The 1980’s and 90’s boasted memorable, but peculiar toy line-ups that often came off quite eerily than its intended purpose. With animatronic stuffed animals that was boxed in with a cassette and storybook such as that of the Teddy Ruxpin dolls from 1985 to the interactive talking pets, Furbys from 1998, its either children were charmed by these characters or found them annoying and/or unsettling.
The intention behind the making of these toys was obviously to be enjoyable and engaging, no doubt, but there was certainly something about the way they were designed that often didn’t sit right with parents and their target audience. With the release of the popular indie horror game, Tattletail, Waygetter Electronics paints an image of the child’s mind and their relationship with these characters in a way those of us who grew up with such toys identified with them ourselves.
With the titular character as a pastiche of Furbys and Mama Tattletail as a nod to the Teddy Ruxpin type dolls, there are some basic traits and archetypes that strongly reflect how children felt personified the animatronic operated dolls. Given the game’s context clues, the question is how Tattletail represents the way children of the 80’s and 90’s identified with these products and the influence commercialization had on their perception.
While this essay is written as a means of interpreting Tattletail and therefore, might not necessarily reflect the artistic intentions of Ben Esposito or Geneva Hodgens, it’s the player observations and real-life experiences that enhance their playthrough experiences. Such context clues to evaluate include character archetypes and their real-life counterparts, how commercialization is satirized and Waygetter’s clever use of transmedia.
Character Archetypes: Baby Tattletail
As players who are already familiar with the source material will know, Baby Tatteltail is homage to Furbys while Mama Tattletail is loosely based on the talking toys that were programmed to read a storybook once a cassette was inserted. Upon examining the character designs depicted in the concept art by Hodgens, we know the type of materials and functions the parody characters are imagined with are the same or like the real-life brands being satirized. For example, the type of eyes and eye-lid movements on the first generation Furbys’ influence on Tattletail’s eyes as seen on paper demonstrate that Tattletail’s movements would be animated to resemble its real-world counterpart. As for how the character is portrayed, Tattletail is basically more of a nuisance than an antagonist. When the game begins on December 21st, 1998 and the first-person protagonist sneaks out of bed to open his Christmas present early, the first night simply involves the player getting acquainted with the titular character. Like Furbys, Tattletail’s behavior is highly energetic, overly talkative, and silly. The player’s reaction to this character is that its’ voice is annoying and its animation is ‘creepy’ as one would use such words to describe Furbys in their appearance and character. It should also be noted that although Furbys aren’t designed with much human-like resemblance, Tattletail is depicted with human-like skin and feet as indicated in the concept art, made with vinyl or plastic like that of a doll.
Another similarity Tattletail shares with Furby is that Tattletail is immediately reminiscent of a talking pet toy, which children would take care of as they would a real pet. On the upper left hand side of the screen, the player will see three color-coated meters indicating Tattletail’s needs. They require the player to feed Tattletail (red), groom him (blue) and charge his battery (green). Although the archetype shares more commonalities with Furbys, in that regard, this is where Tattletail is also like two other pet toys of the 1990’s: Tamagotchi and Giga Pets. Without distracting the focus of it being primarily a bland-name product equivalent to the animatronic toy, Waygetter Games also derived the familiar virtual pet tropes into the game. Although Tattletail uses these similarities sparingly, the game relies on them as indicators as to when Tattletail needs something like how Tamagotchis and Giga Pets did. With a Furby of the 1990’s, the toy owner would have to just listen to what the toy is asking them to do. For example, to ‘feed’ Furbys, the toy owner would simply stick their finger inside the Furby’s beak, resulting the toy’s scripted satisfaction by letting out a ‘yum’ to reward this action. Because it’s seen in game that Tattletail unrealistically ‘really eats’ and is confirmed upon taking him to the refrigerator to get him some food on the first night, obviously Furbys can’t do that, it makes more sense that the Tamagotchi, Giga Pet and even modern Furbys (with the use of an iPad app) step in. The interface for the main gameplay of Tattletail is setup to slightly resemble a virtual pet screen and monitor how promptly the player attends to Tattletail’s needs.
This also leads to another notable similarity between the real-life toy and the fictitious brand and how well it lends itself to the game’s story: there is no way to shut down. For those of us who grew up with Furbys and virtual pets of the ‘90’s, we all knew the toy manufactures certainly did their job very well, if not a bit too well. The goal that these toys imposed was to feel like taking care of a real pet and to add to and market that credibly into their products, turning them off was apparently not an option. This would serve to constantly stay on top of these toys to satisfy and nurture the character being taken care of. (In the case of Tamagotchis and Giga Pets, the penalty for negligence would result in the pets’ demise if the score reached 0). For Tattletail as a character, the first night the player is introduced to him and the game mechanics, he is not only never supposed to shut down, but the meters play an important role later in the story that requires the players’ undivided attention to survive. Although reaching the lowest on the meters don’t kill Tattletail off, it decreases the playable character’s survival and potentially results in his own demise during his encounters with Mama Tattletail.
The character of Tattletail serves as a reminder of how those who owned a Furby felt with its disturbingly chipper tone of voice and mechanical animation. With additional influences, such as the Tamagotchi/Giga Pet included to finalize this character’s persona, they add to a sense of anxiety that feels like that of constantly being on top of a digital pet as if it were real. Therefore the role Tattletail plays is to combine the annoyance and unsettlement Furby owners felt with the animatronic toy’s uncanny valley traits along with the stress virtual pet owners felt upon hearing constant beeps reminding them to attend to its needs. This leads us to Mama Tattletail and what she represents as a character.
Character Archetypes: Mama Tattletail
Shortly, after the main Baby Tattletail is found having some fun on top of the washing machine, Mama Tattletail is mysteriously found nearby in the basement. With no known reason for her presence, the player is to stick a cassette tape inside her slot for the game’s story to progress. The tape starts playing, thus revealing what Mama is intended to be. The voice over speaks in a motherly tone that one would expect to be warm and welcoming, yet despite that proposed feeling of a loving character, the tone is also blended with an eerie vibe. Before delving into why Mama Tattletail is the main antagonist of Tattletail, it’s important to understand which toys she is based on and why Waygetter wrote her as the villain. First and foremost, upon going over her concept art sheet, there are two images of real-life inspirations for the creation of the character on the upper left-hand side. At top is Teddy Ruxpin and the bottom is a toy recorder/playback device with a microphone attached to it. Of the two, Teddy Ruxpin had the most influence on Mama Tattletail as a character whereas the playback device has a less active role to her archetype and more prominent to complete her appearance and functions.
Teddy Ruxpin was an animatronic bear from the 1980’s that had a built-in playback device. With each package, the bear came with a storybook and cassette tape that when inserted and play was hit, the bear would ‘read’ the accompanying book to the child. With its updated comeback slated for late-2017 or early-2018, folks old enough to remember reflect on the introduction of Teddy Ruxpin with a blend of nostalgia and dread. From the first-generation Teddy Ruxpins’ debut in 1985 to its decline and discontinuation in 2010, the dolls were often noted for their uncanny movements and eerie tone of voice. Comparing and contrasting Mama Tattaletail to her real-world counterpart, she is depicted as an animatronic toy that comes with a cassette and book. Upon inserting Mama’s cassette tape into the slot, she begins to animate, turning her head around and around as she ‘reads’ to the player. Like Teddy Ruxpin and similar toys, when she finishes a page, she tells when the reader should turn the page.
Regarding the real-life influence’s animation, movements and voice over that stimulated that sense of the uncanny valley, Mama Tattletail’s animation and voice upon introduction is designed to make the player feel that sensation of feeling on edge. Because the real-life toys were created with the intent to charm children, yet did the opposite, Mama Tattletail serves as a spoof of the way children felt with these toys around. As children, our imaginations would tell us the things we found creepy were going to attack at some point and thus, that was the personification we’d give these inanimate objects. What gives children that essence of something intended to be pleasant for them, but seems nightmare inducing is the way the character is enacted and marketed. It’s not the intention that matters. It’s how it moves and sounds.
To further add on to this analysis, the marketing ties between the toy industry and the animation industry is also worth noting. Children’s programming in the 1980’s was notorious for its partnership with toy companies and thus it was the decade when toys and animated television (best known as the ill-fated tradition of Saturday Morning Cartoons) went together. Although cartoons back then would usually have a simple story concluding with a type of moral lesson at the end of each episode, viewers look back on those days and remove their rose-tinted glasses, recognizing how pushed these valuable lessons were written. In addition to these fixed morals these cartoons would impose, it was mostly the overly friendly tone of voice and sugar-coated, one-sided scenarios that failed to challenge other alternatives. Eventually, these shows seemed to fluster young audiences as they got older and reflected on animation back then in contrast to what appealed to them later in life. With that in mind, Teddy Ruxpin began as a talking toy and a couple of years later, the animated series entitled The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin would be released. The series set the over simplified moral values and served as a push for the product’s longevity as was the case with most other animated series of the time.
The historical context of how children felt about Teddy Ruxpin as a character and all the factors that lead to such an over active perception stem from the psychological and children’s desire for something that will respect their intelligence, not something that will appear strange and thus adding to that bizarre factor an overly friendly voice over placed in, trying too hard to convey a good lesson.
Going back to the character of Mama Tattletail, aside from her tone of voice and animation sharing similarities to the source material she is based on, listening to her dialogue as she ‘reads’ to the player supports that eerie sentiment that the toy commercial within the Tattletail universe is pushing a moral value without weighing in on other possible consequences. As the tape plays, Mama’s recorded dialogue reads:
“The children thought that Mama would never find them as long as she couldn’t see them. Turn the page. But Mama could still hear the children. The pitter-patter of their little feet lead Mama right to them. Turn the page. Then Mama found the children, every last one, and put them right back to bed.”
The narrative style is parallel to the real-life toys’ structure. As Mama’s line of dialogue utters these words, the peculiar animation and voice reshape the context that something like this would be intended to be written with. At first glance, it seems this is a nice, innocent little story with a good message, but Waygetter use this to mock the shallow narratives a Teddy Ruxpin-like character would be written with. In the game, the player knows Mama Tattletail in the tape is supposed to be a kind, loving, protective mother to her children. But, when the game progresses to the next phase, they also see Mama’s role as the antagonist is a representation of how children’s perception of this type of character is demonized. Throughout the remainder of the game, the goal of the protagonist is hide from Mama, who is functioning based on how she is wired and thus, going to extreme lengths to protect her children as the message of the storybook conveys. Eventually the player discovers a VHS tape, containing an infomercial of the Tattletail brand and a short clip of Mama with a man bleeding to death. This imagery of the seemingly innocent transitioning to the dark and sinister in such a gruesome manner can be interpreted as the spectators’ external movie of what they see in their minds playing. This also might just prompt the player to pause Tattletail for a moment and reflect on commercialization vs. our own external movie in which our active imaginations play on us. How do the words and images of commercialization affect our culture, whether for better or worse and once we lay hands on a product, are we satisfied with it? Why or why not?
Can Media have more effect on the mind than we think?
Whether Waygetter is making a statement of any sort or not, Mama Tattletail is not written as a one-dimensional villain. The parts where the player’s attempts to survive reveal that as a character, she functions the way she is programmed. Mama’s mentality stems from the motive to be protective of her children and will even kill the player to fulfill her moral and noble task even if it sets blinders to other surrounding conditions. During the encounters with her, she will spur other phrases such as, “Mama’s coming”, “Come to Mama”, Mama’s looking after you!” and “Mama will look after you!”. The vibe seems more like that of an obsessive chant as if blinders have been placed from other perspectives. Perhaps Mama’s behavior can be seen as a depiction of the one-track minded desire of wanting something so badly without any other sense of direction. Her crippled capabilities to see beyond her programming is a combination of the company pushing a product on its target audience in every way possible and the seeming nice protective words are to cover up the lure into brand loyalty. The protagonist’s will to survive can be the resistance to such messages. Viewing the VHS tape is a reminder that while we as consumers may resist certain products or terms, words, images and catch-phrases, they tend to have more effect on our mentality than we would like to think. A death scene in the infomercial can be seen as a symbolic combination of a child’s overactive imagination as well our metaphorical exposure and understanding of how we characterize such commercialization.
There have been studies conducted throughout the years that demonstrate how the media approaches marketing and how they determine which tactics are the most effective. To clarify, words and images used in our everyday media can be used to encourage positive messages and for the right reasoning while still profiting off the message. An example of such would be a call-to-action type media message to support an important cause like a charity. Certain words and images to encourage active involvement would be in use to call it to people’s attention (without sounding preachy or using shock value tactics, that is). In the case of consumer products, however, words and images do indeed have an equally powerful impact on the things we by and thus, influences our shopping choices.
Take for example, the tone of voice used for advertising toys in the 1980’s and the portrayal of characters in these ads. Commonly as with the Teddy Ruxpin dolls, there was a certain overly friendly quality to the voice over work that, while annoying and slightly strange, it seemed very inviting. Just because something sounds nice, when further analyzing the depth that goes into the words and images behind the ads (and their respective tie-in animated shows), the value seems emotionally detached from the moral and more to the sell. When viewing an animated series from the time, the one thing that immediately would catch one’s eye are the bright colors used and the stuffed-animal and/or doll-like character designs. Take popular franchises that became well-known during the decade like G.I. Joe, He-Man, Care Bears, Smurfs, My Little Pony, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, etc. What do these names all have in common? Aside from that they all have television series catered to them after having been established as popular toy lines, therefore the brand-loyalty was already attached to these characters, the most important issue is that because of the way these characters were written with good-sounding, yet short-sighted morals would be rooted in over simplified archetypes based children’s gender and/or personality.
To clarify, the primary substance that went into marketing these characters and attaching them to a product by itself wasn’t enough to implant ideas into children’s minds, but the sections in which they were divided between what children should want to buy without questioning what is presented to them. If it looks and sounds enticing, that was all that was needed for it to sell. Because this approach to selling toys was so successful, the formula gets reused repeatedly. It didn’t matter the quality of writing that went into an episode of each animated series. All that each episode required were vibrant colors, over-simplified character development and moral lessons that seem surface-based while other alternatives and plot holes are ignored and/or left unchallenged. This tactic would be for the consumer to cave into what television makes reality to be through fantasy and how children should evaluate themselves.
The way Mama Tattletail is written resembles that type of hypnotism. While the player’s encounters with Mama are all in the dark, the nighttime setting lends that aura of seeing past a cleverly designed product. The gameplay of Tattletail is setup to not only to deride the mind of a child when picking up these types of toys, but also to poke fun at that warm fuzzy feeling’s attempt to give us a moral. In this case, returning the Baby Tattletails to Mama is a moral that on the surface is a nice thing for the protagonist to do when taking Mama’s storybook dialogue out of context. As the game progresses and Mama’s in-game role is revealed, her dialogue starts to sound more and more like a routine has become default into her programming. Her programming malfunction and operating like a blind-sighted consumer can be interpreted as a representation of the consumer behaving on a blinded role based on what was repeatedly promoted to them without questioning the over-simplified moral. The Baby Tattletail’s distrust of Mama’s sightless smothering and the protagonist’s will to survive leading up to Christmas day can be interpreted as a will to resist these messages being sold to us as consumers.
Waygetter’s use of Transmedia, its’ importance to the story of Tattletail and why it’s satire is effective
With the clever writing, game mechanics and design choices that went into the making of Tattletail, it’s no surprise that the game’s creators are immensely crafty in their own marketing strategy to promote their game. When looking up their website, www.waygetter.com the player will be pleasantly delighted by the humor Ben Esposito and Geneva Hodgson put into it. Instead of calling their website ‘Waygetter Games’, they refer to it as Waygetter Electronics as if this were a real-life toy company. In addition to that, the layout of the homepage resembles a Web 1.0 homepage with the copyright year dating back to 1998. Given that was year Furbys were introduced, by choosing this design and setting the year back to ’98, it draws the reader’s attention to their site. It stands out as a sort of throwback website one would search and come across on Internet Archive.
To make this approach to transmedia even more effective beyond the layout is the wording and text. It’s very effective to make such a website resemble a 1990’s homepage hidden within the archives, but certainly this would not be complete without how the wording and phrasing. Waygetter uses a slogan “We Make Virtual Pets So Real, They’re Virtually Family” just like real-life toy companies being known for a memorable phrase. Below that, their statement is written as such:
“The creators of Baby Talking Tattletail™
Welcome to our brand new website! Waygetter Electronics® is a family run toy company based in delightful Decent, IL. Our toys are hand made with love entirely in the United States”.
Below the header, reading “All News Is Good News”, there is a press-release date and unique sellable feature that would make a toy like that stand out from the rest of the competition. Plus, there is a description of what goes into making a Baby Talking Tattletail along with current and upcoming line ups of what would be in stock. There is also a grainy image of the offices, a Web 1.0 email button and, of course, the main Baby Tattletail we see featured throughout most of the game.
On the right-hand side of the screen, there are three tabs, ‘Home’, ‘Products’ and ‘Credits’. Upon clicking the ‘Products’ tab, we see an embedded YouTube video link for the game’s trailer, a green button that reads “Buy Now!”, which leads to the game’s Steam page and text written from the titular character’s perspective. The trailer is styled to bear resemblance to an old VHS tape, promoting a toy with a catchy theme song with a hook for the game’s basic premise that reads “[e]very kid remembers Talking Tattletail”. As the cheerful tune continues, the main question, “[b]ut do you know why Mama Tattletail was banned?” pops up. As the song ends, the last note is overlapped by the start of an ominous sounding music, accompanied by slowly typed text, reading “CHRISTMAS DAY 1998 Wanna find out?”. The rest of the trailer shows scenes from the main gameplay, a corroded version of the title and Waygetter’s logo. The trailer ends with Baby Tattletail nervously telling the protagonist “[i]t’s dark!” and Mama Tattletail’s welcoming, yet threatening voice saying, “[c]ome to Mama”. The screen goes pitch black after the sound a potential attack approaching, to which Baby Tattletail warns the player “Mama’s scary!”.
On the ‘About This Game’ section on the Steam page, the hook description is cleverly written in the perspective of an unidentified character recalling what it was like to own this toy:
“Who remembers Talking Tattletail? It was SO creepy, right?? … There’s not much reference online but the original version, Mama Tattletail, was recalled years earlier… and I’m pretty sure I know why”.
Below, Waygetter’s introduction description of what Tattletail is about and how to play is dubbed as a “90’s Virtual Pet Horror”. They end it by announcing Tattletail as their debut game, that they would “love to hear your feedback” and humorously to “report all sightings of Mama Tattletail to Waygetter Electronics”.
Why was Waygetter’s old-school toy promotion approach effective marketing for the game? Why didn’t they just promote it like other how other indie developers go about theirs? Given the basic premise of Tattletail and how people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s identified with the type of toys being parodied in the story, it gives players and more personal connection to the game and its characters. Waygetter presenting a Web 1.0 type website as if we were a character in the game surfing the web in the year 1998 adds to that illusion that we are actively participating in an online time capsule, hearing about a new toy serves as both a supplement to the in-game universe as well as a solid hook for players to learn more about what Tattletail is. The cinematography of the trailer is also effective with the grainy VHS type commercial at the start and the main gameplay at the end. The text is written from the point of view of a character (possibly the protagonist) remembering that year and how people remember when Tattletail was new. The tone is similar to that of somebody cringing at the time when a fad toy was new and how annoyed some people were by it. Tattletail’s theme song playing over the text adds to that sentiment of dread. On the topic of Mama, we see that her name is in red. The song is still playing, but at that point, there’s no sense of immediate fear the player should be feeling. Rather, it just creates that unsettling aura that something is amiss, but no red flags just yet. The way the theme music transitions from overly silly and cheerful to disturbing and ominous to preview scenes from the gameplay makes the player connect with this title. The first half of the trailer displaying the commercial represents the cognitive mind of an adult thinking rationally back to how they perceive toys like those now. The other half taking place within game represents what a child’s over active imagination would see. From the in-game’s commercial to gameplay footage, the player is reminded of how they perceive animatronic toys in their adult mind vs. what they dreaded about them as children growing up with them. The Steam page juxtaposing an in-game character’s mind and the game’s description depicts what we as players expect a character in the story to caution about along with Waygetter describing their game to us.
Given all those details, Waygetter sets a prime example of how art tries to emulate life with some unusual, yet relatable twists. For example, if their website was set up to look contemporary or with a conventional description of what the game is about, the illusion of being in the protagonist’s shoes is lost. Acting out Tattletail’s universe lends itself well because prior to playing the game, this is the kind of story we as players familiar with the source material would want to be active participants in because its concept is so relatable. Waygetter promotion of Tattletail is a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of how toy companies marketed back then and our changing perception of these products go hand in hand. By doing so, we as players who are deeply familiar with the satire are reminded why we reacted to those toys the way we did, what trick our imaginations pulled on our minds and how we look back on them as adults. Although Tattletail is a horror game with similar themes and scenarios as Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights at Freddy’s series, we can’t help but laugh at our reaction to the game’s settings and jumpscares. Neither of these titles are comedic, yet, they serve as an opportunity to make fun of ourselves and our reaction because of what they remind us of. With Waygetter’s marketing techniques, that sense of nostalgia can be reminisced and reflected on with engagement in the dark tone of the story and a good sense of humor.
Tattletail as the Holiday Gift that keeps on Giving All Year Round
As a game that takes place during the Christmas season, yet still can be played and discussed all year round, Waygetter has demonstrated how a game can be recognized for its timeless value. By spoofing something prominent to those who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s and basing both their game and marketing around it reintroduces players to more than just another indie horror title. It’s an interactive parody of what they would look down upon with contempt and specifically why. By understanding the influences that went into the making of the character of Tattletail, Mama Tattaltail’s role as the main antagonist, the in-game’s portrayal of 80’s toy commercialism and Waygetter’s use of transmedia, Tattletail is another rare title that not only takes the story-driven horror genre another step further, but a new opportunity to question how cuteness was marketed in our everyday lives back then vs. today. In addition to that, players also laugh at the things that are intended to be entertaining, yet come off unsettling and why those mental images came to mind.
Perhaps the question players walk away with after a few playthroughs is how should we define our nostalgia? Is our nostalgia as good as we remember it or not? If you answered that it may not have been as perfect as we romanticized, but certainly not monumental as our overactive imaginations tricked us into thinking, then Tattletail as an experience is bound to be a new classic to be conversed over for many years to come.