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Ex Telltale Devs Are Making a Secret Project

VO: Adrian Sousa WRITTEN BY: JG
Netflix's Black Mirror: Bandersnatch may be a revival of interactive movies and television. In an attempt to further bridge the gap and make great new content that is both movie and game, some former Telltale developers are working on a secret new project.
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Ex-Telltale Devs are Creating the Next “Bandersnatch”

When beloved adventure game developer and publisher Telltale Games announced a majority studio closure on September 21, 2018, letting go of 90% of their workforce or nearly 250 people, fans of their unique brand of game design and interactive storytelling were devastated. The final two episodes of “The Walking Dead: The Final Season” were handed off to Skybound Games, the company founded by “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, but other announced Telltale games, like the highly anticipated “The Wolf Among Us: Season Two,” “Game of Thrones: Season Two,” and their untitled “Stranger Things” game, were canceled. Telltale officially filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in November of 2018, leaving a hole in the video game space for narrative-driven adventure games.

Fortunately for fans of interactive storytelling, four former Telltale developers, who’d left the studio before its closure, got together to form AdHoc Studio in the hopes of filling that hole left by Telltale. According to Variety’s Michael Futter, AhHoc’s co-founders Michael Choung, Dennis Lenart, Nick Herman, and Pierre Shorette, first discussed doing their own thing during a long night working on a game at Telltale, a company that was notorious for its brutal crunch times.

Choung left his position as a Lead Writer at Telltale in 2016 for a job as a Senior Writer at Night School Studio, the developers of Oxenfree, while Lenart, Herman, and Shorette left to work on a project at Ubisoft in early 2017. When the hopes of forming a new studio under Ubisoft’s umbrella didn’t pan out, the four reunited to create their own independent studio, bringing with them years of experience in interactive storytelling.

In the article announcing the company’s formation and its vision for the future, Variety’s Michael Futter and the co-founders of AdHoc cite “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” as the closest comparable to AdHoc’s approach to interactive storytelling. According to Futter, quote, “AdHoc isn’t ready to discuss its first project, or who it is partnering with just yet. However, the team is strongly hinting that it will be an interactive, live-action experience,” unquote.

“Bandersnatch” may have been a mainstream hit, but it’s nothing new: “Kinoautomat,” the world’s first interactive movie, debuted in Montreal at the 1967 Worlds Fair, and FMV or Full Motion Video games have been around since before the days of 1992’s “Night Trap.” And, as the Variety article correctly points out, Big Finish’s “Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure,” Sam Barlow’s “Her Story,” and CtrlMovie’s “Late Shift,” had revived the seemingly-dead genre long before Charlie Booker and co. launched their interactive episode of “Black Mirror” in 2018.

It’s also worth noting that in 2015, Lionsgate invested a reported forty million dollars in Telltale with the intention of collaborating with the studio to produce “Super Shows.” In an interview with Entertainment Weekly’s Jonathon Dornbush, then-Telltale CEO Kevin Bruner described the “Super Show” as, quote, “one part of interactive playable content with one part of scripted television-style content. Both pieces, when combined together, are what make an actual Super Show episode,” end quote. The “Super Show” concept never fully got off the ground at Telltale, but what they were planning sounds a lot like an episodic version of “Bandersnatch.”

So what new ground, if any, did “Bandersnatch” actually break, and what lessons could be applied to AdHoc’s first project? There are two answers: “Production Value” & “Reach.”

The first thing fans of FMV games will notice about “Bandersnatch” when compared to other contemporary games in the genre is the high production value. It looks, sounds, and feels like an episode of “Black Mirror” and has a solid cast of actors. This may seem like an obvious point, but it’s an important one. Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones’ House of Tomorrow, the production company behind “Black Mirror,” is used to creating high-quality live-action content, so why would “Bandersnatch” be an exception? However, when compared to interactive games like the ones developed by Telltale or Quantic Dream, “Bandersnatch” doesn’t even come close in terms of the amount of interactivity and possible story paths. Here’s an illustrated flowchart by Reddit user EngineeringMySadness of all the possible paths and endings in “Bandersnatch.” Now, here’s a flowchart created by GamesBeat to illustrate all the choices in Telltale’s “The Walking Dead: Season One.” The first season was released back in 2012, and the level of interactivity and choice in interactive narrative games has only become more complex and detailed since then. While “Bandersnatch” is miles ahead of other interactive FMV games in terms of production value, as an interactive narrative game, it’s way behind. If AdHoc can team up with a production company to combine the production value of “Bandersnatch” with the complexity and polish of modern interactive narrative games, they could have something that truly separates itself from the crowd.

The other noteworthy element of “Bandersnatch” is its mainstream reach. In a statement issued to Ars Technica regarding the sudden shutdown, Telltale game’s CEO Pete Hawley explained, quote, “We released some of our best content this year and received a tremendous amount of positive feedback, but ultimately, that did not translate to sales,” end quote. This seems like a pretty big hurdle: if quality games and experiences aren’t enough to drive sales, what will? Well, if you consider “Bandersnatch” an FMV game - which, for all intents and purposes, it is - then it’s probably one of the most widely experienced and popular examples in the genre. This is due in large part to the brand recognition of “Black Mirror” and the distribution power of Netflix’ platform. The average person opens up Netflix, and the first thing they see is a new episode of “Black Mirror” that they’ve essentially already paid for through their monthly subscription, so of course they’re going to at least check it out. The result is a huge amount of cultural capital built on the reputation and accessibility of the franchise and platform. One obvious path for AdHoc to replicate this recipe for success would be to continue in the Telltale tradition of adapting established and widely popular I.Ps like Batman, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. The other important factor would be finding and partnering with a platform that will put their project in front of as many eyes as possible, whether that be Netflix or any number of their direct competitors in the streaming space.

While understanding the significance of “Production Value” and “Reach” is critical if AdHoc wants to capitalize on the success of “Bandersnatch,” the importance of assembling a strong and experienced team cannot be understated.

Layoffs in the video game industry are nothing new, but Telltale is an extreme case, going from over 250 employees to just 25 virtually overnight. That means there are hundreds of talented developers who may or may not have found a new gig in the industry since the layoffs at the end of September 2018, and who - given their experience - are best suited to create the kind of non-linear narrative experiences AhHoc is hoping to deliver. If the co-founders of AdHoc Studio are smart, they’ll bring in the people responsible for making Telltale’s library of games so beloved to help them create the next generation of interactive stories.
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