Telltale Games Interview with Job Stauffer: “Our Stories Are the Gameplay”
At Gamescom 2016 I was lucky enough to meet up with Job Stauffer, Telltale Games' Head of Creative Communications. In a white booth nestled deep within Warner's press area, I'm faced with a large TV and Job himself. A larger and hairier man than myself, Job was at first imposing but as soon as words left his mouth you heard a gentle, softly spoken voice which perfectly complements his friendly and instantly welcoming nature. Once pleasantries were over I excitedly started recording audio, and we chatted quite a lot. Brace yourselves!
So to start with, we’re in the Warner Bros. booth right now, are Warner Bros. now publishers for Telltale Games, or…?
This doesn’t mean anything to anyone, except for those working on this stuff, consumers won’t know any difference, but they are now our retail distribution partner. Not our publisher, we’re still the publisher and developer, but they’re gonna help sell the game in Woolworths, or wherever else. Anyway! We’re in the Warner Bros. booth, we just launched Batman two weeks ago, have you played Batman yet?
Yes! Yes, I have.
You played the first episode? Awesome! So, it doesn’t make sense to show an episode that’s already out, the second episode is still getting some final polish so we weren’t going to show that, our third season of The Walking Dead is coming this Fall, probably October or November, but our games don’t look like anything, visually, until like a week and a half, two weeks before they’re ready to go. We work very differently to most other developers. We have our final episode of Minecraft: Story Mode hitting September…
How many episodes are there of that?
There were five in the season, and then we had a three episode Extended Adventure pass, so it went all the way to episode 8. So our big finale, I think we’re going to do a Crowd Play at Mine-Con, Anaheim, next month. There’s that, and then last week we actually started teasing a new project – are you familiar with the show Mr. Robot?
Not really? That’s fine. It’s quite good, you really should watch it, I believe it’s on Amazon Prime in the UK, very very good, in a nutshell, it is about a group of hackers in New York, who call themselves fsociety, who are trying to take down the world’s biggest corporation ecorp, or as they call it Evil Corporation, to reset the world and erase all debt, and kind of bring the world economy back to zero. It’s a fantastic show, Golden Globe winner, best drama, best performances, and it’s in its second season, it’s very good. We teased last week that we were working on something to do with Mr. Robot in conjunction with a studio called Night School, who you might know for a game called Oxenfree?
I know of it, I can’t say I played it!
It’s very very good, if you’ve ever seen Stranger Things or, y’know, The Goonies…
I know The Goonies!
It’s a lot like The Goonies meets Myst, on a deserted island with ghosts and friends trying to figure out what’s happening. It’s very good, and was the first game from Night School, co-founded by a former Telltale writer, great guy by the name of Adam Hines and his cousin Shaun, just a brilliant small independent team. The folks at Mr. Robot wanted to extend the story into a game somehow, something like a Telltale game, and they actually turned to Night School to do something that was delivered entirely over text messaging, one thing led to another, and now Universal, Telltale, Night School have this three-way partnership and just released Mr. Robot last night. That was kind of a surprise release. So yeah, Batman just started, The Walking Dead is coming, Minecraft is ending, Mr. Robot’s out, Marvel project’s coming next year, anything you’d like to talk about, that’s why I’m in Germany.
Okay, so recently Telltale has been a developer that usually picks up other properties or IPs and expands those universes or interprets them in a different way, like in the case of The Walking Dead not strictly following the comics or the TV show, but going in its own direction, what can you tell us about Telltale’s plans to create more original IP?
Yes, we’re working on that now, we’re very excited and honored, and our creative partnerships with Warner Bros. on Batman, Kirkman and The Walking Dead, and everything we’re doing, like our upcoming Marvel game, it’s always going to be a big part of what we do. Telltale has moved in to original IP before, with Puzzle Agent and Puzzle Agent 2, even Poker Night at the Inventory, but looking for something that’s entirely original from Telltale – we’re not far off. We are working on something, we can’t talk about it yet, but we see a world where we have our original projects running at the same time as our collaborations, and even in that respect something like Batman is our own interpretation of Batman entirely, it’s not an adaptation, it’s our take on the universe, and it’s fantastic to work with that fan base and work with DC, and tell the Batman story that hasn’t been told before, something focusing on Bruce Wayne, it feels like our own, it feels unique, and in the future we will have more partnerships, more surprises, and more original IP as well.
On that note, wanted to say, really happy about the Bruce Wayne focus in the Batman episode. It felt like a fresh take on Batman that no media have really tried before – finally.
That was the whole pitch! We approached DC and Warner Bros., and said “What if the focus was on the man behind the mask? What is it like to be a Billionaire? What is it like to walk into a gala full of Gotham’s most elite, have these secrets you’re keeping, having the whole city watching you…” And more than that, diving into the mind of this man, who has gone to these extraordinary lengths to fight crime in Gotham, and everything he’s gone through with his parents, and rethink the entire Wayne legacy at the same time. Think; “Why is he doing this?” I think that’s really where we kicked off with this series, and we’re going to keep going down that rabbit hole, looking into Bruce’s psyche and what makes him Batman, while allowing players to be the Batman they want to be. There’s 75 years worth of Batman stories that people identify with and consider their favorite Batman, they might like the more violent Frank Miller Batman, they might like the Kevin Conroy animated series Batman, we allow the player to lean in any direction they like and find their own Bruce or Batman identity. That’s why it was perfect for a Telltale series, and it was an opportunity for us tell to be Bruce Wayne and tell a story that after 75 years still really hasn’t been touched on as much. It’s something we’ve been looking forward to doing for a very long time.
I think Telltale does that really well, again using The Walkind Dead as an example, so many Zombie-themed games focus on combat whereas of course with Telltale’s The Walking Dead that’s not the case, and I really love that difference of viewpoint that Telltale brings to the table.
Yeah, and that’s really why we’re different, it’s come up at Gamescom that our games follow a familiar format mechanically, but all of our games are different stories, and our stories are the gameplay, and stories define genres in films and television, but in the games industry it has always defined games by their mechanics. When you think about games and which genres they are, you would talk about racing games, fighting games, RPGs, puzzle games, RTSs, and that’s how we separate games in our minds, and in this industry, but if you load up something like Netflix or Amazon and you look at all the different content on there, it’s sorting by genre like it would in a video store. Western, SciFi, Action, Drama… For Telltale, we’re a multi-genre studio, there’s apocalyptic drama, like The Walking Dead, there’s family comedy and entertainment like Minecraft: Story Mode, SciFi Action Comedy with Tales from the Borderlands. We sit in the space between games, TV and film where our genres are better defined by our stories. And when story defines the genre, the possibilities are limitless. Having that familiar unique, mechanical format is a very low barrier to entry and it’s key to what we do, it’s the same experience with a controller, played on an Xbox or a PC as it is playing on your tablet or your phone. And the difficulty doesn’t lie in moving your character, or tapping a button to say certain things, the difficulty is in the decision making. That’s where our games are difficult, and living and breathing. That’s where the story comes alive, and the story really is our gameplay.
Since The Walking Dead season one, I feel like I’ve noticed an awful lot of developers coming out with brand new adventure games, which seemed like a dead genre. I feel like Telltale has revitalized a genre that didn’t seem like it was going to ever get its day again. Being inside Telltale, what does it feel like looking outside and seeing other companies inspired by the success of Telltale games?
Yeah, I think we’re simultaneously flattered, and humbled, but also proud. The company was founded by folks who worked on some of the best classic adventure games of all time, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, and adventure games have always been in our DNA, but at the same time we’ve been moving in this direction where we can drop “adventure” as the genre, and the story becomes the genre. I think a lot of that has to do with being more accessible to a wider audience that consumes TV and film, and less head-scratching moon-logic, puzzle-driven experiences, and more familiar experiences for people who watch TV, and watch movies, and really want to be absorbed in the genre, instead of being slowed down and stopped by a puzzle which doesn’t really exist in any realm of actual human drama or emotion. So we’ve definitely taken a different path, we still love classic adventure game logic, there are some projects we have in the works that are tinkering with some of those ideas, and we love games that also subvert those ideas as well. Like, I’d definitely recommend playing Oxenfree from Night School! It does just that. And that’s why we love working with those guys so much, and I hope we’ve paved the way for Adam and Shaun to make a game like Oxenfree the success it has become. It’s awesome for that to have come full circle and now work with them to get Mr. Robot out. It’s great. We love it.
So, you said you’re tinkering and experimenting with the older puzzle elements that used to define adventure games… Does that mean Puzzle Agent is coming back?
It doesn’t mean Puzzle Agent is coming back, I will say that probably the best example of that in our current series is that you can see a lot of that in Minecraft: Story Mode, which was this project we kicked off with Mojang. We were big fans, they were big fans, we saw unlimited potential in the universe, fans were dying to get some kind of story going, there are YouTube videos and people writing their own fan fiction, trying to find and define what the universe of Minecraft was, and to this day there still is no story, and there shouldn’t be, it’s whatever you want it to be. So when we sat down with them and asked what our story should be, we looked to movies we grew up with as kids, classic family adventures, Ghostbusters and definitely The Goonies, and tried to find the spirit of those stories and roll them in to this Minecraft: Story Mode, but also, lean a little closer to puzzle adventure elements, finding Redstone and applying it to different things, crafting things on a crafting table that will unlock a secret chamber, to finding the secret object… That was marrying modern Telltale storytelling with an homage to the classic adventure game roots, and we’re very proud to have welcomed millions of new players, a younger audience, to a crash course on classic adventure games, but also a jumpstart into how interactive drama and interactive storytelling work with Telltale. So we’re always thinking about it, it’s always on our minds, and we’re doing it right now in ways you may not even realize.
I recently played Batman, really enjoyed it, and from The Walking Dead season 1 to Batman it’s quite obvious that Telltale’s engine has gotten better, characters and animations look more expressive, than they ever have done before, I felt like The Walking Dead season 1 was rigid, but with the new Batman, I don’t feel like that’s the case, and I’m assuming that’s an on-going process, constantly being updated?
Yeah, we’re always iterating and improving on our tool sets and our engine, but specifically for 2016 with Batman and the third season of The Walking Dead we’ve devoted a significant amount of additional resources and new staff, and hires from all over the games industry to really give us a significant jump in fidelity. Batman has a real comic-book style, so I don’t think we’ll ever be moving into the space of photorealism, I think we’ll always steer away from the uncanny valley. We know we can create a human connection, an emotional connection, with a character that is more animated, than falling in that space of realism where you think too much about it. Enhancing our tool sets and our fidelity with Batman and everything else moving forward, it’s been a big jump for us and I think particularly in The Walking Dead, it’s still getting so much more additional effects and lighting, textures… It’ll look and feel more alive than The Walking Dead has ever felt, but it’s still not striving for photorealism, it’s striving for emotional realism. That’s what’s most important to us.
Thank you for your time.
Coming away from my chat with Job one thing was clear: Telltale Games as a studio aren't that interested in traditional games and genres, they want to open up the medium itself to a brand new audience. Job went on to talk to me about Crowdplay, and how an entire audience can band together to make decisions and shape the stories they're actively engaging with. Telltale is a studio focused on something new, something that breaks boundaries, and something that will get your mum and dad involved in gaming.
Telltale may have kickstarted a new adventure game revolution, but their ambitions are much more than that, much more than just gaming as it currently is, and I'm excited for the future.