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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
  • User Avatar Image
    Blind Sniper Moderator

    Even though I chimed in earlier before Jake posted, I just wanted to say that unlike several people here that I don't necessarily resent Telltale nor am I trying to whine. I think that they are very skilled in what they do and most of their choices that are critically panned are deliberate (removing puzzles, focus on story over gameplay, etc). As I said earlier, it's just that even though story is important to Telltale, it should not be considered a main gameplay point no matter how good it is. Similarly to what RAnthonyMahan said, I'm also just expressing my views because I am concerned about how Telltale is portraying their future game releases and design philosophy amongst the success of the Walking Dead, and how they are applying what worked in one game into other games which may not work as effectively.

    I think that Telltale needs to learn to adapt multiple audiences not only from a perspective of franchise choice, but also from gameplay choice. Why not use what you have learned from the best of both worlds? Why can't Sam and Max/Monkey Island/Strong Bad/etc coexist along Walking Dead and Telltale's future endeavors? Coming from a fan of the long story over the season as opposed to Telltale's past method of self contained episodes, why can't both coexist based on the franchise?

    I still like Telltale, and as long as they don't move entirely to Jurassic Park/Waling Dead type games (even though I liked Walking Dead), they will still have me as a fan. Like I said in my first post, Telltale just needs to accept that casual/mainstream gamers will not know immediately how to apply abstract point and click adventure logic to games, but that does not mean that Telltale can't take what works best with adventure gameplay, apply a twist that not only works with the franchise but also is understandable to its fans without being patronizingly easy, and remove what doesn't work from point and click adventure games from that particular license? I feel that Telltale would be in a better place if they did so for several reasons. Casual gamers would understand the game logic better, puzzles would be able to have higher difficulty and still be fun without driving players away, and adventure gamers would not feel like they get the short end of the stick. This doesn't guarantee that Telltale would increase difficulty nowadays, but I think that they were driven to this point in the first place from Wallace and Gromit's low sales and the high success of Back to the Future and The Walking Dead with their extremely easy puzzles.

    I'm grateful that a Telltale member talked to us, and I don't intend to lynch him for expressing his views. I would ideally like to give feedback in an environment that he would be able to talk to us and there would be no insulting each other, but I don't suppose we will be getting that.

  • @thesporkman said: What about King's Quest?

    Not happening.

  • I made a gigantic (and I mean gigantic!) post and the forums ate it when I went to preview it. Dang. It was so well detailed and explained everything. I took the past 75 minutes or so writing it. It replied to many of Jake's points in thoughtful ways (I'd like to think), told the story of my perspective of Telltale in the passed 7 years, and it ended on a content and peaceful note of revelation on my part, all of which this meager (but probably much more readable) post could never do justice.

    Basically, I realized that Telltale Games are in the gaming business for telling tales. That's it. And as much as they've used the term "adventure" over and over, they're definition of adventure was never mine. Ever. I thought that when Sam & Max season one first came out that it would get better over time. Ease people back into adventures again. But instead it went in the other direction. Whatever. That's what's popular now, apparently. I accept that. While you, Jake, call the whole tree "adventure" with its many branches and offshoots, I call only the trunk. It's this miscommunication and different perspective of the word that has led to my frustrations over the passed 7 years of my being a Telltale fan. They've gone continually downhill over time and I couldn't understand why. Now I know they will never be what I always wanted them to be.

    With that, I'll hang around here until the new forums and website are up and then I'll probably wander off in search of another community of adventurers who share my perspective on the definition. Not in a malicious or resentful way, it's just that what I'm looking for is just not here. You'll get no more rants from me. Peace.

  • @MusicallyInspired said: I made a gigantic (and I mean gigantic!) post and the forums ate it when I went to preview it. Dang. It was so well detailed and explained everything. I took the past 75 minutes or so writing it.

    Damn. Hate when stuff like that happens. If your response is that big, make sure you copy it in future before hitting post, especially if it's in a popular thread.

    I like old Telltale games, and I understand that they're going in a different direction with their newer ones, but that doesn't mean I have to play them. I just hope their future games are a return to the older style they did. There's nothing stopping them, after all, from having different gameplay styles for different titles.

    If they do King's Quest (a little info on that to say if you still are would be nice, TT!), I think everyone would be up in arms if it weren't traditional point and click, for example. But that doesn't mean ALL their games have to play in exactly the same way.

    It's about matching gameplay with subject matter. QTEs and character moments worked well for TWD, and possibly Fables, but I guess we'll have to see what they have in store before we make definitive comments.

  • @Secret Fawful said: For one thing, I can't take someone named ryannumber1gamer seriously, and neither can anyone else. Second, I appreciate Jake actually trying to talk to us.

    @Secret Fawful said: EDIT: And seriously, ryan, get a new name. I hate numbers and words that slur together in names. It's UGLY.

    What exactly does this have to do with this thread?

  • @MusicallyInspired said: I made a gigantic (and I mean gigantic!) post and the forums ate it when I went to preview it. Dang. It was so well detailed and explained everything. I took the past 75 minutes or so writing it. It replied to many of Jake's points in thoughtful ways (I'd like to think), told the story of my perspective of Telltale in the passed 7 years, and it ended on a content and peaceful note of revelation on my part, all of which this meager (but probably much more readable) post could never do justice.


    I am sorry your post got deleted. You always take the time to write very thoughtful comments, and you definitely know your stuff. I would have liked to have read your comment. Don't let people accuse you of "whining" or "being resentful" when you express your opinion about what you enjoy about adventure games. Say it proud! Using mocking, loaded language like "whining" is just a way to dismiss opposing opinions and to characterize them as not worth taking seriously. It was clear you weren't asking Telltale for anything, but were rather simply expressing your unhappiness about their non-adventure game direction and their attempts to portray their lessened focus on puzzles as a so-called "evolution" of the genre, when it is really an abandonment of adventure games.

    I know that, when I express my own thoughts about the newer Telltale games, I am not asking Telltale for anything. Goodness knows they are terrible about interacting with customers and adventure game fans on these forums, anyway. The only thing I want is for Telltale to lose the KQ license, if they haven't already. This is not out of malice. I wish them the best, but I also wish Activison would let another developer that actually loves and is passionate about adventure games create a new KQ.

    [QUOTE]Originally Posted by Secret Fawful
    For one thing, I can't take someone named ryannumber1gamer seriously, and neither can anyone else. Second, I appreciate Jake actually trying to talk to us.
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Secret Fawful
    EDIT: And seriously, ryan, get a new name. I hate numbers and words that slur together in names. It's UGLY.


    What exactly does this have to do with this thread?
    [/QUOTE]
    Good question. That one said its brain hurt when it had to read someone disagreeing with a Telltale rep, so I am not surprised to see those other comments.

  • @Blind Sniper said:
    I think that Telltale needs to learn to adapt multiple audiences not only from a perspective of franchise choice, but also from gameplay choice. Why not use what you have learned from the best of both worlds? Why can't Sam and Max/Monkey Island/Strong Bad/etc coexist along Walking Dead and Telltale's future endeavors? Coming from a fan of the long story over the season as opposed to Telltale's past method of self contained episodes, why can't both coexist based on the franchise?

    I agree, there is no reason Telltale should stick to only one type of games. I have no objection to other games being made, I just want some new point and click adventures... with puzzles and all.
    The reason people are asking this from you should be obvious - you made some fantastic adventure games including Tales of Monkey Island (which is maybe the best of all) and Sam and Max (all 3 seasons, although I personally like seasons 1 and 2 better). All we ask is for more of the stuff we love, more of your great games (in other words - I want to be able to throw my money at you).
    From lurking in these forums for a long time it seems that I am not the only one who wants this, nor are we a minority. A game once a year would be great (and of course not restricting to a specific title, variety is a good thing though I would love to see Tales 2 with all the difficulties involved in getting permission).

  • @Alcoremortis said: This thread, it's almost comical. I could practically make a rage comic out of it. It would probably go something like this:

    Panel 1:
    Fans: Y no TTG employees on the forum?!!!!! Telltale was so much better when the employees posted more!

    Panel 2:
    Telltale Employee: Hello, everyone! I'm here to answer all of your questions in a polite way that is also clear!
    Fans: RAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGEEEEE!

    Panel 3:
    Fans: Y no TTG employees on the forum?!!!!!

    The opportunity to read posts like the one Alcoremortis made above is one of the reasons why I stick around here. :)

    Anyway, I'm not trying to be hateful, and I know I can get adventure games elsewhere, sometimes even for free. I'm just saying that Telltale has been moving away from the games that appeal to me, and more toward easier games aimed at a mass market crowd, because that's where the money is.

    LucasArts tried that, moving away from their awesome point-and-click adventures and more into Star Wars shooter things, and look where they wound up. Their founder walked away with four billion dollars.

    Wait, what point was I trying to make again?

  • @WarpSpeed said: The opportunity to read posts like the one Alcoremortis made above is one of the reasons why I stick around here. :)

    And now I'm blushing! Obviously, the solution is more rage.

  • User Avatar Image
    Vainamoinen Moderator

    @MusicallyInspired said: 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 think people confuse the term "adventure" with the genre "Adventure".

    I think you just did. :o

    @MusicallyInspired said: I don't believe it's possible to "evolve" adventures because any "evolution" would turn them into something they're inherently not.

    A process previously not known in evolution, I assume. :cool:

    @MusicallyInspired said: 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.

    I completely agree and I do think of TWD as an adventure game. Maybe even an exemplary one. Fact is, everyone has her/his own definition of the genre. There's no fixed definition. A person might define adventure games as "those games I like", then rule out TWD by that definition alone. The adventure genre was never defined by "puzzles" in the same way the RPG is defined by character stats.

    The discussion whether TWD was an "adventure" or not is completely fruitless. I wish people would instead focus on what they liked or didn't like about Telltale's last game.

    @MusicallyInspired said: 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.

    And again, I completely agree. The "just not an adventure game anymore" standpoint impairs the community's ability to actively communicate pro's and con's of Telltale's last game to an absurd degree. I believe TWD tried to shift the interaction of the player to human relationships and, if you'd like to interpret it that way, aims to deliver a "psychological puzzle" for the player. Although I can still not relate at all to the franchise, the basic idea kept me going after episode one. The mechanics and their complexity, however, haven't even remotely played out to my satisfaction.

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

    Thanks for real arguments, Fawful. We really needed them here. How about a few more?

    I do think the feeling of control and choice, of the player's own pace, is fundamentally important for the level of immersion. There might be sequences where things are moving fast, but on the whole, I'm not too interested in a game where I'm surprised and even bored by sudden breaks in the narrative.

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