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Watch Out, Telltale: The Council Rewrites the Narrative Adventure Playbook

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The Council

Since the launch of the first season of The Walking Dead in 2012, Telltale Games has been the undisputed champion of the narrative adventure genre. The studio’s shining star has enabled it to license such highly valued properties as Borderlands, Batman, and Game of Thrones, and myriad other development teams have co-opted the episodic release model and narrative structure to varying degrees of success. With The Council, Big Bad Wolf Studio becomes the most recent team to try its hand at the format and, thanks to some smart additions, may outdo Telltale in its area of specialisation.

Backed by the experienced teams at Cyanide and Focus Home Interactive, Big Bad Wolf has embarked on a noble mission with The Council. Scheduled to be released as five episodes, the project drops the speculative-fiction setting and trappings of many other episodic titles in favour of a narrative firmly grounded within a historical fiction mystery. With such a premise, the game may come across as Telltale by way of Assassin’s Creed and Agatha Christie, but, while it certainly owes a debt of gratitude to the past, any such direct comparison will fall short. Instead, this new IP feels, at once, recognisable and strange, blending relatable concerns with antiquated ideas. Beyond the apparent literary and ludic inspirations, The Council draws heavily from real-world history, featuring a bundle of eminent personages, peppering the setting with famed artwork, and relying on Ancient Greek mythology for the sole puzzle in the first episode. The inclusion of these aspects establishes the game within cultures and time periods that will be familiar to many Westerners. As such, slipping into the shoes of French gentleman Louis de Richet feels comfortable, though the development team is uninterested in engendering that same sense of contentment throughout the remainder of the production.

The Council does not attempt to replicate past successes, but to build upon and revolutionise them. At the heart of this goal is the infusion of RPG mechanics into Telltale’s formula. Before beginning the adventure, players are required to choose one of three professions for Louis, each of which immediately unlocks a suite of five talents and makes them cheaper to upgrade. These skills range from physical traits, such as agility, to more abstract and intellectual pursuits including science and etiquette. While several of these talents can go without being exercised for quite some time, The Council is carefully balanced to ensure none are superfluous, though the value of certain skills sometimes lacks clarity. To prevent players from relying too heavily on these abilities, Big Bad Wolf has included an Effort bar that drains with each use, though this meter can be replenished and affected in other ways by a range of consumables. This collection of mechanics most commonly emerges within conversations, which also represent an innovative departure from the norm.

Council2

The dialogue wheel may be standard fare, but Confrontations give The Council a unique edge. Confrontations occur in moments of high tension, such as when Louis is trying to gain information from one of the NPCs or convince them of his trustworthiness, and more closely resemble L.A. Noire’s interrogation segments than traditional in-game discussions. Often taking the form of battles of wits, these gameplay segments demand emotional intelligence, logic, and memorisation of facts previously established within the narrative. With only one chance of success in each encounter, The Council feels realistic and engaging in a way that most RPGs and many narrative adventures are unwilling to attempt. However, this tendency to keep players on their toes comes with the concession that necessary knowledge is not always forthcoming. Even the most attentive user may overlook or fail to locate a piece of information that may be vital later. Such occasions can be frustrating, but hindsight allows the player to realise that the fault lies with their lack of observation and not a shortcoming within the game. The Confrontations system is brilliant, but its reliance on the user’s perceptiveness can be an issue that is endemic to the entire project.

Between observations, talents, traits, levelling, and Confrontations, The Council can, at times, seem overwhelming in its complexity. True RPGs such as Skyrim and Divinity can take the time to introduce their mechanics slowly, ensuring players have a firm grasp of each before moving on to the next. Although Big Bad Wolf tries to do the same, the demand of constant narrative progression means that the tutorials for certain features, including the Traits, do not seem quite comprehensive enough. Additionally, as Louis only levels up at the end of each chapter and the game offers little indication of what awaits in the next, the process of selecting which skills to improve must be based on a particular version of the character. ‘Role playing’ is thus foregrounded, but the player is left at a loss, sometimes unable to use talents that will lead to better chances of success. As such, the leveling systems seem a little obtuse, though, admittedly, alternative solutions would likely be less elegant and break up the core gameplay and narrative.

To disturb the story would be a cardinal error. As mentioned earlier, the tale told by The Council is a grounded narrative mystery with stakes that, in this first episode, at least, seem much lower than those present in The Walking Dead, Life is Strange, King’s Quest, or Guardians of the Galaxy. However, the novel setting and human concerns give the title a unique selling point. Furthermore, although Louis’s quest to locate his missing mother powers the adventure, much larger mysteries emerge as the game progresses. From George Washington’s and Napoleon Bonaparte’s secrets to the cone of silence that surrounds Lord Mortimer (the owner of the island manor that Louis and his mother are invited to), new questions constantly arise. The depth of this narrative is combined with a choice-and-consequence system that makes players keenly aware that they may be missing out on key pieces of information by selecting a path to follow. As such, the user feels like the architect of Louis’s relationships and destiny, which is a quality that few other games—episodic narratives or otherwise—can claim to achieve.

Choice is frequently touted as a central feature of Telltale-esque, new-age point-and-click adventures, but few manage to give immediate weight to the consequences. The Council is different. The options remain binary, but siding with one character or staying in a particular location rather than leaving feels as though it alters the dynamic and has long-term effects. In concert with this trait, the game introduces a host of RPG mechanics that, while sometimes lacking clarity, give it a clear identity disparate from the norm. As such, Big Bad Wolf’s debut project does not seem to be a competitor to Telltale and its contemporaries; it is a successor.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

E3 2019

The Winners of E3, According to OnlySP

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E3 2019

The OnlySP team has been rather negative about E3 2019 as a whole, sharing undisguised disappointment about Ninja Theory, Microsoft, and Ubisoft in particular. However, we are gamers first, and the show had plenty to excite, so we wanted to share at least a small ray of positivity by rounding up some of our winners from the past week.

Best AAA Trailer

Cyberpunk 2077

Two of the most anticipated games of 2020 topped the list, with Cyberpunk 2077 just pipping Final Fantasy VII Remake. The trailer was exactly what you want from a major production with the insane amount of hype that Cyberpunk 2077 is enjoying: mystery, emotional story moments, and heart-pounding action.

As if all that is not enough, one of the hottest stars of the moment, Keanu Reeves, was revealed as a cast member.

Doubters were all but silenced, and everyone else was gratified. Even better, we got a release date: April 16, 2020. Could anyone possibly lust for more?

Best Indie Trailer

Tie: Spiritfarer and Way to the Woods

As usual, Microsoft brought the ID@Xbox goods to its E3 stage, and we just could not pick between these two.

On the one hand, the team at Thunder Lotus Games finally unveiled its new project, Spiritfarer. The game brings back the glorious hand-drawn art style that had us falling in love with Jotun and Sundered, marrying to a unique take on the Charon myth. Furthermore, Spiritfarer’s low-key charm and gorgeous watercolour was a perfect counterpoint to Cyberpunk 2077, which preceded it.

On the other hand, Way to the Woods got a sparkling new trailer. The two deer are simply gorgeous, and the bright colours and mellifluous music make the game seems a journey befitting the glory days of thatgamecompany. Simple puzzles, a moving story, an entrancing atmosphere… We just want Way to the Woods on its way to our homes.

Favourite New Game Announcement

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Sequel

E3 2019 had no shortage of enticing new announcements, but nothing was quite so enticing as Nintendo’s “one more thing.” After Breath of the Wild set the world on fire in 2017, a sequel was basically a foregone conclusion. Even so, that brief tease set our hopes alight.

In truth, we know next to nothing about this new project—other than that it is set in the same version of Hyrule as its predecessor and Zelda is rocking a slick new hairstyle—but its mere existence is enough.

Biggest Surprise

Keanu Reeves is in Cyberpunk 2077

I may have already mentioned this, but Keanu Reeves is going to be in Cyberpunk 2077.

If we need to explain more, the world of gaming is familiar with seeing TV and film stars cross over—Kit Harington in Call of Duty, Emma Stone in Sleeping Dogs—but Reeves is a particularly hot property right now.

Moreover, the word is that this is more than just a brief cameo. Reeve’s character, Johnny Silverhand, has been a big part of Cyberpunk lore, and CD Projekt RED reportedly spent 15 days capturing his performance.

Even Watch Dogs: Legion looking as though it is finally going to deliver on the promises of the first game is not enough to beat Keanu.

Favourite Stage Personality

Ikumi Nakamura

Full disclosure: the team picked Keanu, but Keanu can’t win everything, damn it!

Therefore, this award goes to Ikumi Nakamura, protégé of Shinji Mikami, who took the stage during Bethesda’s press conference to reveal Ghostwire: Tokyo. Where most presenters—even developers—are reserved, sharing the soundbites that make the games sound appealing, Nakamura radiated enthusiasm for her project.

Put simply, Nakamura was a ray of sunshine to remind us all that game development is not always about cynicism and monetisation; sometimes, it is about genuine love and passion.

Biggest Winners

Nintendo

With “gamers” one of the options on the list, I thought this category would be a foregone conclusion. However, the outcome proved that adage about what happens when we assume things…

The team voted for Nintendo, and the why is easy enough to understand. A new Legend of Zelda game will always be an event. The addition of Banjo-Kazooie to Super Smash Bros. is a long-overdue coup. Luigi’s Mansion 3 looks better than it has any right to. Meanwhile, Daemon X Machina, Astral Chain, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order all got great new showings, and we officially learned of the arrival of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt and Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (among other, slightly less exciting titles) on the Switch.


These winners were all decided by those of us who stayed at home. However, you may have noticed that we had Mike Cripe and Dimitric Edwards on the show floor, so they went hands-on with a bunch of games the rest of us could only gawp at.

Over the coming days and weeks, Mike and Dimitric will be delivering previews of Final Fantasy VII Remake, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and Biomutant, as well as a few interesting interviews, so we’ll have plenty of fresh details for you all to pore over.

First, though, coming tomorrow will be Mike’s hands-off preview of one of the show’s most contentious games: Marvel’s Avengers.

For all those previews and much more from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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