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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.

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    Jennifer Moderator

    @MusicallyInspired said: I mean, after Freelance Police was canceled (for all intents and purposes, a true classic-style adventure game), Telltale announced they were bringing it BACK!

    Telltale pretty much did bring the Freelance Police idea back (if not that game's story, due to legal reasons). Freelance Police was to be very much like Telltale's Sam & Max seasons: six individual cases with an over-arching plot to connect them all (the Freelance Police team even pitched the idea to have additional episodic cases available through the Freelance Police menu).

    All four released Sam & Max games have been great in my opinion. The episodic formula has really allowed Telltale to be creative with the story and puzzles (the finale of Reality 2.0 is a good example of this). Telltale's puzzles were never as difficult as most of LucasArts' games from the 90's, true. But they were creative (and in my opinion, that matters more. A difficult puzzle can be over-done. I'd take Reality 2.0's car color puzzle (which I personally did find challenging, and once I realized the solution, quite clever) any day over Grim Fandango's sign-post puzzle for example).

    Even The Walking Dead had some creative puzzles. I liked the car battery puzzle in episode 4 for example (it did make me stop and think a bit, and the solution was clever and fit within the game's world [and I liked that it was a multi-part puzzle, since you had to talk to a character to get an object to use on an object to get an object]).

  • Yes. I mentioned that. My point was, it was to be a traditional adventure, not the toned down one that Telltale released. At least that was the impression many of us got.

  • @Vainamoinen said: 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.

    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.

    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.

    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".

    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.

    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.

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

    My main point there was that there are so many different ways that every single thought regarding this can go that at the end of the day I can't settle on anything. I've probably changed my opinion or contradicted myself a million times in this thread alone trying to keep up with everyone else or trying not to be the bad guy. It's very easy for me to be the bad guy. I was expecting it continually, so that's why I threw up my brain all over as a response to your post.

    But I think TWD is a great concept for a game. I don't want to play it due to collateral. I hold firm to the obtuse puzzles of old, because I don't think many of them are that obtuse. I mean, really, we're jumping down Sam and Max Hit The Road and MI2's throats now? Sierra had some unfair puzzles, but now LucasArts isn't safe either? I've never played a LA game I thought had unfair puzzles, not even The Dig. I could always figure out a way to work them.

    I love the idea of a game that is played according to your personal feelings and emotions, led around by real-world style choices. The more in-depth they get, the better that system will be.

    The majority of my annoyance is at all these people who think the old way of things is bad. I'll probably go to my grave following that old way of design, or I'll branch out in a puzzle-centric direction. I'm more interested in puzzle freedom than story freedom as a designer. That's something nobody seems to be looking at.

    I like Telltale's old games.
    I respect their decisions. I'm glad they're happy.
    I don't agree with their design philosophy...it's not for me.
    I accept that it's valid and works for them.
    I like The Walking Dead. I hate zombie stories. I hate that theme. This is a personal bias.
    I hate having people go on and on about how shitty obtuse puzzles are.
    About the only Lucasarts game I dislike the design of is The Last Crusade. I think the best designed ones in terms of mechanics are Fate of Atlantis, LOOM, The Dig, and Monkey Island 1.
    I think a lot of Sierra games are well made: The Colonel's Bequest, The Dagger of Amon-Ra, Gabriel Knight, the first three LSL games (the third most flawed), KQ 3, 4, and 6 (they're really not the worst of the bunch), Police Quest, and Quest For Glory everything. I haven't finished the Space Quest series. Hated SQ 1 so much I didn't want to go on.

    I love the following Telltale games: Bone, Sam and Max 1, 2, and 3, Tales (my favorite), Strong Bad (second favorite), Wallace and Gromit, Poker Night, and I respect The Walking Dead. I'm in the minority, but I bet I'd love Jurassic Park too.

    Back to the Future can suck my dick. That's one game. ONE GAME. I don't think I'm writing off the whole company based on one game kthnxbai. And I can still say I enjoyed Episode 1 of BTTF to an extent, so I can narrow that down to four episodes if I really want to suck Telltale's dick. I really don't, though.

    My main gripe with TWD is that it gives people ammo against the games I love. And you know what, maybe I do like bad games. I dunno. It wasn't considered that way in the 00's when I first got internet.

    However, I can write the company off based various company-wide tactics and actions that, while it makes a good company, put me off. That's me. I have certain self-righteous ideals. I don't want a company to act like a company and do things that help that company. I don't want to see safe tactics. I'm a nutcase, because that's an impossible thing to ask but it rubs me the wrong way. Like using Gravatar on the new forum to avoid legal responsibility. Ewwwwwww. It makes perfect SENSE. But ewwww. I don't care, ewwwwww. EWWWWWWWWWWW.

    Someone is going to come along and nitpick this post and then I'll change everything I said all over again. Ech.

    1299993_o.gif

  • @Secret Fawful said: Like using Gravatar on the new forum to avoid legal responsibility. Ewwwwwww. It makes perfect SENSE. But ewwww. I don't care, ewwwwww. EWWWWWWWWWWW.

    I figured they were using it out of convenience and that they would implement the ability to allow you to be able to upload your own pictures later. Seems sortive silly for legal reasons, though I've been wrong before.

  • @MusicallyInspired said: Yes. I mentioned that. My point was, it was to be a traditional adventure, not the toned down one that Telltale released. At least that was the impression many of us got.

    Yeah, the new games are definitely in need of an update, amirite? :p

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    Jake Telltale Alumni

    I feel like Sam & Max Season 3, Back to the Future, Walking Dead, Jurassic Park, and Puzzle Agent have all been relatively different. Looking back, there's also Strong Bad, and Wallace & Gromit, which don't have much in common either. Sam & Max S1, 2, 3, and Monkey Island are the closest related, but they're also the games which draw a direct line back to another game studio's design herative. We also put out Poker Night which is a ridiculous outlier, and have a couple prototype projects which never got released but are also pretty different from each other. The common thread for me is that all the games focus on story and character, and most all of them are built off of the spine of the adventure game genre, even if they don't use all the limbs (new analogy). Fables will have a lot in common with The Walking Dead but it will also have much that is different. :\

    @Secret Fawful said: I just want to make a great adventure game

    I would like more people to do this, or want this. The best thing ever would be if more people made adventure games, and if more people in general tried their hand at making games.

    Meanwhile...

    I find it frustrating that there are two separate conversations in this thread which seem to not be talking to each other. One of them is "Why has Telltale abandoned the golden classic adventure genre?" and the other is "Why is Telltale making the same game over and over, regardless of what the game is?" My problem with both of these is that I think Walking Dead was very deliberately designed starting with the hallmarks of the adventure genre, but then the question was asked "what is right for The Walking Dead?" When you read the Walking Dead comics, characters don't sit around stumped solving puzzles all the time, so why would we make a Walking Dead game that was nothing but mind bending puzzles? That, to me, is just as preposterous as making a Walking Dead game that is nothing but running down corridors shooting an infinite supply of AI-driven zombies, but if we did that, adventure game fans would leap from the woodwork, from behind every inanimate object to cry "The Walking Dead isn't just a stupid action story! It has drama and stories and mysteries! People don't just shoot all the time!" So why don't they jump out of the woodwork and proclaim it weird and wrong when a story and world which previously had no wild and weird puzzles suddenly has them when it turns into an adventure game?

    This probably sounds insane, but the two games Sean and I looked at the most at the outset of making The Walking Dead were Monkey Island 2 and Full Throttle. Not for puzzle structure or anything like that -- the puzzle structure of LucasArts games have been examined and cribbed to death by every adventure game developer in the last 15 years, to obviously mixed results -- but for how the interactions in those games make you feel.

    Monkey Island 1 and 2 are amazing at making you feel empowered as Guybrush simply by choosing what to say and watching it bounce off people. Nobody ever listens to a word you say, but it still feels great to say whatever you want, and at the end of the day you still get done what you want to get done anyway.

    Full Throttle is a great study in using adventure game mechanics to let you play a protagonist who is stoic, thoughtful, powerful, and yet despite his abilities is under the thumb of the world the entire time.

    Monkey Island 2 also has one of my favorite structural lessons: The Four Map Pieces. Not the actual obtaining of them -- nothing new needs to be said about that structure, which is amazing but now familiar to all adventure designers -- but what happens when you complete it. You spend all of the middle of Monkey 2 getting these map pieces that will take you where you need to go, deliver them to the cartographer and HOLY SHIT HE'S KIDNAPPED. On the errand you're running for Wally, you find a mysterious crate and climb inside because you're curious... taking you to LeChuck's fortress... taking you to Dinky Island, where you wanted to go all along, but your journey there was way more fun for it.

    Walking Dead takes a ton of lessons we tried to learn straight from the classics, but applies them in a way that is different than the norm. I'm very proud of that. Would Walking Dead be a better game if it had adventure game mind bending logic puzzles all over it? To me, no, that would just be doing more of the same again and again. Right now we're in what is I guess the difficult place of the rest of the world calling Walking Dead an adventure game, while adventure fans decry it as anything but. So it goes!

  • I'm all for different game philosophies being represented, but am disappointed to see how some want to say, in a self-serving way, that dumbing down puzzles or reducing opportunity for exploration is "evolution" of the genre. As others mentioned, it falsely implies that adventure games need to be perfected or improved by removing these fundamental and much-loved qualities. In the same way, I am disappointed to see people who should know better try to portray challenging adventure game puzzles as old-fashioned. Feels almost insulting to hear that from supposed adventure game fans, especially after all the effort and campaigns and indie adventure projects over the years which helped, at least in part, keep alive the adventure fan community to be able to reach this point today where we have several high-profile adventures successfully being launched.

    I forget who it was, but someone from Telltale described another designer's (who wasn't with Telltale) work on a new classic-style adventure game and expressed disappointment over the fact that this other designer supposedly wasn't trying something new. Now, I thought those comments were ironic, considering Telltale isn't exactly known for creating original series. Far from it, in fact. Besides, it would be like saying of a great novelist, "Sigh, he is writing a novel again? People were reading those things in the 90's. Why doesn't he try something new like me?"

  • @Jake said: [post]

    I love this response. This is exactly what I wanted to hear.

    What you're saying is that TTG isn't about revolutionizing, improving or modernizing the adventure game genre. What TTG is about is making a game, whose roots start by being connected to adventure games, that fits the involved franchise. Plain and simple. And, for example, TTG thought a heavily action-oriented game with a cinematic feel is what would fit for Jurassic Park. It wasn't about moving away from adventure games.

    The question I have is: What about King's Quest?

    Are you saying that the question will be asked "What is best for King's Quest (as a franchise)?" when (or if) TTG actually gets around to making it?

    Is TTG going to make it?

  • @MtnPeak said: I'm...disappointed to see how some want to say, in a self-serving way, that dumbing down puzzles or reducing opportunity for exploration is "evolution" of the genre. As others mentioned, it falsely implies that adventure games need to be perfected or improved by removing these fundamental and much-loved qualities. In the same way, I am disappointed to see people who should know better try to portray challenging adventure game puzzles as old-fashioned. Feels almost insulting to hear that from supposed adventure game fans, especially after all the effort and campaigns and indie adventure projects over the years which helped, at least in part, keep alive the adventure fan community to be able to reach this point today where we have several high-profile adventures successfully being launched.

    EXACTLY THIS. Great post.

    @MtnPeak said: What you're saying is that TTG isn't about revolutionizing, improving or modernizing the adventure game genre.

    The problem is that he's the ONLY ONE who speaks for Telltale that has ever said anything of the sort, and it's buried here in this niche forum where no one but us nerds will ever read it. Any high profile, public statements from Telltale have always been more of the kind that MtnPeak is decrying above. Telltale needs to get its fucking messaging straight.

    I really liked Walking Dead by the way. Wouldn't really consider it a true adventure game, but it had enough interesting stuff going for it that it was still a great experience, overall. Its real triumph is the writing, particularly the believable characters and emotionally powerful situations.

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    Jake Telltale Alumni

    @Lambonius said: EXACTLY THIS. Great post.
    The problem is that he's the ONLY ONE who speaks for Telltale that has ever said anything of the sort, and it's buried here in this niche forum where no one but us nerds will ever read it. Any high profile, public statements from Telltale have always been more of the kind that MtnPeak is decrying above. Telltale needs to get its fucking messaging straight.

    I really liked Walking Dead by the way. Wouldn't really consider it a true adventure game, but it had enough interesting stuff going for it that it was still a great experience, overall. Its real triumph is the writing, particularly the believable characters and emotionally powerful situations.

    I'm just speaking for myself as a designer at Telltale; I can't speak to the official company's direction. To my knowledge, though, it's to do right by story- and character-driven games the best we can.

    Thanks for playing Walking Dead. The parts you liked are the parts we put our time and life into, so I'm glad you enjoyed them!

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