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Telltale and Puzzles: A Rant.

posted by RAnthonyMahan on - last edited - Viewed by 808 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
  • 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).



    Okay, so then TellTale will embrace the early 1980s with their interactive movies a la Dragon's Lair. Got it.

    Seriously, since when did we associate puzzle-based gameplay with the past, and less interactivity with the future? This is not a question of past versus future, but rather a question of game design philosophy and what we enjoy and value in our adventure games.

  • Jake, it's been a while since I've seen you (or anybody from Telltale, really) post on the forums. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    I never said I hoped Telltale would do anything. Because I know they won't. You're doing what you want to do. That's great, really. More power to you. I mean that. I just don't feel you can call it adventure anymore because much of what was adventure has been all but removed. I mean, you're whole mantra now has basically been revealed to be "Forgo the puzzles, be more flashy with the story". I don't consider Adventure to be solely story. For that matter, I don't consider it solely puzzles either.

    At the end of the day, more is being removed than is being added. It's just not advancement the way I see it. I'm not upset over this, I'm just disappointed. I know that Telltale's products hold no interest for me now and I'm fine with that. Some call what you've done advancement. I do not. It's just different and, in my eyes, more of a shallow incarnation than the evolution you're selling it to be. I'm not taking jabs, I'm just being honest.

    I'm not trying to change Telltale or wish they were something they're not and never will be. I don't care specifically for the reason that, as you've said, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Especially now with all these Kickstarters and successful indie games.

  • @Jake said: snip



    This is exactly the opposite of Telltale's PR, and if Telltale isn't claiming the face of adventure games now, then why all the fluff about evolving the adventure game? You make great points, Jake. Nobody wants to rob Telltale of their creativity. The biggest point I make, and I think Musical, and people like us, is that Telltale is not doing what it's claiming to do. It's not evolving the adventure game. It's just making another kind, and then marketing it as the best next step. That's dishonest. It's a lie. It's not a step at all.

    You can ask us "Well, how are Telltale not evolving the adventure game?"

    Well, it's been said around here a million times. The case has been made over and over and over at varying times for why Telltale isn't making the adventure game better or more advanced.

    Doesn't mean Telltale makes bad games or bad stories. But I resent the claims the company makes, because it's a fraud. It's not real innovation. It's not a massive brainstorm you guys suddenly can lay claim to. People could have been making adventure games more casual years ago. Clock Tower is more casual and is just as cinematic as it needs to be, hell, it was based on a movie that probably doesn't go beyond cult status.

    The Dig was cinematic. Full Throttle was cinematic. Cinematic and adventure games isn't new. You didn't invent it. You've gotten better at telling stories with your engine. You've gotten better at writing. And maybe puzzles would hold you guys back from evolving YOUR talents. But it's not evolving the GENRE. However, that doesn't look good on paper. Wild statements about how you've advanced everything looks good on paper.

  • I think this lengthy article posted at Adventure Gamers sums up the issue well. I encourage all to read it.

    [quote]The key point to remember is that immersion is the end game, not gameplay, and puzzles are just an instrument. Who here overcomes every single obstacle with the exact same approach? Nobody, so why do we arbitrarily restrict ourselves in games? Makes no sense. Perhaps there are more puzzles that would fit naturally if developers stopped limiting themselves to a select few problem-solving variations. I'm a proponent of multiple solutions, but that's not what I'm suggesting here. I'm merely recommending that the options best suit each scenario, not a prescribed gameplay formula. Sometimes a situation demands outwitting an opponent, sometimes brute force and ignorance are called for (Zork Inquisitor's Brog says hi). The issue isn't so much a need to think outside the box, but just plain putting more damn puzzle approaches INTO the box to draw from.
    -----
    Ultimately, puzzles may be integral to the adventure experience, and that is still a good thing overall, but it doesn't mean that the mold is forever set. The who/what/when/where/why and how (and how often) such puzzles are implemented must best suit each story's design instead of following a particular pattern just to call itself an "adventure". It's this slavish devotion to the same old puzzle types where the genre is guiltiest of being stagnant, and as more and more games start to branch out and try new things (or old things in new ways), we should all support such developments wholeheartedly. Without such ambition, we'd have no Stacking or Ghost Trick or even Professor Layton. They may not all work, and we won't all like the results, but we should always embrace the creative attempt. The tried-and-true is here to stay, but that doesn't mean we should stop trying now. For a community so devoted to puzzles, why haven't we figured that out?[/quote]

    The best thing about today's AG scene is that there is so much diversity in the types of games made. I understand why people might be concerned by certain directions Telltale might be taking, but one has to ask if the stories they are telling require more complex puzzles. TWD was all about relationships and choices. Quite frankly, having more complex or involving puzzles would have hindered the pace of the game. If something has worked well for Telltale, and they want to explore that path of game design for telling certain types of stories, why not?

    I think the adventure gaming community has been quite resistant to change because the genre was practically declared dead 13 or so years ago. It survived among a very dedicated group of passionate fans and developers, and now the genre is doing better than ever. I think that because we had to hold on so tightly to avoid losing our beloved genre completely, this made us more aversive to new directions. We've long clamored for the good old days of simple point and click.

    And guess what? We still have the traditional point and click. Look at the multitude of recent games - especially those from Daedalic and Wadjet Eye. Plenty of worthy titles carrying the torch. In addition to those, we have games more focused on immersion and story-telling, or those more focused purely on puzzle solving. The point is, there is something for everyone. I support any developer's desire to try something new or incorporate small bits of other genres into adventure games. It doesn't mean the entire genre is changing, shifting, or losing focus of what makes an adventure. It means that the sphere of influence and range of opportunities for adventure games is expanding, but the core philosophy remains and is protected.

    Some of the best recent adventures have been non-traditional adventures - Heavy Rain, TWD, LA Noire, Portal 1 & 2, etc. Were they the best puzzle games? Other than Portal, not really. But did they captivate players, engage them in the story, require them to make critical decisions, and provide a unique experience? Yes. And I think that above all adventure games are about the story. Puzzles should not define the story. Puzzles should be integrated depending on what the story entails.

    I feel better than ever about adventures. We have companies like Telltale and Double Fine carving names for themselves. We have smaller developers doing amazing things, both in classical point and click or new types of game design. We have all the kickstarters. We have more people becoming interested in adventures.

    I guess the point I'm trying to make is that just because Telltale isn't designing games a certain way doesn't mean that nobody else is doing that.

  • It is laughable to see representatives of Telltale arrogantly suggest that they are advancing or pioneering improvements in the adventure game genre, when really what they are doing is rejecting the fundamentals of what make adventure games unique. Telltale appears to now be interested in making QTE-based interactive movies. That's fine, but they should please not claim to be doing something that wasn't done 25 years ago. To be fair, Telltale (a developer which creates no original series, but instead piggybacks off existing, popular franchises) has successfully fine-tuned and made more accessible these kinds of interactive movies. But telltale is no pioneer like Sierra, or even LucasArts was.

    It is almost as if Telltale representatives expect adventure game fans to thank them for moving away from the very game qualities that we love. Sorry, but Telltale is not the be-all end-all, and they certainly are not my preferred developer when it comes to adventure gaming.

  • @MusicallyInspired said: Jake, it's been a while since I've seen you (or anybody from Telltale, really) post on the forums. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

    I never said I hoped Telltale would do anything. Because I know they won't. You're doing what you want to do. That's great, really. More power to you. I mean that. I just don't feel you can call it adventure anymore because much of what was adventure has been all but removed. I mean, you're whole mantra now has basically been revealed to be "Forgo the puzzles, be more flashy with the story". I don't consider Adventure to be solely story. For that matter, I don't consider it solely puzzles either.

    At the end of the day, more is being removed than is being added. It's just not advancement the way I see it. I'm not upset over this, I'm just disappointed. I know that Telltale's products hold no interest for me now and I'm fine with that. Some call what you've done advancement. I do not. It's just different and, in my eyes, more of a shallow incarnation than the evolution you're selling it to be. I'm not taking jabs, I'm just being honest.

    I'm not trying to change Telltale or wish they were something they're not and never will be. I don't care specifically for the reason that, as you've said, there are plenty of other fish in the sea. Especially now with all these Kickstarters and successful indie games.



    I think it comes down to the fact that I believe there is more going on in the Walking Dead than an interactive movie, or a choose your own adventure novel. I don't think it has simply removed the puzzles and concentrated on flashy story. I don't agree that more has been removed than added, but I think the focus is on a completely different place than it was before. I don't think that I would call what The Walking Dead does an advancement, either; I would call it doing something different. "Evolution," "advancement," and that sort of word all imply "the next step in a singular path" to me, which we all know is just not how reality works. If you look at a tree, over time new branches grow up and out and go in their own direction, and the higher up you go, it becomes increasingly difficult to even discern what the true "trunk" is anymore, but you can at least see what's closer to the center than other things. I think that's where we are at with adventure games and I'm happy to be off on a weird branch off in space somewhere.

    @MusicallyInspired said: Okay, so then TellTale will embrace the early 1980s with their interactive movies a la Dragon's Lair. Got it.Welcome to the forums, I hope you stick around with that attitude!

    Also I never said anything about the future. I was talking about the past, and the present. The puzzle based graphic adventure game, without question, had its popular heyday in the 1990s, which is (also without question) in the past. I have no idea what the future holds. That said, there are plenty of people making games of that kind right now, along with a variety of games more unique and varied -- yet still closer to the adventure game tree trunk of yore -- than most of the "action/adventure hybrid" future we were all being sold in the '00s. Sometimes even we make them, but just not lately. (And, according to this thread, even when we do, maybe this bunch in particular hate them anyway, which definitely raises the question of why spill the ink writing about it on our forums?)

    This is not a question of past versus future, but rather a question of game design philosophy and what we enjoy and value in our adventure games.
    I understand what you enjoy in adventure games... I do, too. I have played a lot of adventure games. Not every game is going to be that, I guess. I don't know what else to say?

    Telltale has never made a particularly hard game, from a puzzle perspective, though Telltale has made a number of different games. I don't think Strong Bad, Tales of Monkey Island, Sam & Max Season 3, Puzzle Agent, or the Walking Dead share a ton of things in common except for the things that they all have in common with every other adventure game (walking around, picking things up, talking to people, and doing a series of developer-prescribed actions to advance the story), but none of them are particularly difficult or been known for their puzzles.

    Would I like it if Telltale just stopped in its tracks and made a balls-to-the-wall retro adventure game Sam & Max puzzle fest, just once, to show that we can? Yeah, of course. That would be totally fun to make. I don't think it's likely to happen, nor do I think that the studio needs to for any real reason, both because people here are happy with the things we do make and the challenges we do choose to accept on the projects we do, and because there are plenty of other people making the crazy puzzle-first style of games that everyone loves.

    Apparently I am rambling wildly. Sorry about that.

  • @Jake said: Would I like it if Telltale just stopped in its tracks and made a balls-to-the-wall retro adventure game Sam & Max puzzle fest, just once, to show that we can? Yeah, of course. That would be totally fun to make. I don't think it's likely to happen



    What about King's Quest?

  • I don't even think it's just Telltale I resent this anti-90s attitude from, though. It's moreso irritating and even angering because it's EVERYWHERE. To say that Telltale is pioneering that attitude isn't true. (Stahp MntPeak you hurt my brain)

    They're just a product of it.

    The faction of gamers today who say that puzzles need to go because they ruin adventure games aren't thinking it through. But good games get ripped to shreds for it. Sierra's games. Paper Mario: Sticker Star, one of the most interesting adventure game mechanics in years, is universally panned.

    People say puzzles ruin pacing, as if adventure games are like movies. As if GAMES ARE LIKE MOVIES. They aren't.

    The prevalence of this mindset, especially as a group thing that needs to be reinforced and enforced, leaves me stunned and unhappy with the state of things. I think my annoyance at that alone has kept me from even wanting to play The Walking Dead.

  • A lot of us with a "200" in our join date year came here in the first place because we're big adventure game fans. And we still are. We're hanging around because we're either hoping we see another good involved adventure game from Telltale some time in the future, or we enjoy interacting with others in the forums here.

    So if you want to drive us away, the ways to do it would be:

    [LIST=1]
    [*]Stop making games we consider "adventure."
    [*]Make the forums unusable.
    [/LIST]

    Hmmmmmm....

  • It's not that puzzles ruin pacing, period. It's that certain games, the ways the stories are told, may not call for as many puzzles or deeper levels of puzzling.

    Each game, each story, is different. And I guess it's up to the developer to decide how puzzles fit in, and that usually derives from the story.

    I'm as passionate about hardcore adventuring as anyone, and a year or two ago I probably could have posted the OP. But I've warmed up to things and realized that maybe new ventures can be good in the long run.

    If Telltale were the only adventure developer in the world, then I'd be really concerned. But they're not. They're one of many developers. And all these developers have different design and story philosophies.

    I do agree that it comes down to Telltale's supporters to provide feedback on what kind of game they want to see made. But Telltale has to balance that with what has been successful commercially. I think it's a tough position for them, to keep old fans interested but also attract new ones.

    The good news is that there are many developers making the kinds of games to which people are referencing in this thread. If you want to keep those alive, consider supporting them.

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