[This article contains images that some may find upsetting]
Less than a year ago, on 20 December 2016, the Russian ambassador to Turkey was assassinated in Ankara. Andrei Karlov was a career diplomat who had spent many years as Russia’s ambassador to North Korea before, in 2013, being appointed as ambassador to Turkey. Mr Karlov was opening an exhibition entitled “Russia as seen by Turks” when he was shot multiple times by Mevlut Altintas, a member of the Turkish police.
This assassination received global coverage not just because of its political dimension, but because of the photographs. A handful of photojournalists had come to get snaps of the ambassador’s speech and, when events unfolded, they captured what happened from multiple angles. The snarling assassin is dressed in a black suit and tie against the backdrop of a pristine white art gallery, and in some photos Mr Karlov’s prone body is seen.
This stark visual confluence gives the photographs a filmic quality — like there’s something staged about them. The horror of the event remains foregrounded, but the surroundings exaggerate the figures involved. Discussing aesthetics in such a grim context is uneasy, so I’ll stop there, but these photographs are striking. One of the pictures involved, taken by Burhan Ozbilici, won the World Press Photo Association’s photograph of the year award.
Perhaps their unreality and, at some level, a resemblance to the white backgrounds of stock images, was what led to an unknown Telltale artist cropping Mr Karlov’s body from a photograph by Haşim Kılıç.
October 3rd this year saw the release of episode 2 in Telltale’s Batman: The Enemy Within. A scene in the game features Bruce Wayne discussing a crime at the Gotham Brokerage with Alfred, whereupon an image flashes up on the Bat-computer.
The image is reproduced below. The image afterwards is one of the photographs taken by Haşim Kılıç after the assassination of Andrei Karlov.
The body shown in the Gotham Brokerage is clearly Mr Karlov, cropped from the original background and with the body’s dimensions slightly stretched. It has been removed from its original context and altered. When this was first noticed, Telltale gave the following statement to Gamasutra:
"An update to the game has been submitted this morning that will be removing the image across all platforms. We regret this incident occurred, and we are taking appropriate action internally to ensure that we continue to maintain our high standards in Production and Quality Assurance.”
“We regret this incident occurred” isn’t exactly taking responsibility, much less explaining what happened. This is a photograph of a man who was killed less than a year ago. It is a shocking image. How could this have happened?
I contacted Haşim Kılıç, who had been present at the Ankara exhibition opening in his role as a photojournalist for the Hurriyet newspaper and website. I asked first of all whether he was aware of this use of his photograph.
“I just learned my photo was used in a game,” wrote Mr Kılıç. “I'm frankly surprised. frankly very surprised.”
It is not surprising that a photojournalist on one of Turkey’s biggest outlets doesn’t keep up with video game news, but it is surprising that many days after the story had broken, nobody from Telltale had contacted Mr Kılıç. At the time Mr Kılıç’s photographs had been bought and distributed by Reuters. However, a representative of Reuters was able to confirm that the organisation does not hold the copyright for his photographs, meaning it remains with Mr Kılıç.
This is obvious but worth pointing out: Mr Kılıç was not just a photographer on that day, but a witness to the murder of Mr Karlov. I asked Mr Kılıç whether Telltale had asked permission to use the photo.
“Nobody communicated with me to use my photo. I would not have allowed it anyway. I think it is not correct to use the photo in this way. The use of such a photograph for entertainment purposes is a great disrespect for the memory of that person and his family.”
Telltale’s remark about its own “high standards in production and quality assurance” raises the question of how, exactly, something like this could have happened. If you want to know how it did happen, I suggest an experiment. Google image search for ‘assassination.’ Scroll down past the first three or four rows and this is what you’ll see.
Google image search is now just a part of life and, one might surmise, a part of art production at Telltale and other studios. That may explain how it first found its way into the pipeline. But the use of this image was always going to be noticed once the game was released. These photographs were seen around the globe, won awards, and someone was certain to spot it. It makes you wonder how many less egregious examples of stuff like this have flown under the radar.
Telltale declined to comment further on this incident when contacted. A Telltale employee - who would would not speak on the record or agree to being directly quoted for this article - told me that using stock images is part of the production pipeline for certain background elements at Telltale, and someone senior in the art department is responsible for sourcing and attributing those images. It's not unusual, said the source, for Telltale’s artists to use photographs as parts of larger scenes, in order to help keep their work grounded.
This source also indicated there were three areas where the photograph of Mr Karlov could and should have been caught. The legal department should have checked the image rights were secured and from where. The lead artist should have picked it up when checking the game’s assets. And when sorting the end credits, it should also have been flagged as requiring accreditation.
None of this happened.
I spoke to a producer at one of the major platform-holders and asked how commonplace such mistakes were.
“I remember, I think it was Dark Omen back in the 90s had similar problems with a photo of Sandra Bullock. Sometimes it’s a placeholder image that makes it into the final game, and sometimes it’s an artist who’s a bit clueless to copyright law. Most big publishers have legal teams that check but even this isn’t foolproof. Mistakes can sneak through.
“There’s a third reason this stuff gets in; disgruntled employees. I remember Turn 10 had an issue with a Forza, which I don’t think made it to the final game, where a Chinese outsourcing company employee put ‘fuck Japan’ in Chinese in one of the textures…”
Readers in the UK may also remember the 2007 case of a Law & Order video game, which shipped containing a CCTV image of the murdered toddler James Bulger. It shows how heinous these mistakes can be. But mistakes can and do happen, especially when you’re trying to pull together a complex project to meet deadlines.
Telltale is a company, of course, that has a lot of deadlines to meet. In the course of preparing this article I spoke to former and current employees, as well as people who have worked with Telltale and others who have industry experience of asset pipelines (how images go from first drafts to in-game forms). None would consent to be named or speak on the record.
The story that emerges is of a company that’s grown enormously over recent years, lost some of its key creative staff over the same period, and made bad bets as well as good ones. It’s a company that is struggling to improve the quality of its games, and work out what’s next, while maintaining an extraordinarily busy release schedule.
Telltale’s production process is intensive, and built around a business model of making adventure games in a ‘series’ format. Each of these series will release an ‘episode’ every month or bi-monthly, and there can be anything from three to eight episodes. A Telltale episode you can basically think of as a 2-4 hour adventure game. At any one time, Telltale is producing multiple different series alongside one another.
Here’s some idea of the numbers: in 2016 the studio produced four episodes of Minecraft: Story Mode, three episodes of The Walking Dead: Michonne, two episodes of The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, and five episodes of Batman: the Telltale Series. That’s 14 releases in 12 months.
Thus far in 2017 the studio has produced five episodes of Guardians of the Galaxy: the Telltale Series, three episodes of Minecraft: Story Mode Season Two, and two episodes of Batman: the Enemy Within. That’s ten in ten months, and many of these series have multiple more episodes due by the end of the year.
The gaps between episodes have also tightened in recent years. Telltale’s goal now is to produce episodes in a given series on a bi-monthly basis or, if possible, on a monthly schedule. Batman is one of the latter: an episode a month. This schedule is the product of experience; over 2014-2015 Telltale developed and released Tales from the Borderlands. It was the studio’s most critically-acclaimed series to date, but there was a gap of around five months between the release of the first and second episode, then another three months before episode three. Commercially, the game suffered.
Speaking to the Campo Santo Quarterly, director Adam Sarasohn explained: “We took a lot of time between Episodes One and Two and Three, and then we got much better. But I wanted it to have that time, because I didn’t want to come out with an episode that was a 70. We were always shooting for 90s, every single episode.”
Producer Nick Herman explains the impact that schedule had on sales: “At that point, the sales for Tales from the Borderlands weren’t great. They were decent, it’s not like we were losing money, but compared to something like The Walking Dead, it wasn’t on the same level. If there’s three months between Episodes One and Two, you’re going to lose a large portion of your audience, who forgets about your game.”
The lesson of Tales from the Borderlands wasn’t about quality. It was ‘ship episodes quickly or players lose interest.’ Since the Borderlands experience, Telltale has not left two months between episodes of any of its games. Telltale’s games are cross-platform, too — the deadlines are not only extraordinarily tight, but also include getting the game working and approved for release on Android, iOS, PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One, PS3 and Xbox 360.
Any developers reading this are probably coming out in hives at the thought. I spoke to an individual present at one meeting where a deadline extension for a project was raised, who said that the response of Telltale’s management was to repeat “I don’t want to hear that” until the subject was dropped. Anonymous accounts of former employees’ experiences on places like Glassdoor suggest that industry gossip about extreme crunch conditions is not unfounded.
One of the reasons there are layers of sign-offs baked into projects is because, when mistakes do happen, they can be as ghastly as this. Public reaction to the initial story ranged from outright amusement to tut-tutting, with the tweet that discovered the photo’s use embedded in most articles and having a tone that… was not ideal.
My own reaction to the photograph, and what followed, was horrified disbelief. Telltale’s statement, which did not admit and accept responsibility, rubbed salt in the wound. There’s a difference between owning your mistakes and trying to ignore them.
Telltale’s statement, and the company’s refusal to comment further on this episode, indicate that it wants to forget about this and move on as quickly as possible. But others have their eyes open. A few days ago the director of the Information and Press Department at Russia’s Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, raised Telltale’s use of the photograph while briefing the Russian Federation Council.
Zakharova now complaining that Telltale used photo of Amb. Karpov’s corpse in its Batman video game. (wtf does this have to do w/ Twitter??)
— Kevin Rothrock (@KevinRothrock) November 1, 2017
This production mistake is now one of the Putin regime’s examples of Western disrespect. It is difficult to believe, based on the evidence, that the inclusion of this photograph was anything other than a mistake — but the Russians have leaped upon the opportunity to characterise it otherwise.
Telltale PR was given a number of questions in relation to this article, but declined to respond.
It ill-behooves any of us to get on the soapbox about mistakes, because there but for the grace of God. But outside of all the stuff about deadlines and production processes and now politics, at the core of this story is a murdered man, and the ethics of respect. Andrei Karlov has been dead for less than a year, and is survived by his wife and son. Karlov’s family could have seen that photo plastered across a hundred more web pages in the past weeks. Senior Russian officials are using it to make political points (Karlov’s son, Gennady, also works for the Russian government). The photographer who witnessed the assassination didn’t know his work had been taken and used without permission until we contacted him.
Telltale’s response, thus far, has been inadequate.
Mistakes like this — however they happen, however unintentional they may be — have consequences in the real world and for other peoples’ lives. A Batman game resurfaced a horrible and tragic event from recent history, and is now itself a little propaganda point; something that can be twisted to make other points, and never retracted, however quickly it is patched out of the game itself. The world will remember that.