So here’s the great thing about the Telltale story-driven games.
It’s not that they’re “GREAT STORIES”, though they are in fact excellent examples of the storyteller’s art, showing keen understanding of their respective properties (Walking Dead and Fables, respectively, for those of you yahoos who haven’t played them yet, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for). There have been, much to the surprise of many, quite a few excellent stories in games over the years. No, that’s not what makes these two, Walking Dead and Wolf Among Us, stand out.
It’s because Telltale figured out a mechanic - a mechanic! Yes! A game mechanic as a storytelling tool in a game! - to make you care about the characters in the game world.
And how do they do that? By stripping away all of the “game” elements of the game until those character are all that’s left. You don’t level in The Wolf Among Us. You don’t collect loot. You don’t get XP or better armor or a +3 sword of fable-smiting. In fact, they have taken absolutely everything that you normally use to keep track of your progress and advancement in a game and stripped it out.
The only thing that’s left? Character. More specifically, your relationships with the other characters in the world. There is, quite literally, nothing else to hold on to.
And that is, by and large, the mechanical function of those characters in the design as well. They’re not quest givers. They’re not there to give you combos or unlock skill trees or shoot bad guys or do anything mechanical for you. They are there to be a part of the world, the only part of the world that matters from moment to moment.
It’s a remarkable achievement, and an elegant one. To make characters mean more, give the player less. Bravo.