlands to Game of Thrones. Some series have worked better than others—where's a second season of the flawed but interesting Wolf Among Us?—but there's been one constant the whole time: the technology driving Telltale's games is awful. I'm not talking about the bugs, glitches, or save issues—those are a problem, too—but the way they're presented.
It was easy to drum up excitement to sit down and play Telltale's take on Guardians of the Galaxy, one of my favorite films of the last few years. Director James Gunn sold me and millions of others on an unknown set of Marvel characters by making them immediately relatable, and lowered the audience's guard with a cutting sense of humor. (Side note: If you're unfamiliar with Gunn's work, those with a penchant for the grotesque should check out one of his earlier films, Slither.) From the intro alone, as Electric Light Orchestra's "Livin' Thing" blares, it's clear Telltale would be using Gunn's stylization as a creative touchstone. I'm in.
But it didn't take long before it became familiar that, yes, this is a Telltale game. It'd be one thing if I were referring to the familiar framework these games fall under, but the illusion of choice while the story barrels to a predetermined conclusion isn't my problem. Instead, it's the uncomfortably stiff, thoroughly robotic animations that seemed cute once upon a time, when Telltale was a scrappy upstart grasping at larger ambitions. Now, many successful games later, it's frustrating and distracting. There's no reason for their games to look this ancient.
Take this conversation between Gamora, Drax, and Star-Lord, not long after they've grappled with Thanos the Mad Titan. If you haven't played the episode, there are some minor spoilers, but it's not far in:
Everything—mouths, arms, bodies, eyebrows—mechanically flap around as if on an assembly line. When characters walk into a scene, they appear to be floating on air. It feels like I'm watching a scene with characters from Chuck E. Cheese, except it's a video game from 2017, and it's not being played for laughs.
But the writing is short, quippy, and illustrative of each characters' quirks. When I started playing, I had trouble adjusting to these new versions of the Guardians. To my eyes and ears, Chris Pratt is Star-Lord, and it's hard to imagine anyone besides Dave Bautista inhabiting the stern Drax the Destroyer—but the sharp writing quickly converted me. What kept dragging me out of individual scenes was the rigid way each character moved about each scene, as though a puppet master was tugging at their strings off-camera. It leaves the characters emotionally stunted.
Though Telltale's games may technically fall under the "adventure" umbrella, as the years have rolled on, they've slowly erased some of the genre's more traditional elements, like puzzles. It's allowed Telltale to focus on what they do best, anyway: story and characters. But if you're only playing a game for its story and characters, you'd hope the developers would smartly invest in anything to make that more effective, to ensure its storytelling is more dynamic and emotive.
(This is also why people get so rightfully up in arms about the save issues, i.e. when people load up a new episode, only to find they can't carry their choices over. It's unacceptable, especially after how many chances they've had.)
It's not just the animations, either. Telltale games are infamous for having terrible performance, even on powerful PCs. My GTX 970, more than capable of playing The Witcher 3 at 60 frames-per-second, often struggles to maintain a stable frame rate for Guardians of the Galaxy. I can get over the sluggish frame rate, but it's indicative of underlying technology problems that, again, hinder the game itself.
It's common for said issues to undercut an effective joke, one that hit the mark in both script and voiceover, but falls flat because the game can't swap between scenes fast enough, leaving long pauses in-between snappy character banter. Dead air can be funny when used on purpose, but here, it's only awkward silence.
Telltale's history of hobbled tech goes back a ways, too. A source told me that even as the company was riding the success of The Walking Dead, their engine didn't have a physics system. (Telltale has their own proprietary technology, it doesn't use Unity, Unreal, or something else off the shelf.) If a designer came up with a scene requiring a ball to roll across the floor, or a book to fall off a shelf, it had to done by hand, an enormous time and resource commitment.
It's my understanding that little has changed since, but Telltale didn't respond to my request for comment.
This might be less noticeable to someone who drops in and out of Telltale games over time, but not me. My wife and I don't play many games together, but if there's a new series out from Telltale, we're on the couch. In that way, Telltale has become a TV channel; we flip it on and see what's up next. What property the game is based on matters little, as it's more about the opportunity to experience it with one another. I hold the controller and she makes the decisions, whether I agree with them or not. (Sometimes, if she's not paying attention, I'll sneak in my own choice.)
I've long since stopped expecting Telltale to hit the same highs Walking Dead once did, but they're reliable comfort food. (That's a compliment and a problem.) But Telltale's Guardians of the Galaxy is better than expected, a welcomed return to a galaxy of weirdos before Gunn's cinematic sequel drops in a few weeks. And while I don't expect Telltale to match the dazzling effects of Marvel's multi million dollar movies, after all this time, with the success Telltale has clearly enjoyed, at some point you're ignoring a problem that's undercutting your main selling point.