48,000 people (and counting) have liked a tweet shared by Telltale Games last night with surprising news: “multiple potential partners” had “stepped forward” about collaborating with the studio to finish work on the third and fourth episodes of The Walking Dead’s final season. Clementine’s farewell had been garnering all sorts of critical acclaim, including some from yours truly, until it was cancelled, following the unexpected decision to shut down Telltale.
Telltale unceremoniously laid off 275 employees without severance last week. In other words, zero financial support. Telltale is located just outside the notoriously expensive city of San Francisco, where the average cost of renting an apartment is $3,000 per month. That Telltale found itself in such a precarious financial position, one where they couldn’t provide even the barest minimum of extended assistance for employees at a company with well-reported backbreaking work conditions, is maddening, frustrating, and morally bankrupt.
Here’s the problem: Telltale’s statement says nothing about how it intends to support the hundreds of workers it just laid off, and it shouldn’t matter what happens to this season of The Walking Dead until they fix that. I want to see the end of Clementine’s story, too—I’ve even written about what a great job the development team did in setting up this season for narrative success. But fandom shouldn’t blind us to the reality of the situation, in which a major company just screwed over its employees.
Telltale did not return my request for comment, nor did current Telltale CEO Pete Hawley, who follows me on Twitter. Telltale has been quiet about the way it's handled this situation, outside of Telltale co-founder Dan Connors telling Variety “there were no other options.”
That doesn’t add up. There have always been indications Telltale was in trouble, and if that were the case, an ethically sound company would have been preparing for the worst. There is no indication Telltale was bracing for disaster, forcing the consequences on the shoulders of the people below the company’s executives, folks assuredly in a better financial position.
Shit happens, but it didn’t have to happen this way, and it’s a failure of imagination to suggest there isn’t a world where companies can be run in a way that ensures their workers are given a chance to breathe before finding another opportunity. Telltale afforded none of this, and it's important we recognize how irresponsible this is.
Nowhere in Telltale’s statement is there any indication this is about to change, and it’s frankly irresponsible for media outlets to be reporting on this news without making note of this. It reinforces what’s more important to the future of video games is seeing another episode of The Walking Dead, not that the people behind those episodes are treated with some respect.
It’s the latest in a never ending pile of depressing evidence video game workers need to unionize. Absent laws to protect employees, workers must take power into their own hands.
A class action lawsuit has been filed seeking lost wages, 401k contributions, and other related finances, but there’s no guarantee it’ll result in anything. You’re right to be cynical, and the legal process can drag out for years.
There are small signs of hope, though. God of War creative director Cory Barlog publicly pushed back on Telltale’s announcement, asking the company to “pay your entire team their severance.”
"Clementine will always be like a daughter to the teams of 100’s of people that ‘raised’ her since 2012," wrote Job Stauffer, the former head of public relations at Telltale, on Twitter. "But those people have REAL kids. Real mouths to feed, and they need to be fed FIRST before the fans."
“My ideal world is both,” said former Telltale designer Emily Grace, who worked on The Walking Dead, on Twitter. “If I can only get one? Severance/payment for my friends. Thanks.”
Grace’s comment came in response to a common, infuriating sentiment that crawled across my timeline and others: Criticizing Telltale’s statement is tantamount to fandom treason, and may scare off anyone who might step in and try to bring The Walking Dead to the finish line.
“Look mate I get what you're saying, but just shut up,” said one fan. “The employees are just as happy about this thing getting finished as we are. This season means a lot to people, all Telltale is doing is selling the property to another studio, they aren't making the game themselves.”
Fuck off? Fuck off.
“It’s hard because so many of us who loved the project are torn,” said The Walking Dead lead writer Mary Kenney on Twitter. “Of course we want it to finish, but it’s hard to ignore how unjust this all is.”
Unjust. That’s the right word.
Unfortunate is a world without a proper conclusion to The Walking Dead. Unjust is a world where Telltale is allowed to get away with publicly milking the fandom for money, without doing right by the people who made The Walking Dead: The Final Season something worth finishing in the first place.
We don’t all have to live in the unjust one. There is a choice. You don’t have to blindly buy new episodes of The Walking Dead, if Telltale fails to support their employees. You can spend a few dollars supporting the workers who were laid off. You can publicly champion the unionization of the video game industry, and support the assertion of power by those without.
Let’s try and live in that world.
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