Digital Hurdles: A Tale Told of Telltale

John Tabbernor // Columnist

Looking back at the video game industry in 2018, most people will say that the story of the year will be Fortnite – its breakout success, obsessive fandom and sheer domination of the cultural zeitgeist. The game will have the industry chasing the Battle Royale craze and its games-as-service model for the next couple of years until another trend takes its place. But this won’t be the 2018 story that will be shaping the industry for the next decade: it will be labour.

In the past weeks, the industry has been abuzz over the shuttering of Telltale Games. The studio found success in revitalizing the adventure game genre with its fresh take on choose-your-own-adventure style storytelling. Its adaptations of popular franchises like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Minecraft led to its meteoric success and rapid expansion. Seemingly overnight the studio kept signing new deals for games: Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy and even a now-cancelled adaptation of Stranger Things

In the end, it wouldn’t be enough to save the company from being mismanaged, never quite able to get back on track even after bringing on a new CEO and restructuring last year. Though the writing seemed to be on the wall, without warning the company fired 275 employees on Sept. 21. A skeleton crew would be kept on to tie up previous commitments, but the rest were given 30 minutes to leave the building. Their work accounts were locked by the time they got back to their desks. No severance would be paid. To make matters even worse, everyone’s health insurance would expire at the end of the month, just nine days away. Two weeks later, the remaining staff were treated to the same.

Aside from corporate mismanagement and growing the company too quickly, many reports paint a bleak picture of the studio’s work culture. Though home to hundreds of creatives who cared deeply about their projects, Telltale was also notorious for unpaid, mandatory overtime. Often referred to as “crunch” in the industry, the practice is endemic and unsustainable. Put 10 game developers in a room and you’ll get 10 stories about 90-hour work weeks, burnout, ruined relationships and more. Even here at home in Vancouver, our game development studios fall under an exemption in the Employment Standards Act of British Columbia. This means they do not have to adhere to rules regarding “meal breaks, split shifts, minimum daily pay and hours free from work each week, as well as overtime and statutory holidays.”

Some corners of the internet are lamenting Telltale’s closure, not because it’s a blow to the livelihood of 275 people and their families, but because the fate of The Walking Dead: The Final Season remains unclear. Only the first half of the episodic series has been released, meaning the story lacks an ending. As fans, it can be easy to forget that the games we love are made by people. Demanding a studio finish a game when the real individuals who created it in the first place are left without severance might be shocking to the average person. Often, most game enthusiasts are incredibly disconnected from the process by which they are created. This can also exist in other mediums such as film and television, but seemingly not to the same extent. It makes sense – we invest more of ourselves into games. More time. More money. Games are performative and we become wrapped up in the worlds they allow us to inhabit. But if we prioritize digital characters over the real people who shed blood, sweat and tears to bring us those characters, then maybe we have lost sight of what is truly important.

There have been rumblings in the video game industry for the last few years about unionization. These were usually met with resistance to the idea and pushback at all levels, but this year the conversation is changing. At the Game Developers Conference in March, the first talks in recent memory over industry-wide unionization were held. Hosted by the advocacy group Game Workers Unite, discussions about workers’ rights, sustainable practices and direct action have never been more front of mind. In response to this latest studio closure, Game Workers Unite released a statement noting, “unionization can’t fix Telltale after the fact, but it could have prevented so much of the damage to countless workers’ lives by ensuring benefits like severance pay and healthcare that lasts from job to job.” The current model for many studios and their workers in video games is unsustainable. Whether unionization comes to the industry or not, the question of labour practices won’t go away. We as players need to be having these tough conversations alongside developers. How our games get made matters. Though one studio’s tale might be over, the story about labour in video games has only just begun.

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