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Telltale and Puzzles: A Rant.

posted by RAnthonyMahan on - last edited - Viewed by 1.1K users

Something tells me this post will somehow affect the job application I sent Telltale. Not sure if it's in a good or a bad way, but oh well. :p

First of all, I am happy for Telltale and what's happened to them since The Walking Dead. As both a long-time Telltale fan and a writer struggling to have his work appreciated (and thus ends up empathizing with other creative underdogs), I'm glad Telltale's been able to release something that's seen so much success, both commercially and critically.

At the same time, though, while The Walking Dead was amazing, it wasn't perfect. While it proved the Heavy Rain-style interactive movie genre can be done right, it's still a very limited format that doesn't allow much freedom for the player. The occasional interactive movie is fine (branching out and trying new things is good!), but I wouldn't want Telltale to focus exclusively on that genre, and unfortunately, with TWD having been such a boon for the company, that seems to be their plan. What raised this concern in me is Dan Connors' speech at the DICE Summit, specifically this quote.

@Dan Connors" said: How do we evolve it and make it more of a storytelling medium and less of a puzzle-based medium?

Needless to say, I have a few things to voice regarding Telltale's new direction. Note that I'm not saying any of this out of malice. I've been a fan of Telltale for a long time and would like to stay that way. I don't have anything against anyone there. Hell, if one of my books became a huge hit out of the blue, I'd do everything I could to replicate that success again too, so I know where they're coming from. I'd just like to pitch in my two cents and let everyone else decide what they're worth.

1. Story and gameplay are not mutually exclusive. There's this common idea with people that a game can have great story or great gameplay, but not both. They think strengthening one department means weakening another (and unfortunately, most games don't do much to prove them wrong). Even more distressingly, a few people flat-out discourage games focusing on story, since they believe it has to come at the cost of gameplay. They think being well-written is a flaw!

Telltale wants to focus more on storytelling. That's good. Telltale's writers are top-notch, and they should be able to tell even better stories than before. However, this does not have to come at the cost of gameplay, nor should it. A game doesn't need to be an interactive movie or a visual novel to be well-written. Purely off the top of my head, there's Deus Ex, Fallout, The Longest Journey, Psychonauts, and Silent Hill. All games that manage to excel in both gameplay and story. Just because few games even try to be great at both doesn't mean it's impossible.

2. Change is not always bad, but it's not always good either. A lot of where Telltale seems to be coming from is that not every adventure game needs to be the same. And that's true. I love those old adventure games to death, but they did go out of style for a reason. For most people those old, often cryptic (if not flat-out insane) "use X on Y" puzzles could be frustrating. Evolution is good. When Maniac Mansion came out, a lot of people complained that it wasn't a "true" adventure game because there was no text parser. Thing is, text parsers frequently led to annoying "guess the verb" situations. Since they could only recognize a limited selection of words, why not put those words out there for the player to choose from? That slowly led to the point-and-click interface, which I think we could all agree was a good thing. Telltale's right, there is more than one way to do an adventure game. Hell, it's a bit of a stretch, but look at Portal. It doesn't resemble a conventional adventure game at all, but there's a lot of focus on setting, plot, dialogue, and of course puzzles. It's something of an adventure game in spirit, if that makes sense.

I'm not complaining out of nostalgia. I'm not insisting Telltale stick to games like Sam and Max forever and never branch out (though it would be nice if they never fully abandoned their roots either). If the adventure genre wants to recover, it should evolve. If Telltale manages to come up with the next big thing that revolutionizes the genre, that'd be amazing. I hope they could do it.

The thing is, in my personal opinion, the interactive movie is not "the next big thing." It's not exactly new, for starters. Heavy Rain and Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit had done it before Telltale. You could call Dragon's Lair an early crude version of it too. If you really want to stretch it, you could call visual novels (and VN/adventure hybrids like Phoenix Wright and Hotel Dusk) the Japanese equivalent, only less like a movie and more like a book.

More important than that, however, is that in terms of engaging the player, it's a step backwards. Putting the story on hold so the player can solve a puzzle may not be the best way to blend gameplay and story, but at least it doesn't completely neglect the gameplay department. Interactive movies are supposed to make up for the limited gameplay with non-linearity (which The Walking Dead did, to an extent), but the problem is other genres can offer that and more. I'm not saying interactive movies should be avoided entirely, but they're not the way of the future either. Hardware has evolved on a massive scale. Games today should be more complex and allow the player more freedom than they did 20 years ago. Removing puzzles and giving the player some dialogue options and QTEs is not the way to do it. When it comes out, Fables should be more interactive than The Secret of Monkey Island, not less.

On top of that, while I'm no businessman, I'm not sure if copying The Walking Dead's formula will work out for Telltale in the long run. Let's be blunt. As great as The Walking Dead was, its quality was not why it sold. It sold because it shared the name of a TV show that's incredibly popular at the moment (yes I know the game is based off the comic, but the show is still what most people would think of). Fables will not have that same name recognition, especially since it won't even be called Fables. If Telltale wants Fables to attract anyone outside the already-existing fans of the comic, the game must be good on its own merits. This includes being well-written (which I'm sure Telltale already has covered), but it also includes being fun to play. Ditto for King's Quest, assuming that hasn't been cancelled yet.

To make a long story short, I'm glad Telltale is trying to change their gameplay, but that doesn't mean diminishing it. Instead of asking themselves "How do we remove the focus on gameplay?", they should ask "How do we make the gameplay feel more organic to the story?" How can we make the player's actions seem logical? It's hard for me to come up with specific situations, but for example, why is the main character grabbing this item? It'll be important later, but he doesn't know that. What's the in-universe reason?

Admittedly, I'm no game designer. The specific big idea that'll change adventure games forever won't come from me. But the guys at Telltale are talented. They've done great things already, and I know they've got the potential to do even better. They just have to try.

Let me know what you think.

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    Jennifer Moderator

    I think The Walking Dead is a great starting point for the melding of gameplay both Telltale's older fanbase would enjoy without turning off their newer fanbase.

    The Walking Dead was great, and the choice based decision making was also great, but it lacked in the puzzle department. They did manage to have an inventory (and that system worked well, once you got used to the changes). It got away from most of the cartoon-like puzzles (like RAnthonyMahan said, they fit within the context of the story), but there's no reason those puzzles couldn't have been more challenging.

    There's an adjustable slider in the menu to let gamers choose how many hints the game gives, so it would be great if they actually put that to use for the old fans too (since the old fans didn't have to use the hints at all in The Walking Dead). Telltale's older games got more challenging as they went on, and it would be great to see their newer games start to do that again.

  • They're going to ignore everything and everyone that doesn't agree with their agenda. Anything they can't ignore they'll explain away.

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    Blind Sniper Moderator

    Very well said. You articulated a lot of my worries as well.

    I think another part of The Walking Dead's success, beyond the popular franchise, was that you were playing as original, relatable characters and responding to situations that were designed from a somewhat realistic perspective (ignoring the zombie aspect). I don't think that Telltale replicating the gameplay of The Walking Dead would work as easily when Telltale is working with characters that are already established in a franchise that are dark, adult representations of fable/fairy tale characters which are less relatable to players than the characters of The Walking Dead. Furthermore, since it was stated that Fables will be canon to the series' lore, Telltale will not have as much freedom to deviate with the different choices characters will make in order to tell their story.

    Furthermore, I also feel that this will deviate Telltale from their plans to release games quicker or even simultaneously. By choosing to adopt The Walking Dead format for their future episodic games, Telltale will spend longer amounts of time for each episode, which will likely be a bad move considering that Telltale is also moving more towards larger fan bases that will lack patience or understanding during the wait for episodes compared to monthly episodes.

    The Walking Dead worked so well not because of the story, or because the puzzles were "easy, but not too easy" for casual gamers. It worked because the gameplay gimmick was a great match with The Walking Dead as a franchise, since The Walking Dead is all about the choices people make. I don't think the gameplay format should be shoehorned by Telltale into future drama/suspense games simply by virtue of having been a success in The Walking Dead, and to think that we could have possibly had Fables by now is somewhat disheartening not as a partial fan of Fables, but as a fan of Telltale for several years.

    I think it's odd to see why Telltale ponders why their Wallace and Gromit point and click sold poorly despite being great, or why The Walking Dead beat out Jurassic Park by a landslide despite both focusing on story over gameplay. I think that if Telltale ever wants to make a huge impact on the masses, then they need to incorporate the good parts of adventure gameplay that work with the license they work with, and add some changes to "spice up" the adventure gameplay while also removing the parts of adventure gameplay that don't work with that license. Adventure games (as of now in my opinion) should not be a virtue of being hard/complex or easy/simple, but rather focus on how fun gamers can have regardless of difficulty.

    What separates "cinematic" games from big companies and cinematic games from Telltale is that even though big companies remove gameplay, they still offer you control and freedom to do what you want and allow you to explore the universe of the game at your own discretion. With Telltale's earlier cinematic games such as Back to the Future and Jurassic Park, Telltale limited your freedoms entirely outside of minor variations from conversation choices or the likes. Even though story is important and can establish games, as clearly seen with the Walking Dead, Telltale needs to learn to separately prioritize gameplay and story instead of offering story as the main gameplay feature.

    The Walking Dead, as I said earlier, shares much with Jurassic Park in that both focus on story. However, Jurassic Park was disliked by many because the "director's chair" gameplay gimmick barely fit Jurassic Park, only by virtue of Jurassic Park being a movie. I remember having a scene in Episode 3 of Jurassic Park where the player had two separate characters with their own motives arguing with each other, and the player was forced to come up with rebuttals for both, essentially having the player argue with themselves in game. However, The Walking Dead beat Jurassic Park massively because, as I said earlier, the "choice" gimmick actually worked with the franchise, and Telltale executed it in a stellar way minus lack of puzzles or depth. In Walking Dead, you weren't arguing with yourself; you weren't performing trivially pointless QTEs for the entire game. You were affecting the story, because your actions mattered, which was important for the Walking Dead; not because the Walking Dead was a drama entirely, but because the gameplay benefitted the Walking Dead in particular.

  • @Secret Fawful said: They're going to ignore everything and everyone that doesn't agree with their agenda. Anything they can't ignore they'll explain away.

    As I learned from the X-Files so far: Trust no one & deny everything!

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    Vainamoinen Moderator

    @RAnthonyMahan said:
    At the same time, though, while The Walking Dead was amazing, it wasn't perfect. While it proved the Heavy Rain-style interactive movie genre can be done right, it's still a very limited format that doesn't allow much freedom for the player. The occasional interactive movie is fine (branching out and trying new things is good!), but I wouldn't want Telltale to focus exclusively on that genre, and unfortunately, with TWD having been such a boon for the company, that seems to be their plan.

    Yes, exactly. I had hoped for Fables to go back to adventure roots, but as it turns out, nothing could be further from Dan's plans. In that respect, King's Quest, Sam & Max or Monkey Island would have forced Telltale in a more traditional adventure direction, which is why I absolutely don't see these franchises on the horizon. :( :( :(

    @RAnthonyMahan said:
    1. Story and gameplay are not mutually exclusive. There's this common idea with people that a game can have great story or great gameplay, but not both. They think strengthening one department means weakening another (and unfortunately, most games don't do much to prove them wrong).

    I appreciate the sentiment very much; but the reality is, I do see a balance that's hard to break out of. A basic element of the narrative is structure; a basic element of freedom is chaos. Playfulness means experimentation and sometimes lack of aim; story driven means detailed fixed paths and meaningful action.

    I believe that this distinction applies, in fact so much that I think the best game genre ever to transcend these boundaries is the traditional form of the adventure game. And this is our definitive starting point here, how to evolve the traditional adventure game.

    @RAnthonyMahan said: However, this does not have to come at the cost of gameplay, nor should it. A game doesn't need to be an interactive movie or a visual novel to be well-written. Purely off the top of my head, there's Deus Ex, Fallout, The Longest Journey, Psychonauts, and Silent Hill. All games that manage to excel in both gameplay and story.

    Besides TLJ, which is an exemplary adventure game, the games you name are roleplaying games, action adventures, shooters and mixtures of these genres. As such, they unfortunately do not count in this discussion. Fuck it, if Telltale ever considered an actual RPG or action adventure, I'd go mad with anticipation.

    @RAnthonyMahan said: Telltale's right, there is more than one way to do an adventure game. Hell, it's a bit of a stretch, but look at Portal. It doesn't resemble a conventional adventure game at all, but there's a lot of focus on setting, plot, dialogue, and of course puzzles. It's something of an adventure game in spirit, if that makes sense.

    It doesn't, because Portal renders exactly the kind of "physics" puzzles Telltale wants to get away from. Portal has succeeded in luring an unbelievable number of players into this kind of gameplay, and I believe Dan neither sees this success repeating nor does he believe that this could be Telltale's direction. Portal indeed builds a whole narrative around those physics mechanics; Telltale builds their whole narrative around existing narrative franchises with already fixed rules. It is a completely different kind of game design. Telltale's options are limited due to focusing on stories which are already known.

    @RAnthonyMahan said: If the adventure genre wants to recover, it should evolve. If Telltale manages to come up with the next big thing that revolutionizes the genre, that'd be amazing. I hope they could do it. [...] Removing puzzles and giving the player some dialogue options and QTEs is not the way to do it. When it comes out, Fables should be more interactive than The Secret of Monkey Island, not less.

    We absolutely agree here, but actual adventure parts - exploration and inventory combination for example - WILL be cut in favor of story and pacing. What you and I like is purposefully removed from the equation:

    @RAnthonyMahan said: [...]where do we take adventure games from here? How do we evolve it and make it more of a storytelling medium and less of a puzzle-based medium? But I think we’ve shown a way that you can do it [...] but I don’t know if the people that played Walking Dead on XBLA are ready for an adventure game that comes out that is ‘walk around the world, pick up objects, use them on other objects, put them back in your inventory, combine two items, solve the puzzle.

    Think about it. What other games deliver as interactivity are physics puzzles, shooting people, collecting upgrades, battling for level ups, freedom of movement and environment exploration. The quote must be taken with a buttload of salt, but in any case, Dan didn't say: "How do we take interactivity out of adventure games?". This is "just" the traditional adventure approach to interactivity which is attacked - a grave enough sacrilege though.

    @RAnthonyMahan said: "How do we remove the focus on gameplay?", they should ask "How do we make the gameplay feel more organic to the story?" How can we make the player's actions seem logical? It's hard for me to come up with specific situations, but for example, why is the main character grabbing this item? It'll be important later, but he doesn't know that. What's the in-universe reason?

    Admittedly, I'm no game designer. The specific big idea that'll change adventure games forever won't come from me. But the guys at Telltale are talented. They've done great things already, and I know they've got the potential to do even better. They just have to try.

    The questions you ask are exactly the right ones. But as you have experienced yourself, asking them is much easier than answering them. Unfortunately, I experienced The Walking Dead as wit's end in exactly the area of interactivity. QTEs? Press W for forward? Immobile shoot 'em up sequences? What took the place of puzzles is nothing but a substitute for interactivity. I don't feel immersed in the game when it finally tells me to press a button.

    Who tried to "evolve" the adventure genre before? Ah, yes, Ragnar Tørnquist. He arrived at the fundamentally gameplay broken Dreamfall and is now in the process of serious reconsideration. He'll go back to traditional adventure gaming, and he is absolutely willing to compromise the stringency of the story for it. And the reason is: He has understood that all he did before was to cut the fun out of his creation just to "tell his story better".

    If life makes you a game designer - try to make good games.

  • You want the company to go a route that will generate less money. Not going to happen. Telltale is closer to the current mood of the general game player than your list is.

  • This should really be posted to somewhere like reddit.com/r/games(a discussion-based subreddit not to be confused with the meme-based r/gaming), it's quite good.

    (I'd post it myself, but I'm not sure if RAnthony'd be fine with it yet, so I'm holding off.)

  • Funny how this company was founded through point and click adventure games.

    I tried so hard to avoid this, but I'm starting to turn against you Telltale. I'm happy for the success of the Walking Dead, but please don't make that the only type of game you make.

  • @RingmasterJ5 said: This should really be posted to somewhere like reddit.com/r/games(a discussion-based subreddit not to be confused with the meme-based r/gaming), it's quite good.

    (I'd post it myself, but I'm not sure if RAnthony'd be fine with it yet, so I'm holding off.)

    Go for it. I'm more of a 4chan guy myself, but I doubt they'd be as interested. :p

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