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Telltale Games, Giant Sparrow Want to Reprogram Your Gaming Expectations

Since their formative days, video games have come with relatively predictable expectations. Most games are a journey from a starting point to a finish line, usually after defeating a final boss. Most games are built on a trial-and-error template, in which death teaches you how to succeed (and this is the core argument of my theory that “Edge of Tomorrow” is the best video game movie of all time). Most games have succinct good guys (usually you) and bad guys (usually waves of them to kill). There have always been outliers, games that tried to break the mold and alter gamer expectations. Some of the more notable efforts include “Ico,” “Shadow of the Colossus,” “Flower” and “Journey.” All must-plays. And then there’s the work being done over the last half-decade by the groundbreaking Telltale Games, including the only current video game iteration of “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Finally, there’s a recent release from Giant Sparrow & Annapurna Interactive (yes, the same Annapurna headed by Megan Ellison that releases great films like “Her”) called “What Remains of Edith Finch” that is a mini-masterpiece. The point is that the words "video games" may not always mean what you think they mean.

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Telltale Games was a relatively minor player in the ‘00s and early ‘10s, releasing games based on “Back to the Future” and “Jurassic Park” that had a loyal following, but not making critical waves like they eventually would as the current decade progressed. They took their template to another level with 2012’s “The Walking Dead,” a five-episode game that worked from the same source material as the AMC series but told its own story. There would be no Mike and Shane in this tie-in, although the themes of survival and community were resonant, and Robert Kirkman, the original author served as an adviser.

Most important was the concept of authorship through character interactions. The episodes played out like motion comics—a moving version of a graphic novel—that would pause at regular intervals and allow you to form the conversation yourself by making one of four dialogue choices. And the choices you made, even just in conversation, would impact the arc of the game. Be more supportive to a fellow traveler against the horde and maybe they would be there for you when the undead broke down the walls. And, of course, each episode included major decisions, like whether to save Character A or Character B—and the one you didn’t save never returned. To be honest, that was the most groundbreaking element of Telltale’s approach. I’ve played nearly every episode of every game they’ve released since 2012 and I’ve never restarted, even if I regretted a decision. Games are so often about fixing your mistakes, but Telltale makes you live with them, altering the story based on your decisions instead of you altering your behavior to make another attempt to “win.”

Since “The Walking Dead,” Telltale Games has not only released several new “seasons” of that show, including one currently on episode four called “The New Frontier,” but worked within other universes to create their own fascinating stories. The best of them are 2014’s “Tales From the Borderlands” and the same year’s “Game of Thrones,” set within the universe of the hit Gearbox game and George R.R. Martin books, respectively. “Tales” was a playful, sci-fi adventure built around the concept of storytelling and mythmaking, while “GoT” crafted its own story chronologically near the “Red Wedding” that shocked so many HBO viewers. What was so remarkable about both adventures was how they matched the tone of their source material without telling stories we’ve already heard. They were essentially spin-offs, companions to successful properties that enhanced the original instead of just mimicking it as so many video game tie-ins had before. Honestly, the tie-in market hasn’t been the same since. You don’t see garbage pure-marketing games for superhero or kids movies like you did in the ‘00s. (For the record, Telltale has also released good-not-great games set in the world of “Minecraft” and “Batman” in the last few years.)

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Which brings us to “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the Telltale tie-in for the Marvel film hitting theaters this Friday. Again, the writers have been allowed to adapt as much from the comic book source material as much as the feature film, and so we have the “mixtape” approach (ELO features prominently in the first episode) but the character design is a bit different and the voice work doesn’t always match up. Don’t expect a Chris Pratt drawing with someone doing an impression of his voice. However, the snarky attitude of this Starlord is definitely inspired by Pratt’s take.

Almost as if they’re announcing they’re not going to follow the film directly, the first episode, “Tangled Up in Blue,” opens with a battle with Thanos (Josh Brolin in the films) that results in his death. From there, the real narrative of this series unfolds, and you’re faced with major, story-altering decisions. The obvious comparison is the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but those often had “bad” decisions, dead ends that forced you to retrace steps and try again. That’s not the way Telltale works. It’s merely a series of branching story options, down to if you deal with The Collector or Nova Corps on a major decision, or if you take Gamora or Drax with you to face an enemy. It’s not “wrong,” it’s just yours. The balance of humor and action that made the film such a hit is prominent, and it looks like Telltale could have their most rewarding series since “Game of Thrones.”

As much fun as the first episode of “Guardians: The Telltale Series” is, it’s nothing creatively-speaking when compared to Annapurna Interactive and Giant Sparrow’s “What Remains of Edith Finch,” now available on the PlayStation Store. The team behind the award-winning “The Unfinished Swan” have topped themselves with this first-person adventure game about a woman traveling back to her home and reliving what are essentially short stories about her family tree. “What Remains of Edith Finch” may be the closest thing to an interactive animated film that I’ve ever played. There are no enemies. You can’t die. There’s no HUD or tutorial. You merely push your way through the home, opening books or letters and briefly entering the lives of Finch family members.

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The setting of “What Remains of Edith Finch” is a character in itself. Told in constant narration, much of which is artistically splashed across the screen, you relive the stories of the Finch family members by visiting their bedrooms, and each story has a unique game/storytelling style. In one, you play a child on a swing, moving the analog sticks to push each leg back and forth, going higher and higher as the story of this child’s last day is told. In another, you move through an interactive comic inspired by “Creepshow” and “Halloween,” telling the story of a teen Finch member’s horrific final day. In perhaps the best story, you chop off fish heads. Don’t ask. You just need to experience it.

The storytelling of “What Remains of Edith Finch” is simply spectacular, echoing the dark humor of something like “Tales From the Crypt” with a more melancholy, almost Poe-esque take on memory and loss. Every family has their crazy stories, the Finches just have more than most, and spending two hours in this world, with its incredible art direction and memorable score, is more than rewarding—it rewires exactly what you expect when you sit down with a controller in your hands. And that’s something only the best games can do.

“Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series” and “What Remains of Edith Finch” are both available now.


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