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Telltale and Puzzles: A Rant.

posted by RAnthonyMahan on - last edited - Viewed by 1.7K 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
  • Chyron, what? Are we even playing the same games?

    Telltale's Sam & Max games barely have coherent stories. Season 3 is the only one that had a solid story, and even that felt awkward and disconnected compared to the much tighter stories of pretty much every Lucasarts game (including Hit the Road.) The only reason anyone could even argue that Telltale Sam & Max supporting characters are "memorable" (sarcastic quotes used on purpose) are because Telltale uses the same characters in every season, like clockwork--we've seen them in three times as many games as the characters from Hit the Road. By the way, I'd take Bruno, Trixie, Conroy, et al, any day over Sybil, Bosco, (ugh--what a horrible and painfully unfunny character), etc. Bosco is especially bad, too, because he's a character you're never supposed to actually SEE. That's what makes the Bosco sequences from the comics and from Hit the Road actually funny. Hit the Road was such a beautiful mesh of themes and gags from the existing comics, whereas Telltale's games feel pulled more from the watered down (and quite a bit more random and less consistently funny) Saturday morning cartoon.

    Tales is good--I really do like it. Easily Telltale's best game. But it doesn't hold a candle to MI1, 2, or Curse. I do like it better than Escape though, so I'll give you that. The story just isn't as good. The jokes aren't as funny. And we won't even talk puzzles and exploration factor.

    I just have to think that either Telltale's writers just can't hit the same beats as the glory days of Lucasarts storytelling and humor, or that the episodic format itself is the limiting (and lessening) factor. Certainly the episodic format is a big part of the reason Telltale's Sam & Max games feel so much more random and incoherent (and more like Saturday morning cartoon episodes.) They really just bore me to tears.

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    Vainamoinen Moderator

    @Secret Fawful said: Are you being sarcastic, or an asshole.

    Neither. I think you've made a good point back there.

    I've absolutely no anger towards you, but I do have some anger towards the direction of this conversation.

    As you yourself have said, Telltale should be open to criticism. But look at this thread and you see that people just lose themselves in defining the adventure genre instead of actually delivering valid personal criticism of the Walking Dead game. They're trying to define adventure game just to press their personal standards on their favorite video game company.

    Some people in here are now in the process of defining "adventure", and I've read about 300 pages of those heated attempts in German forums already. Just wait until they recognize on page 217 that they'll have to define "puzzles" as well, that'll be the huge step forward! :(

    I insist that this gets you nowhere, and this is the only frustration that I have here.

    Those who didn't like TWD will have to think about WHY they did not. "It wasn't an adventure game" and "there weren't many puzzles" is not an answer to that question. I can just plead once more that such definitions do not help.

    "I generally felt a loss of control/immersion/interactivity because the game mostly ran along at its own pace", THAT I considered one of many answers, one that could be elaborated on in quite some detail.

    @Secret Fawful said: This is about Telltale's design philosophy.

    Yes, it is, absolutely. And there is integrity in that philosophy in TWD. Back to the Future, to me, felt like an adventure game that was cut every time it could have felt too problematic for the player. And you really, really saw those wounds. TWD was complete, a whole game, an executed concept from start to finish. So I can criticize the conscious design decisions.

    @Secret Fawful said: They shouldn't consider their way the end all, be all.

    I don't think they do. I really, really don't think they do. Sure it gets frustrating when the third major game in a row isn't something you can connect with. But that doesn't mean they never listen to their fans.

    @Secret Fawful said: What if they did do everything we wanted?

    They would make awful games. You just KNOW I'm right. Firstly, when we get down to details, there's greatly differing opinions even among the "old school adventure society". That's why I am a bit afraid of adventure game kickstarters. Thousands of people who know nothing about game design start thinking that if only they put their thumb in the soup ("we're the publisher!"), all will be for the better, and the designers think that they might possibly "owe" it to that financially supportive community to listen to their "ideas".

    @Secret Fawful said: Is there a height of perfection they can improve toward?

    You can never say until that perfection is reached, and chances are it's only a momentary perfection. The same can be said about "real goals". Whether they're good or bad to strive after can only be determined after reaching them. If the conversational system of TWD was complex enough to actually suggest real choices and influence over characters (and if the characters did not have the tendency to suddenly die, making all those previous conversations worthless), who knows what a satisfying experience that could be? As I said, the goal could be defined as "psychological puzzle".

    Video games are art. OF COURSE you only ever chose a "direction" and hope for the best about where it leads. There is no other way. Good design choices are always only classified in retrospect.

    @Secret Fawful said: I just want to make a great adventure game, and I want to see other people do it too. Telltale don't wan do dat. What should the adventure game do or be?

    That's the box you're thinking in. Strike "adventure" out of these sentences, and you might get some answers for yourself. Including the factual incorrectness of the second sentence.

    @Secret Fawful said: I dunno. Nothing makes sense.

    Because you're thinking in a box. And I know for a fact you can abandon that.

  • @Lambonius said: Chyron, what? Are we even playing the same games?

    Telltale's Sam & Max games barely have coherent stories. Season 3 is the only one that had a solid story, and even that felt awkward and disconnected compared to the much tighter stories of pretty much every Lucasarts game (including Hit the Road.) The only reason anyone could even argue that Telltale Sam & Max supporting characters are "memorable" (sarcastic quotes used on purpose) are because Telltale uses the same characters in every season, like clockwork--we've seen them in three times as many games as the characters from Hit the Road. By the way, I'd take Bruno, Trixie, Conroy, et al, any day over Sybil, Bosco, (ugh--what a horrible and painfully unfunny character), etc. Bosco is especially bad, too, because he's a character you're never supposed to actually SEE. That's what makes the Bosco sequences from the comics and from Hit the Road actually funny. Hit the Road was such a beautiful mesh of themes and gags from the existing comics, whereas Telltale's games feel pulled more from the watered down (and quite a bit more random and less consistently funny) Saturday morning cartoon.

    Tales is good--I really do like it. Easily Telltale's best game. But it doesn't hold a candle to MI1, 2, or Curse. I do like it better than Escape though, so I'll give you that. The story just isn't as good. The jokes aren't as funny. And we won't even talk puzzles and exploration factor.

    I just have to think that either Telltale's writers just can't hit the same beats as the glory days of Lucasarts storytelling and humor, or that the episodic format itself is the limiting (and lessening) factor. Certainly the episodic format is a big part of the reason Telltale's Sam & Max games feel so much more random and incoherent (and more like Saturday morning cartoon episodes.) They really just bore me to tears.

    Monkey Island 2 is one of the worst games ever created.

    There! I finally came out and said it!

  • @Lambonius said: They really just bore me to tears.

    Thanks. Now I know what I didn't like about The Walking Dead. It bored me. Once I realised how small my influence on anything was I was only going along to see the end.
    And that point was fixing the swing in episode 2. After that all the program did was annoy me more and more. Still episode 2 was the best in the whole bundle. Obvious twist but I still enjoyed it.

  • @Lambonius said: Chyron, what? Are we even playing the same games?

    Telltale's Sam & Max games barely have coherent stories. Season 3 is the only one that had a solid story, and even that felt awkward and disconnected compared to the much tighter stories of pretty much every Lucasarts game (including Hit the Road.) The only reason anyone could even argue that Telltale Sam & Max supporting characters are "memorable" (sarcastic quotes used on purpose) are because Telltale uses the same characters in every season, like clockwork--we've seen them in three times as many games as the characters from Hit the Road. By the way, I'd take Bruno, Trixie, Conroy, et al, any day over Sybil, Bosco, (ugh--what a horrible and painfully unfunny character), etc. Bosco is especially bad, too, because he's a character you're never supposed to actually SEE. That's what makes the Bosco sequences from the comics and from Hit the Road actually funny. Hit the Road was such a beautiful mesh of themes and gags from the existing comics, whereas Telltale's games feel pulled more from the watered down (and quite a bit more random and less consistently funny) Saturday morning cartoon.

    Tales is good--I really do like it. Easily Telltale's best game. But it doesn't hold a candle to MI1, 2, or Curse. I do like it better than Escape though, so I'll give you that. The story just isn't as good. The jokes aren't as funny. And we won't even talk puzzles and exploration factor.

    I just have to think that either Telltale's writers just can't hit the same beats as the glory days of Lucasarts storytelling and humor, or that the episodic format itself is the limiting (and lessening) factor. Certainly the episodic format is a big part of the reason Telltale's Sam & Max games feel so much more random and incoherent (and more like Saturday morning cartoon episodes.) They really just bore me to tears.

    Oh, and as long as we're talking about Telltale's Sam and Max games, let's talk about the voices.

    For Sam and Max Hit the Road, we had Bill Farmer, who brought Sam to life with an interesting fusion of Humphrey Bogart and Johnny Carson... a combo which worked! Every line of his oozed snark... plus I could sense an authoritative tone in his dialogue, which meant that he was not someone you could get away with messing with. Max was voiced by Nick Jameson, and I know I'm going to get flak for this for siding with someone who sounded "too adult". His voice sounded edgy and unfiltered, and conveyed plenty of attitude, as if to say, "I am not the weak and defenseless bunny rabbit you think I am, so do not underestimate me."

    We were going to get those voices back in Freelance Police, but we all know how that went! Hopefully Lucasarts/Disney Interactive will bring them back (preferrably this year).

    Now, as for the Telltale voices...

    Sam, instead of being voiced by Bill Farmer, is voiced by David Nowlin. And I know people reading this are going to hate me for saying this... but I felt nothing from him. His delivery sounded so vanilla, so milquetoast. It sounded to me like he was just there.

    You have not heard Nick Jameson's voice come out of Max's mouth in the current games. In Culture Shock, you heard Andrew Chaikin instead. He sounded just too whiny and annoying to me. William Kasten, who replaced him, was probably just as grating.

    I know that people somehow love the new voices and would go into conniptions if Telltale were to magically remake the games so that the original voices would be brought back... but I think that Telltale should do that anyway. By doing this, I feel that it would open the doors to a market that would otherwise feel alienated. Besides, I feel that seven/eight years is long enough.

    *whew* That was an amazingly long rant from me, but I felt it deserved to be said here.

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