Analysis: ‘Tattletail,’ Why Mama Was Banned, And The Hellishness Of Nostalgia

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Previously: Petscop.

There’s a special kind of horror that draws on our sense of nostalgia — horror that takes the things we loved the most as kids, that made us feel safe and loved, and turns those things on their heads, utterly destroying any good feeling we might have associated with them. That’s what the video game Tattletail capitalizes on — although I’d actually argue that its inspiration was plenty scary all on its own. Either way, though, this little nostalgia-based horror game is extraordinarily clever in its storytelling; it invites us not only to survive the attacks of a dangerous, banned toy known as Mama Tattletail, but perhaps more importantly, to look deeper in order to figure out why Mama Tattletail was banned and what happened prior to the game in the first place.

I’ve got a pretty solid theory about all that. It took a lot of research and a lot of thinking, but here’s what I’ve got. And you guys? This game is kind of genius. Just sayin’.

Released with no prior announcement or any sort of fanfare on Dec. 28, 2016, Tattletail takes place over the course of several nights leading up to Christmas 1998. You play as a child thought to be between around eight and 10 years of age, first unwrapping their Christmas present — a Baby Talking Tattletail, produced by fictional toy company Waygetter Electronics (also the name of the development team who created the game itself) — early, then trying to survive until Christmas morning as they’re menaced by a bigger, scarier version of the Furby-like toy, which was previously banned for reasons unknown: Mama Tattletail.

I was in high school by the time the first iteration of the Furby was released, so, due to having aged well out of its demographic by the time it arrived, I missed that particular It Item toy train; a few years earlier, however, I was exactly the right age for the Tamagotchi’s original release, so I understand both the appeal and the horror of taking care of a pet that looks real, but isn’t — which, of course is what grounds Tattletail’s story.

At its core, Tattletail is a classic killer robot tale. That much is apparent from the game’s plot on the most surface of levels. But the bigger question — the bigger story — is about why Mama Tattletail was banned, and exactly what happened to set off the events seen in Tattletail. This, I think, is where the game truly shines; clues have been carefully dropped throughout it (and elsewhere) that tell us a great deal, if only we look closely enough to find them.

So: Here’s what I think happened.

Establishing The Timeline:

Let’s start with Tatteltail’s product copy as seen on its Steam page. I’ll admit that initially, I hadn’t caught this little tidbit; indeed, by the time I finally noticed it, I had already started to put together a theory (one that involved Mama Tattletail having been banned just two months prior to the game’s starting date)— and because the information it reveals made part of that theory collapse, I was kind of tempted to ignore it as product copy that was once relevant at some point during development, but wasn’t really anymore. That was lazy analysis on my part, though (I really liked that theory, you guys), so eventually I got over myself and revised my theory, figuring out how this piece of information fit in.

That piece of information is this: According to Tattletail’s Steam page, Mama Tattletail had been taken out of both circulation and production long prior to the events of the game. “Who remembers Talking Tattletail?,” the game’s description begins. “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.”

Mama Tattletail wasn’t banned a few months before the start of the game; she was banned a few years before the start of the game. The timeline, as I discovered, matters.

For what it’s worth, though, the game does not actually explain why Mama was banned, despite the product copy stating, “I’m pretty sure I know why.” I assume it’s because she started attacking kids; that’s what we see her do in the game, so presumably, it’s these murderous tendencies that caused her to be recalled and banished to the dark recesses of history. I’ve also heard several YouTubers and other folks who have taken an interest in the nuts and bolts of the game’s story make reference to rumors that a Mama Tattletail ate a kid’s eyes. According to a video by YouTuber ProdCharles, who has been quite prolific in his Tattletail coverage and analysis, this detail was originally written on Tatteltail’s Steam page:

But as of this writing, it appears to have been deleted. Here’s what the Steam page looked like on July 10, 2017:

Instead of continuing with, “I heard she was recalled after she ate a kid’s eyes out,” the paragraph in question simply ends after, “Or will Mama Tattletail find her baby and hunt you down first?”

I’m willing to forgive this inconsistency, though, because I don’t actually think it’s integral to understanding the story. We know that Mama Tattletail is attacking the child protagonist of the game; ergo, it’s likely that Mama Tattletail was previously banned for the same behavior. That’s all we really need to know in order for everything else to make sense.

The Teddy Ruxpin Connection:

As much as I think the timeline matters, though, I also think we have to be careful about getting too precious with it. There’s some flexibility, insofar as, I don’t think we necessarily need to know the exact year in which Mama Tattletail was recalled.

This is why I don’t particularly like the Teddy Ruxpin theory.

First, a caveat: We do know that Mama Tattletail was based in part on Teddy Ruxpin, a real-life toy first produced in 1985 (and which I was, as was the case with the Tamagotchi, in the appropriate demographic for at the time — my brother and I had one growing up); in concept art tweeted by character designer Geneva Hodgson shortly after the game’s release, a picture of Teddy Ruxpin features prominently in the upper left-hand corner. I’m not calling into question that part of the theory; we know it’s true.

But some folks have gone so far as to try to match up Mama Tattletail’s timeline with that of Teddy Ruxpin’s production history, and I think that’s actually a mistake. The issue is that most proponents of the Mama-Tattetail’s-Timeline-Is-Teddy-Ruxpin’s-Timeline-Exactly theory point to Teddy Ruxpin’s many iterations as proof for exactly when Mama Tattletail may have been banned — even though, for storytelling purposes, the dates are mostly arbitrary.

Teddy Ruxpin’s first run was in 1985. A second iteration was launched in 1991, another in 1996, another in 1998, and yet another in 2005. (Word on the street is that a sixth version is on the way for fall of 2017, but that’s neither here nor there for our current purposes). The Mama-As-TR timeline theory states that Mama Tattletail could have been banned as far back as 1985, but was most likely banned in 1996, with 1998 marking a new run.

But there are two major pieces of information that kind of kill this theory for me: One, there’s no indication anywhere in the game of exactly when Mama Tattletail was first produced; and two, Teddy Ruxpin has never been banned, so choosing the 1996 iteration as the version to use as Mama’s date of banning is entirely arbitrary. Plus, if Mama was first produced in 1985, underwent several versions, and was then finally banned 11 years later… well, that sounds overly complicated to me. That’s three different versions and 11 years’ worth of toys to recall, which makes the whole thing seem much less believable.

Basically, I just can’t see any benefit to sticking to a strict Teddy Ruxpin timeline for Mama Tattletail from a storytelling perspective. Simpler is better in this case; one iteration of Mama Tatteltail going wrong and getting recalled, occurring at an unspecified point prior to when the game takes place, is all we need in order for Tattletail to work its scary magic on us.

“The Incident”:

So: What happened after Mama Tattletail was banned? The Waygetter website (which is magnificently ‘90s in style, by the way) tells us the next part of the story. We know that as of Oct. 10, 1998 — the website’s most recent update — Baby Talking Tattletail had finally finished all its painstaking creation and testing and had finally hit the market. This is important; it means it was a brand new toy, one which I suspect might have been Waygetter’s attempt to make a comeback after the Mama Tattletail disaster. Notably, Mama Tattletail was nowhere to be found on the Waygetter website at the time of the game’s release (this screenshot is from Jan. 28, 2017, accessed via The Wayback Machine):

What’s more, the source could for the site reveals that a mention of her was at one time present, but has been hidden from view:

Next, we have to jump to the game itself. During the main campaign on the night of Dec. 23, 1998 (night four), you discover a VHS tape. It doesn’t appear to be a regular VHS tape; once you insert it into the player character’s VCR (located in their bedroom), the “Video Horror System,” as it’s called, actually allows you to interact with the footage, switching between different camera angles as if you’re viewing a security system in real time. The first time ‘round, it doesn’t do much other than allow you to look more closely at 10 different moments from the Tattletail commercial — but those moments are important. Starting with Camera 0 (Cam0) and ending with Camera 9 (Cam9), they are: The Tattletail Logo, an image of Tattletail Blinking, a Side view of Tattletail, a shot called Family which appears to show Mama in the background, an image of a group of Eggs, a shot called Mama in which Mama is actually missing, something called Dance, a group of Tattletail Friends, a final Product shot, and something called Storage in which Mama is present (with some… other stuff).

Friends, Product, and Storage are the most notable camera angles, because, uh… there’s a dead body hanging out in each of those shots. In the Friends shot, it’s behind the couch to the left; in Product, it’s behind the pedestal Tattletail has been placed on; and in Storage, it’s still squirming as Mama Tattletail watches.

The plot thickens after you beat the game and get the good ending, too. Upon achieving this ending, when you unwrap your Tattletail at the end of the game, you’ll also receive its tag — which, like, say, the swing tags that came attached to another big ‘90s toy, Beanie Babies, includes your Tattletail’s “birthday” (that is, the date production on that particular unit was finished) and other manufacturing information in the form of a few series of numbers:

If you go back to the Video Horror System and input these number sequences by choosing the appropriate camera angles in order, you’ll see some additional scenes — ones you weren’t able to view before.

One of them shows what looks like either a wall or a door in a production facility with “04 PROTOYPING” written on it, along with an arrow pointing to the right:

One of them shows a room full of Mama Tattletails, one of which is moving (or, as some players think, searching for something):

And one of them shows what looks like a control room of some sort:

There’s some debate about what the dark outlines in front of the small red screens are; some folks think they’re levers, while others think they’re just chairs. The red screens themselves, however, are what’s of interest here: They all read, “ABORT.” Also, it’s really hard to see because it’s so dark, but in the lower right-hand corner… there’s a single, solitary Mama, just kind of hanging out.

Note, too, the date on all of these screens: In green writing in the upper left-hand corner, they all read, “TATTLETAIL COMM PUBLIC 10.22.98.”

It’s Oct. 22, 1998 — 12 days after the most recent update date to the Waygetter website.

All of this? It’s the key — what ties the whole storyline together. When taken all together, these images imply that something happened at the Tatteltail production facility on Oct. 22, 1998 — something terrible. They imply that a new version of Mama Tattletail may have been in the works. That all of these new Mamas — and possibly the older, recalled units — have been stored together. And that they broke out of storage, took over the facility, and killed a large number of people working there. Then — fiercely protective parents that they are — they left the facility in search of their babies.

I’ll call this the Incident. And the Incident is what leads directly to the events of Tattletail itself.

The Working Theory:

Still with me? Good. Having established… well, literally everything that we’ve just established, here’s my working theory for how it all fits together:

Some years prior to the events of Tattletail, reports began rolling in of Mama Tattletail toys attacking kids. If the damage occurred on a large enough scale, all units currently in circulation would have been recalled, production on new units would have been halted, and all produced-but-unsold units and recalled units would have been put into storage—and we can infer that it’s likely the damage was this large-scale, as Waygetter then went out of their way to scrub Mama Tattletail from their website and from public record.

In October of 1998, Baby Talking Tattletail was released after a substantial period of development, possibly as a comeback move for Waygetter. At the same time, development may have begun on a revamped version of Mama Tattletail; however, development was likely still in the early stages, as evinced by the “PROTOTYPING” room.

On Oct. 22, 1998, the Incident occurred: All of the Mama Tattletails that had been put into storage broke out, took over the Waygetter facility and/or killed many of the employees. They subsequently entered the world in search of their babies.

The protagonist of the game has a Tattletail in their house.

On Dec. 20, 1998, the protagonists opens the Tattletail.

At the end of that night, their front door is found ajar.

Mama Tattletail has come for them.

Unanswered Questions:

Of course, many, many other questions still remain about the circumstances of Christmas 1998. I have some solid guesses for some of them, but others remain a mystery.

Who knocks on the door?

Night two — Dec. 21, 1998 — is notable for two reasons: One, it’s the first night Mama Tattletail is a threat to the player; and two, an insistent, frantic knocking at the front door occurs as you’re heading back to bed at the end of the night. Who’s knocking, and why?

As ProdCharles notes in his video examining these questions, there are a lot of theories floating around: It’s the protagonist’s absent father; it’s a police officer; it’s a Waygetter employee; and so on and so forth. The answer I think makes the most sense is that it’s a Waygetter employee; after the Incident, the remaining employees would likely still be in the middle of a major cleanup operation even several months later — so my bet is that it’s either someone who has tracked down the location of this particular Mama and is trying to warn the people who live there, or that the employee may even be attempting to round up and contain the errant Mama.

What’s particularly compelling about the cleanup operation theory to me is that it helps explain some of what’s left unanswered about the Kaleidoscope DLC, as well. (More on that in a moment.)

Is there something supernatural going on?

What’s actually causing Mama to go haywire? Is it a programming error, or is she possessed? How do all those other Tattletails get into the protagonist’s house? What’s up with the exorcism they perform in order to banish Mama Tattletail? I don’t really have an answer for any of these questions, although personally, I find the idea of science gone wrong more interesting than ghosts, demons, or possession in this case.

What’s up with the Tattletail commercial?

Why is Mama still in the commercial? And why the heck did Waygetter leave dead bodies visible in the ad? I can sort of explain Mama, although it’s worth noting that the shot labeled “Mama” in the Video Horror System is slightly different than corresponding shot in the commercial used in the game’s trailer: In the Video Horror System, Mama is absent, whereas in the trailer, a banner saying “MAMA NOT AVAILABLE” has been slapped across the footage. Either way, though, I suspect it comes down to budget, and to Waygetter Electronics (the in-game company, not the development company that made Tattletail) trying as hard as they can to salvage an impossible situation. They’d likely shot the commercial before the Incident—and then after the Incident, they had no money to reshoot it. They desperately needed Baby Talking Tattletail to do well during the holiday season so they could pull themselves out of the hole they ended up in after the Incident — which, you’ll recall, is the second time something has gone wrong for them regarding Mama Tattletail, according to my theory. So, they ran the ad as it was, either clumsily Photoshopping Mama out or just putting in a notice that she’s not actually available, hoping that it would still drum up enough sales.

I don’t have a good answer for the dead bodies question, though. Why wouldn’t Waygetter have edited the shots with the body out? Not having done that is just… weird.

What about Kaleidoscope?

Released on May 9, 2017, the “Kaleidoscope” DLC took everything we knew and turned it on its head again: Someone has rewritten the protagonist’s memories about Christmas 1998, and only a trip into a weirdo device/alternate dimension known only as the Kaleidoscope can help us uncover our lost memories. But who rewrote our memories, and why? Also, who’s leaving all those notes for us?

Remember my thoughts about who’s knocking at the door? Here’s how that connects to “Kaleidoscope”: I think it explains who rewrote our memories. If the knocking on the door was a Waygetter employee attempting to contain the situation, I think that same Waygetter employee was in charge of rewriting our memories so that we wouldn’t even remember the whole thing happened in the first place. In our rewritten memories, Baby Talking Tattletail was an educational toy, spewing random, boring facts at us instead of displaying all the pep and personality it had in the original memories, and Mama Tattletail was never banned at all.

Worth noting, by the way, is the fact that the Waygetter website changed to reflect this reality. Here’s what it looked like on July 7, 2017:

See that difference? Instead of, “The creators of Baby Talking Tattletail,” the website reads, “The creators of the popular Mama Tattletail and Educational Baby Talking Tattletail.” The source code has changed, too, by the way:

Someone really doesn’t want us uncovering those memories.

I’d argue that these changes support the idea that Waygetter performed a massive cleanup operation to save their asses… which also may or may not be supported by something supernatural or by science gone wrong.

I don’t have a solid theory about who wrote the notes found in “Kaleidoscope.” Maybe it’s someone else from Waygetter trying to make sure the truth is never forgotten. Maybe it’s the protagonist from the future. Maybe it’s Mama Tattletail. Who knows.

Or, There’s This:

From the r/Tattletail subreddit:

One the one hand, I think that’s kiiiiind of a cop-out… but it’s also kind of fun. And, hey, there’s something to be said for Occam’s razor, right?

In Any Event…

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Mama Tattletail. On June 15, 2017, Waygetter posted the following video to YouTube. It’s called “Thank You”:

…And it tells us that “it’s not over yet.” Then, on July 3, we got this:

That sounds a lot like the clunking noise we investigated on the second night of the original campaign — the one that ended up being Mama hanging out in a dark corner of the basement.

There’s more to come.

I can feel it.

***

Follow The Ghost In My Machine on Twitter @GhostMachine13 and on Facebook @TheGhostInMyMachine.

[Photos via Waygetter (2); ManlyBadassHeroProdCharles (4), Father/YouTube; SteamWaygetter.com (4)]

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One thought on “Analysis: ‘Tattletail,’ Why Mama Was Banned, And The Hellishness Of Nostalgia

  1. Very cool post. It kind of reminded me of the podcast Rabbits with the focus on the different video game elements. Also, am I the only one who ever thought Teddy Ruxpin was creepy as hell? There was just something about him that was spooky. Another great post.

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