2017 and 2018 promise to be an interesting time for the continuation of episodic storytelling in video games. First came the announcement that Before the Storm, the prequel to Life Is Strange, will be released at the end of August. Then, this week, Telltale released a barrage of announcements: a Batman sequel, a final season of The Walking Dead, and the long-awaited and much-requested The Wolf Among Us 2.
As with most game announcements, especially those regarding sequels, I'm cautiously excited, especially about Before the Storm and The Wolf Among Us 2. But that heady excitement is followed by a bitter chaser of ennui. I played the first couple of episodes of The Walking Dead's third season, A New Frontier, and it felt as far away from "new" as it could get.
While the story was fresh, certainly, I was being presented with familiar choices: will you let someone kill Loved One A, or Loved One B? Will you shoot Enemy A, or Enemy B? It's Sophie's Choice played over and over in different themed locations, made less meaningful every time you play through another Telltale game. You learn to recognize the patterns. The other Loved One will probably die anyway. The Enemy you killed might have been the ally you needed later on.
But Life Is Strange gave us a different riff on the same format. Though rooted in some seriously confusing sci-fi stuff, the story at the heart of proceedings was relatively mundane and relatable: a girl finding her feet in a town that reminds her of her childhood. Sure, there are creepy undertones and sinister goings-on, but from the game's first heartbeat to its denouement, there's the common thread of Max and Chloe, its core characters, pitting themselves against the world.
Perhaps Telltale's bombastic approach to choice-based narrative suits its largely comic book roots—always something happening, always a twist at the end—but I'd love to see their writing talent looking to something more like Life Is Strange, a game where relationships between characters are often more important than the events that happen to them.
Which isn't to say Telltale isn't capable of making the "smaller" stuff matter. We've seen great interactions in some of their previous games, such as those between Bigby Wolf and Snow White, or Clem and Lee. These are dialogue choices where the objective is to diplomatically navigate friendships, rather than make more binary, life-or-death decisions, and it's these parts I've always loved the most, even while the more obviously memorable ones come with lashings of blood.
It's possible to create drama without having to sharpen knives and load guns. Millions of people manage to do it every day, at family gatherings, at school, on social media. Humans generate stories full of violence-free conflict, and sometimes it's those stories—those tiny vignettes, in tiny towns, of tiny lives—which are the ones with the most difficult choices. I look forward to more of these diminutive dramas unfolding in Telltale's next wave, not necessarily at the expense of the action, but certainly given the attention they need in order for us to truly care about who lives or dies.