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Telltale: The Human Stories Behind The Games reviewed

“Our story isn’t a comprehensive history of the studio or its games. It’s the story of four people who wanted to come forward and tell their version of the tale.”

This disclaimer, which is included as part of the opening narration of Telltale: The Human Stories Behind The Games, tries to prepare you for how narrow its scope is going to be. I was prepared, but no less disappointed, to be informed that the broader implications of the title were not going to be delivered on. Perhaps this feeling might have been blunted by a more accurate name, but I guess The End of Telltale: Four Human Stories Behind At Least The Last Few Games was a bit too cumbersome.

Kent Mudle, a Cinematic Artist at Telltale and one of the documentary’s four subjects, wistfully recalls that when he started at the company it “was maybe eighty people, at maximum. It felt really small and scrappy. It was before Walking Dead had hit.” Mixnmojo readers who remember the studio’s expansion in 2007 to half that number of employees may feel understandably alienated by a narrative which so coercively bisects the history of the company into pre and post Walking Dead, and so casually dismisses the less topical fifty percent. The Back to the Future series, which is the project Mudle cut his teeth on, is referred to as if it’s ancient studio history, a relic from before the developer found its voice, a release representative of a time when the company was still aiming at a market of “weird” people -- rather than a project Telltale made six years into its storied existence.

The idea that Telltale only began its period of relevance after getting its hands on Robert Kirkman’s property is in keeping with most of the retrospectives about the studio, which tended to write off nearly a decade of work as mere precursor to the company’s massive licensed hit of 2012. The documentary’s remaining three participants – Emily Grace Buck (Narrative Designer, hired in June 2015), Caroline Liddick (Community Media Manager, hired in 2016), and Paul Mastroianni (Executive Assistant, hired in 2016) – make Mudle seem like an old-timer by comparison. While NoClip says that the four ex-employees they got on camera were the only ones who were willing to, one gets the sense that the film-makers weren’t pursuing candidates outside a very specific frame of reference. For a piece that is ostensibly about the little guy, it has ironically meager respect for the foundational underdogs of the catalog.

So, okay, I’ve made it clear enough this isn’t what I was hoping for in a Telltale documentary. On the other hand, it’s no great sin to shed a focused light on the last several years of the company for the purposes of telling that particular story. After all, the studio’s well-documented (and still litigated) demise was the result of the rampant opportunism, rigid formulism and ungainly growth that the breakout success of The Walking Dead directly inspired, so chronicling Telltale’s internal downfall largely in terms of that flagship series is hardly inappropriate.

Unfortunately, even given its abridged ambition, this exposé of sorts is frustratingly content to mostly reiterate what was learned in various articles over the last year or so. Familiar points are made – the 80-hour work weeks, the dreaded “review process” with the management, the cultural shifts and layoffs that came with CEO turnover – while genuinely new information about what went down at a high level is scarce, perhaps because there genuinely isn’t anything else to learn on that front.

The main value of the documentary, and the reason it comes recommended, is the ability to see the faces and hear the voices behind those anecdotes. The print articles that have come out since the closure have similarly emphasized the point of view of the boots on the ground, but it’s a completely different matter to read about the human impact and to see it for yourself. It’s hard, for instance, to listen to the recollections about the studio’s infamous final meeting, in which 250 people were curtly told that they were all being let go without severance, without getting angry and anguished on their behalf all over again. It’s in these moments that NoClip makes its best argument for its hyper-focused and empathetic approach.

The documentary’s most affecting segment comes toward the end, when it makes clear that the success of all those dismissed developers in finding further employment has been partial at best. Despite the well-publicized efforts to direct the scattered talent to new gigs, many of those folks remain on the job hunt. And the lucky ones who did bounce back, career-wise, were often only able to do so after a life-impacting down period, or through the resort of cross-country relocation, or with a dramatic sacrifice in wages, or in exchange for a compromised sense of security. Beyond the issue of employment, there’s lingering trauma. “I talk about Telltale at therapy,” confesses Liddick, adding that making peace with the cruelty of how the situation shook out remains a struggle. If the documentary succeeds in doing nothing more than underlining such neglected truths, I should think it was a worthwhile endeavor.

It is unfair to judge something based on what you would prefer it to be rather than what it’s actually trying to be. But I think this good faith bargain between audience and a work becomes more ambiguous when the wider story is so glaringly available and so determinedly avoided. Professionally produced and well-crafted, Telltale: The Human Stories Behind The Games is a valuable insider glimpse into what it was like to work at Telltale as its inability to navigate success changed the studio’s creative environment and financial stability for the worse. I think of it as an audio/visual companion piece to the similarly myopic retrospectives that have been published, and in that light it is good and welcome and serves a purpose; I’m glad it exists.

But my overriding feeling after watching it is, “Man, I can’t wait for someone to make the real one now.” NoClip acknowledges upfront that it wasn’t looking to do a comprehensive history of the studio, but don’t you kinda have to, if you hope to fulfill the story’s potential?

Telltale: The Human Stories Behind The Games can be viewed in its entirety below: