When the very first gameplay footage was shown for Jurassic Park, I was very excited. While others complained that it was aping Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain (and any negative connotations around it), I saw this as a moment of opportunity: Finally, other developers could demonstrate just why the storytelling gameplay model of Heavy Rain could work and turn this into a trend!
How horribly wrong I was :(
I want to start this post by establishing that I was one of those people who loved Heavy Rain and just how they approached the controller in a way that few others have looked at it: a vehicle for physical simulation. I would also like to point out that I played this on the PS3, as opposed to the other platforms it was released on.
After its release I read people dismissing Jurassic Park, and I personally put off buying it at first until the recent sale. I simply did not have the money at the time, and it going on sale seemed like opportune time to finally buy it. I figured the naysayers were simply the same kind of people who disliked Heavy Rain.
I do not understand how the designers at Telltale could have possibly made this game and managed to completely miss the design philosophy behind Heavy Rain and what made that work, especially when they cited the title as a direct reference for design inspiration. And I'm not even talking about the horrendous decision to include a judgemental tool to actively show how much the player is failing during key Quick Time Events (QTE) sequences that repeatedly crop up throughout the game which I'll get to in a moment.
The first thing to address is the most obvious design flaw: unintuitive button prompts and the decision behind the inputs used. There is zero consistency for actions, acting much more closely to the horrible God of War QTEs than something like Tomb Raider Anniversary*. This is further compounded by the icon designs themselves, with key input icons made incredibly tiny and impossible discern from the word go, outshined by a larger icon (i.e. a hand, or a magnifying glass) that is absolutely irrelevant during the opening sequence. The icon design for analog stick input is possibly the worse than the tiny button icons. I do not know how I would have managed to go through the opening scene of the first episode without squinting at my HDTV. It doesn't help how sudden the prompts are as well, rather than being a sort of hovering "option."
The prompts themselves, or how they're approached for various scenes, is also horrible and inconsistent when considering the many other approaches that could have been used. The repeated use of alternating between two face buttons for various "movement" sequences is preposterous. It could have worked for the scuba sequence, but even then it was ridiculous. The idea alone that you can actually fail at movement in such silent sequences is beyond stupid. The decision to use a rhythm-game style input telegraphing design is equally stupid, especially when considering how its ubiquitously placed throughout the episodes in inappropriate moments and for inappropriate actions. Its almost as if no one took notes or took a moment to consider why Heavy Rain worked, let alone its design philosophy. I won't even comment on whether or not there was actual focus testing involved in this game's development because it sure as hell doesn't feel like it.
All of this could have worked and I would have been okay as passing it off as an enjoyable but mediocre experience, but that was not to be the case. From the word go we are introduced to the ever present judgemental medallion on the top-right corner of the screen, ready to pop up and giddy to tell us how we've screwed up and how much of a failure we are at playing this horrible game. What's ironic about its presence is that it shaped my play style of constantly pressing start and reloading the last auto-save the very moment I screwed up, which in turn exempted me from getting to see all of the promised and "awesome" death animations for failure. Instead of making fail-states entertaining as promised in early preview coverage in the style of Dead Space, they became completely pointless as I progressively grew frustrated and skipped all fail-states scenes so that I wouldn't have to play through the game a second time to either A) actually enjoy myself, or B) try and get gold medals**. Stuttering cutscene framerates and awkward loading compounded the issue and did not help.
The purpose of the Heavy Rain style prompt design is to make gameplay inviting to casual gamers, NOT punish them for not being Mr. Twitchy Twitch (or Mr. I'm-gonna-play-this-more-than-once). Control design is more than just giving buttons for players to press: its a language the game teaches the player, and in turn, a language that the player can find comfort in and ultimately master.
So you're now probably wondering: Well, what could have been different; what changes would you have made?
For one? Actual inputs that corresponded to my left and right hands, or more specifically, the left and right sides of my brain (or right and left if we're going to be respective and scientific, but that's besides the point). I mentioned how horrible it was how the game used a rhythm-game-esque input prompt (e.g. Elite Beat Agents/Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!***) for emulation of "movement" and other actions. I also mentioned consistency. If we were to observe Heavy Rain, movement inputs are consistently on the right stick, and the visual icon for that input is very clear; this sentiment cannot be shared with Jurassic Park, especially with its teeny-tiny lettering and icon design.
A solution would have been greater use of L1 and R1 shoulder buttons as demonstrated early on during the first encounter with the T-Rex. Why the game designers decided to forgo any use of the L2 and R2 is beyond me. The quality of enjoyment for the fight sequence at the end of episode 4 in Jurassic Park and the fight sequence early on in Heavy Rain (the same fight that's in the demo that was released on PSN) are night and day.
If there's anything that's clear, its that for a game designed in this model, you cannot design inputs to work with keyboard and mouse along with controllers and expect optimal experiences across both interface devices, and I grow suspicious at that having been the approach used to cut down on development time. If any time had been spent on optimizing inputs for controllers, some of these issues would have been or could have been realized and excised out of the final product. Button input felt more schizophrenic than intuitive, leaving me without reliable expectation of where I can relax my fingers on the controller during action sequences. In theory, the game could have also benefited from analog input (rather than hard digital input), e.g. analog sticks and the "triggers" on both the PS3 and Xbox360, allowing for a wider breadth of input styles that better corresponded to the on-screen action. The lack of such inputs makes me even more suspicious that keyboard and mouse support was the cause of their absence. Motion input would also have been most welcome, but I suspect that's asking too much. And don't get me started on that horrible shakey stick "focus" prompt with the big circle and trying to get the smaller circle to stay close to or lined up with the dot in the middle. I don't know who thought that was a good idea.
At its best the controller acts as a conduit for the player, and at worst, its an arcade dashboard with glowing giant flashy buttons for some Japanese rhythm game for people to watch some guy go at in a youtube clip. Where the designer decides to draw the line for the level of disconnect that a player experiences is entirely up to the language of input exchange, along with the reward/punishment scenario around that.
TLDR: The game feels like there was little to no consideration for iteration on intuitive visual telegraphing, intuitive controller input, or lessons learned from other games that have preceded it in terms of player enjoyment, fail-states, and input design. There feels like no notes or lessons were taken on design philosophy for why those past games worked or why they were fun. If anything, Jurassic Park feels archaic and truly deserving of snide comparisons to Dragon's Lair****.
Ultimately, if there was at the very least just one thing that could fix Jurassic Park, it would be the removal of the medal system (on first playthrough). It acts as a distraction more than a reward, forcing players to feel bad for failing rather than feeling good about enjoying themselves and the visual feast of having failed. I suspect that this is not going to be patched out, however, and if anything it'll just sit in a laundry list of things that need to be prioritized, like optimizing the framerate or some such.
I do not see myself ever redownloading the episodes if the experience is going to be anything like the first, and I certainly don't care much for the loading.
*Tomb Raider Anniversary, developed by Crystal Dynamics, used button prompts that were directly linked to buttons used for in-game actions, such as dodging or shooting. If Lara, the playable character, needed to dodge in-game, you pressed circle. If Lara was likely to dodge in a cutscene, you could intuitively predict that a circle prompt would arise. The game also gave fairly ample time to make those inputs, and were very clearly visible on-screen as well.
God of War, on the other hand, developed by Santa Monica Studios, used randomized button prompts, making for a frustrating experience, especially during boss fights where the punishment for failure of pressing random buttons was the boss regenerating health.
**Dead Space, developed by Visceral Games, made it clear in this preview coverage that if a gamer's going to go through a fail state, might as well entertain them. Telltale Games promised the same in its preview coverage, but hampered this severely by introducing a medal system that judges the player's performance, with no way to turn it off and ignore its existence.
***Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, developed by iNiS, is a type of rhythm game known for its input design of telegraphing input timing by a shrinking circle that requires the player to tap the smaller circle once the outline of the shrinking circle meets the smaller one inside. This telegraphing style has also been used in many other games in moments of particular precision and timing.
****Dragon's Lair was an arcade game that required players to memorize the critical path of directional inputs in order to not die and enter more quarters.