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Telltale and Puzzles: A Rant.

posted by RAnthonyMahan on - last edited - Viewed by 1.6K 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.

121 Comments - Linear Discussion: Classic Style
  • Telltale's last decent game was Tales of Monkey Island. And even that one sucked compared to the originals. Every Telltale Sam and Max game pales in comparison to Hit the Road. The fact that Telltale couldn't adventure game its way out of a paper bag is not news.

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    Blind Sniper Moderator

    I don't think Reddit has a very active Telltale fanbase. People there still think of Telltale as the big, evil businessmen who wreck Jurassic Jeeps for fun I recall.

  • @Blind Sniper said: I don't think Reddit has a very active Telltale fanbase. People there still think of Telltale as the evil, big businessmen who wreck Jurassic Jeeps for fun I recall.

    Not since TWD. Now they take every chance they can to worship them.

  • Something nobody has been considering here is maybe the adventure genre can't "evolve" anymore. Yes it evolved (mostly for the better) passed the text parser into point & click and story became more centered, focused, and prominent. But the puzzles were all still there in full force as they ever were. And they were done better ALONG WITH the story. I really do think the traditional adventure games had the best combination of story and puzzles ever. I don't think you can possibly make story more prevalent in adventures than they already were in the 90s. Think about Telltale's position here. They're not trying to advance adventures into having more story, even though that's what they say. The kind of story they're trying to inject into adventure games is a "cinematic style story". Cinematic by its very nature is on-rails. You're not supposed to be able to explore. You're supposed to go exactly where the writer/director/designer wants you to go. And that, by its very nature, clashes completely with the very definition of the word "adventure", which is all about discovery, exploration, and experimentation.

    I don't believe it's possible to "evolve" adventures because any "evolution" would turn them into something they're inherently not. Maybe adventures reached their peak and can't get any "better". I find that term demeaning to the genre, honestly, considering how those who coined it explain their alternatives to it. Adventures have made progress (some consider it bad progress but most consider it good, I think), but I really don't think that adventure games can get any "better" without sacrificing too much of what adventures mean to too many people. It ceases to be "adventure" and becomes something else entirely. And this has happened with many genres. And that's fine. RPGs have split off from adventures and even flirted with FPS's in the case of Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, and other games like that. But neither are "Adventure Games". I think people confuse the term "adventure" with the genre "Adventure". They are two different things. Lots of games have "adventure" in them but not "Adventure". I don't think you can explain gameplay away sometimes by using one term in place of the other.

    Or maybe Telltale just aren't good at making puzzles, or find them too tiring or time consuming and just want to get away from them altogether to focus on their (only, it seems) talent: telling stories. Remember, these are the same guys who said that walking between screens was boring and should be removed from the game (Jurassic Park). How much more cinematic can you get??

    I'm not a Telltale fan anymore because I thought they were a developer that designed Adventure Games. They aren't. And perhaps never were. Certainly never intended to be. They make "Cinematic Games". To them, the difference is non-existent most of the time, it seems. Yet, they acknowledge it by saying things like "how can we move the genre away from a puzzle-gameplay experience". Here's a hint: you CAN'T! It's what they ARE! Story and puzzle. You can't separate them. In my opinion, you should at least tell it how it is and stop fooling people into believing that you still actually do something that you're not, because they certainly don't. I wish they'd just come out and say that they don't make and don't want to make Adventure Games.

    Telltale confuses me. And the more I read comments like this from them the more I feel cheated and used as a fan to ride on and live off the cash-flow and fame. All until they move off to what they really wanted to do all along, which barely shares any resemblance to Adventure Games. The only thing that links them together is story. And that seems to be their one true talent. Tell me I'm wrong. They didn't add more story and remove puzzles, they just removed puzzles. The story just got close-up camera angles, lots and lots of dialogue, and automatic non-interactive sequences added to it.

  • I think the adventure game can evolve, because the adventure game is missing a lot of things, or hasn't experimented with a lot of things.

    Many player characters(more than three), many player stories, real time environments (The Last Express is the only one?), less linear narratives, new interfaces that change the way you solve puzzles, etc.

    There is a lot more innovation within, say, LucasArts games than you may have noticed, because some of it is just a throw-away joke. Something as simple as changing the verbs you use can change everything about how you have to solve the game. People think that the only verbs are Look, Talk, Use, and Move, or synonyms of those. NOPE. WRONG. DUMB.

  • Several years ago, I used to think I was the only one here who couldn't trust Telltale. Now, I'm not alone! What a difference several years can make, huh?

    If they pulled an Al Emmo and redubbed the voices of Sam and Max with Bill Farmer and Nick Jameson, I'd trust them again. (And if they sold the cartoon series DVD again, that would be nice.)

  • I've never known a more whiny set of fans than adventure game fans, a group so set in their ways that the slightest change, the smallest possibility of a different way of doing things and you're all up in arms. And then there's the people who love to dance on graves pointing and laughing while saying I was right and the people who don't agree are just sheep to be ignored.

  • @Secret Fawful said: Many player characters(more than three), many player stories, real time environments (The Last Express is the only one?), less linear narratives, new interfaces that change the way you solve puzzles, etc.

    That's all well and good. I agree. But Telltale are focusing solely on story by cutting out puzzles, something inherent to adventure games. And we already know they've cut out exploring as well. Notice I used the words "better" and "evolve" in quotes because their idea of "evolution" is to remove puzzles and just flash more (of the) story in your face with the camera angles and cinematic sequences. I'm referring specifically to the way Telltale are trying to "evolve" adventures with story. I'm not necessarily saying adventures can't evolve, I'm just saying that what they call evolution I call devolution. I still submit that story was never missing in adventures and Telltale haven't upped the ante in that regard, they've just advertised it more.

    There is a lot more innovation within, say, LucasArts games than you may have noticed, because some of it is just a throw-away joke. Something as simple as changing the verbs you use can change everything about how you have to solve the game. People think that the only verbs are Look, Talk, Use, and Move, or synonyms of those. NOPE. WRONG. DUMB.

    Again, I agree.

    @Secret Fawful said: I've never known a more whiny set of fans than adventure game fans, a group so set in their ways that the slightest change, the smallest possibility of a different way of doing things and you're all up in arms. And then there's the people who love to dance on graves pointing and laughing while saying I was right and the people who don't agree are just sheep to be ignored.

    I'm not set in my ways I'm just against removing one of the singular most defining aspects of Adventure Games: the puzzles. Maybe there is a way to advance it beyond what was done in the 90s, but Telltale are barking up the wrong tree, as has everyone else who's tried to "evolve the genre". Nobody has gotten it right yet. If there is a way, we haven't found it yet. At the end of the day, Telltale's approach isn't the one I'm too fond of. And it's not advancement. Advancement requires adding something. They're not adding, they're taking away and trying to take our attention off of it by shining all their bright neon lights at what they are putting all their ability into.

  • I'm glad that there are a ton of companies making adventure games of all kinds at this point. As a life long adventure game fan I'm the happiest I've been with the adventure game genre's (and spin-offs') output and variety and promise in a long long time. The '00s were not the best, and the '10s are very different than the '90s, but there are plenty of things to be interested in. This year we have Dreamfall Chapters and Double Fine Adventure on the way -- both mind-blowing things I never expected to see happen, ever -- while indies continue to churn out more and more exciting stuff every month.

    I don't think anyone would ever say the Walking Dead was trying to touch the space '90s adventure games occupy, but I still personally consider it an adventure game. I might have a wider definition than other people, but I don't know what I can do about that. LucasArts made a very specific type of game in the '90s, Sierra made their own type, and Westwood made theirs. Asking Telltale to ape any other developer or their style seems harsh, and also defeating of creativity.

    "The adventure game is dead" somehow came into fashion as something people said in the 13 months between Grim Fandango and The Longest Journey, and didn't let up until just recently. Now that the adventure game isn't dead, people seem mad that adventure games aren't exactly the same as they were 20 years ago. Which is true, it's been 20 years. Expecting the tree to stop growing because nobody is looking is unrealistic. Except that there are developers who do make games exactly like the ones from before -- the Wadjet Eyes and other indies out there -- maybe with a smaller budget than the '90s but with the same art styles, interface aesthetic, and general puzzle aesthetic. So we've got all this stuff going on, and people aren't happy, and I don't know what there is to do about it. I love traditional adventure games, I still replay Monkey Island 2 and Full Throttle around once a year, but working on The Walking Dead and doing some of the stuff we got to do with interactive storytelling and player experience is stuff I would never take back.

    I don't think the solution is to hope for Telltale to embrace the '90s any more than I think the solution is to abandon the past. Hopefully both and neither and something in between can all co-exist, but it just will never be under the same roof (and, in the case of the adventure game, it never has been).

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