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Telltale and Puzzles: A Rant.

posted by RAnthonyMahan on - last edited - Viewed by 4.3K 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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  • User Avatar Image
    Jennifer Moderator
    MusicallyInspired;771171 said:
    I don't believe it's possible to "evolve" adventures because any "evolution" would turn them into something they're inherently not.
    Video game genres always evolve, and adventures have evolved quite a bit since the first Adventure that was released in 1976/1977. They went from text to static graphics with Mystery House, then to full graphics with direct control characters and text parsers with King's Quest, to full mouse control with Deja Vu and Maniac Mansion. Maniac Mansion already got rid of at least one of Adventure's standard features - points. So, it wasn't just a cosmetic change, but a gameplay change too.

    Games like Beyond Zork and Quest for Glory melded gameplay styles from other genres (and it's not out of place since the original Adventure itself already did this as it had fighting).

    Games like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade brought in the dialog tree which would later become a common staple. Then came The Secret of Monkey Island which instituted the rule most of LucasArts' adventures followed from then on - not being able to die and no dead ends.

    Games like Grim Fandango and The Longest Journey brought the genre into the third dimension with 3D characters on pre-rendered backgrounds.

    Then games like Telltale's early adventures (from Out from Boneville to Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People) brought a point and click interface to a full 3D engine (with 3D characters and 3D backgrounds), and games like Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures and Tales of Monkey Island brought a direct control (and/or mouse control) option to the characters.

    The Walking Dead streamlined the inventory and dialog system by putting both options into the same interface.

    And The Cave streamlined it even more by having the inventory system consist of only one item at a time per character.

    All of these games have two things in common: an inventory a story (thanks MusicallyInspired for the correction :)) and puzzles to solve (it doesn't matter how hard the puzzles are, just that they're there [difficulty doesn't matter when defining genres, that distinction falls upon sub-genres]). That's really the basis of what makes a game an adventure, since the genre's slowly evolved over the last (almost) 40 years and those are the only constant.
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    Vainamoinen Moderator
    Jennifer;771385 said:
    All of these games have two things in common: an inventory and puzzles to solve. That's really the basis of what makes a game an adventure.
    Please don't do that. :(
  • It's interesting that you bring up The Cave, Jennifer, since it makes a good example of what I mean about experimentation.

    Point-and-click adventures, for the most part, are very restrictive to the player when compared to other genres. Ron Gilbert wondered if there was a different way to do it, so he decided to make an adventure game with a more engaging control scheme. And so we got The Cave, a platformer/point-and-click hybrid.

    Personally, while I liked The Cave's writing, and the puzzles were (mostly) decent, the backtracking was pretty frustrating and I found myself spending a lot of time thinking it would be better as a normal point-and-click adventure. Still, it shows off the idea of experimenting ways to do things differently. Look closely at what you have already. Find something you don't like. If you got rid of X and did Y instead, would it be better? If not, why not? If you improved on Y's problems and did Z, would it be better than X? You get the idea.
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    Jennifer Moderator
    Vainamoinen;771386 said:
    Please don't do that. :(
    It's true, puzzles and inventory are the fundamentals for the adventure genre (oh, I think I see what you mean by that comment, yeah the puzzles don't have to be hard, they just have to be there. Difficulty doesn't matter when defining genres, that distinction would fall to the sub-genres). There are many sub-genres of adventures (which I think is what people are getting confused about). In fact, there are tons of them (way too many sub-genres/combinations to list). Even just breaking it down to point-and-click and text adventures wouldn't work, as there's tons of sub-genres beyond that too.

    I actually find the amount of diversity in the adventure genre quite fascinating (and not surprising considering it has a history almost as old as the personal computer itself).
  • Vainamoinen;771379 said:

    Thanks for real arguments, Fawful. We really needed them here. How about a few more?
    Are you being sarcastic, or an asshole. I've made some pretty in-depth arguments, or are you just ignoring them because it's Fawful durr durr durr he's an idiot. If you think that what I'm really trying to do in here is throw shit around and cause trouble, ultimately, then remove my motherfucking profile. Remove me from the fucking forum. Because I don't care at this point. I have my opinion set, and it's based on common sense. I'm fighting for the ability to hold a fucking normal conversation around here for once. Because I'd love that. I'd love to sit around and not throw the blame, or single people out. But since everyone else wants to do it, I can't very well do that.
    MtnPeak;771316 said:
    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.
    You make my brain hurt because your posts are angry and venomous and make real discussion impossible. I said I don't agree with Telltale multiple times, but your head can't contemplate that someone might not have such a black and white view of things. Now I'm angry and venomous. Thanks for spreading your disgusting disease.
  • Jennifer, you pretty much made my point for me. Except, what I had said was that adventures are made up of puzzles and story, not inventory. They were both always ALWAYS the focus and always the constant. All through the years from text adventures all the way down to the 3D P&C's (as lite as they are). Now Telltale are saying that they're doing something much more drastic than ever was done before. They're trying to shift the focus off of puzzles entirely and point it directly to story alone. I just don't agree with this view. Maybe it doesn't matter to others whether the puzzles are difficult or not, but it does to me. Like I said in my second post, I realize that what Telltale does is just not what I'm looking for. And I'm happy to leave it at that. I want a gaming experience that focuses on puzzles just as much as story. My definition of adventure doesn't fit with theirs, or many others here either it seems. And that's ok. I will move on. Whatever this new form of puzzle-less "adventure" is, I don't like it and I want no part of it.

    Man, I really wish that ginormous post I had made had not been eaten by Mr. V. Bulletin.
  • Your definition isn't the be all and end all you know. And calling them "adventure" games like that is just plain insulting. Like if someone described what you do as "work". It is possible for one thing to mean many things without each harming the other in anyway. If all you're looking for is hard puzzles then it's a wonder you've ever been happy here as that is something Telltale have never really done.

    Games like Back to the Future & Jurassic Park have been lambasted on this site, rightly or wrongly, but the end result of those games has been the Walking Dead which has been a huge success however you describe it. It shows the ability to learn from mistakes and how Telltale are making a name for themselves for doing what they are good at and that success shouldn't belittled. Fine you're not a fan of this path but don't act like it's new nor should you attempt to shame them for enjoying the successes of their design philosophy.
  • Weeeeeeee! Keep throwing the blame around! Keep insulting each other's opinions! That's right! Let's all do it! I'll do it! You'll do it! Let's all do it, like the sheep that we all are.

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Nobody is valid! Only I am valid! I'm not valid! Only you are valid! Don't do this! Don't do that!

    God, I'm a tool by doing it! I'm a tool for trying to argue, and I didn't even realize it. This isn't how things should work, but HELL if I've got a better solution. Maybe reasonable conversation is impossible. Let's change it to arguments! Let's get mad at each other! Let's get paranoid and take everything personally! I'll go first! AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Baaa! Baaaa! I'll be the black sheep! AHAHAHAHA!

    Intelligent discussion doesn't exist! We're all apes! Pierre Boulle was right!

    EDIT: I don't think anyone is really a sheep, I'm just exhausted by this whole thing and also the fact I'm handicapped by being me.
  • Wow, there are some strong opinions here. I'll try to be as brief as possible with mine.
    Let me start by saying that I love Telltale Games, it's one of my favourite developers. While initially I became interested in their products because they were the traditional point and click, I also believe that change can be a good thing, especially where narrative-driven games like theirs is concerned. I think that as long as they make the puzzle structure and the gameplay style fit whatever atmosphere they are trying to convey, they will be enjoyable and interesting games. Monkey Island/Sam & Max need the thinking-out-of-the-box puzzles to convey the level of humor that is expected of them, whereas The Waking Dead meshes well with the more streamlined interface equipped with quick decision-making. As long as Telltale manages to find the right fit for different IPs, their games will be of good quality, and so far they haven't disappointed me.

    P.S. I should also mention that I respect the opinions of anyone on this forum, and I don't consider anyone who doesn't share my opinion or those of whatever the norm is to be a "sheep" that's just silly. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and I admire those who state theirs in the face of possible backlash, I have no need to light any torches or arm myself with a pitchfork :p
  • I used to get pretty up in arms about Telltale's shift into cinematic gaming, but at the same time I'm really happy for their success. No seriously, it's weird but sweet seeing people in the mainstream praising and loving a game made by the company that used to be that little niche company that only I had an interest in.

    I think the reason why I'm not too nonplussed about how Walking Dead turned out vs BTTF is that BTTF was set up more along the lines of the traditional Telltale adventure game style. In that light, it was a pretty terrible game when you got down to gameplay. In the long run it seems like BTTF was simply the result of growing pains of Telltale's metamorphosis into this new style which is pretty far gone from what a lot of the older fans expected and want. Walking Dead, which took its own new direction, turned out to be really strong in this outcome.

    Even though everybody at Telltale is no doubt older than me and I have absolutely no control over the company, I feel like a parent letting a child grow up into their own independent self.

    Either way, it's been an interesting ride.
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