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Telltale and Puzzles: A Rant.

posted by RAnthonyMahan on - last edited - Viewed by 4.8K 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.
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
    Blind Sniper Moderator
    I was introduced to Telltale by having played the free episode of Sam and Max on Steam back in 2007 or 2008, and have been a fan since. Regardless of Telltale focusing more on adventure gamers or cinematic games, most of my concern is just coming from the fact that Telltale is assuming that what worked for one license will work for other licenses which are vastly different. Even though I did not like games such as Jurassic Park, I'm very glad Telltale made them because they took the experience of making that game in stride and made their future games such as the Walking Dead that much better.

    My long post wasn't out of anger about Telltale going "cinematic," it was just about my concern that what worked for Walking Dead may not work the same for Fables. Looking back on previous big decisions for Telltale, even though they were more well received, it seems that Telltale often assumes what works for one situation will work for many, and that has both helped and hurt Telltale in various instances. Telltale moved from self contained episodes to season long plots because episodes four and five of Sam and Max Season 2 were interconnected, and well received because of it. Telltale's decision to move to season long plots worked out for the better, and they have used it ever since. As a matter of fact, I even prefer the season long plots compared to self contained episodes. I can't blame Telltale for moving towards more Walking Dead inspired interactions for future games, but it's worrying that Telltale may come across a situation where one type of gameplay or type of story would have suited a game better than something else.

    As I said earlier, Telltale needs to take a more unique approach for each license they work with. I think this could be solved simply by having Telltale split up their work efforts into multiple groups and continue to dabble with what made them great in the past in addition to what made them great now. Additionally, they also need to focus more on extracting what works with adventure games and applying it to their own effort rather than watering down classic point and click adventure gameplay and ticking off classic adventure gamers while nevertheless confusing casual gamers for one reason or another.

    Most of the pessimism about Telltale, I believe, is based in the fact that they are currently choosing only to work with dramatic licenses and games. This isn't bad, of course, but many evidently feel it gives off the impression that they have abandoned adventure gamers entirely due to focusing only on the new audience instead of also focusing on their previous audiences. Had Telltale worked on Sam and Max or Monkey Island alongside the Walking Dead today, I don't believe they would have made either of those two games a "cinematic" QTE fest. As I said, most of the concern from fans originates from the fact that Telltale only moves on to what their "big thing" currently is, instead of focusing on past successes as well. In this case, I think many feel that Telltale is giving off the impression they blew off classic adventure fans due to Telltale's lack of communication outside of when they are almost ready to release a game.

    Even though I have been a fan of Telltale for several years, I mostly lurked until after Poker Night was released, which is a shame because it sounds like I missed what was Telltale's community in its prime. Nevertheless, I'm happy for Telltale as long as they don't repeat mistakes with "cinematic" games consistently.
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    Jennifer Moderator
    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.
    We'll have to wait and see, of course. To me, Dan's comment doesn't look like they're talking about elminating puzzles completely, since he says "less of" instead of "move it to" or "get rid of". It seems more like they're looking at a streamlining process, like in The Walking Dead or The Cave.
  • 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.

    Wow. You clearly missed my entire point. Probably did a quick skim of my post instead of actually reading it through too. I never once said that my definition was the be-all and end-all. In fact I said the exact opposite. I even went as far as to say that I'm at peace with the fact that Telltale are doing something I'm just not interested in and that's ok. I realize that my definition isn't shared by everybody and I'm not shaming Telltale for doing something I am not interested in. In fact, I literally said "more power to you" to Jake (or was that in the gigantic post I made that died?). I literally simply stated that I realized that what I was looking for in Telltale is just not there so this is not the place for me anymore. And perhaps it never was. How in the world did you get any other impression from what I said? (if you even actually read it)

    In case you're still missing it here's a clue: I've got nothing against Telltale or anybody else here and I don't think I'm better than anybody else. Is that good enough? Go lynch somebody else.
    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!

    No kidding. Can we all stop jumping to conclusions and accusing each other please? Some of us (few) are trying to have actual conversation here.
  • Well it may not have been your intent but it sure came across like that - by that I mean dismissive of what Telltale are doing, especially with the oft repeated "adventure", the sarcasm just drips from it. But you are still very quick to dismiss what I'm saying by insinuating that I never even read it properly and I'm offended by that. And also the whole post wasn't just aimed at you, though I'm not surprised that you seem to think so. Some points were but the rest of it was trying to be a general addition to this debate.

    I'm not trying to offend anyone. I try to respect people's opinions but I do get annoyed when it seems that other people aren't being as respectful, in this instance to the people working for Telltale. I'm not as good as some at getting my point across, I'm just trying to say what I'm feeling about this.
  • I've been screwing everything up by getting mad and letting my emotions get the better of me. I'm going to rationally try again.

    First: I apologize to MntPeak, Vainamoinen, and ryannumber1gamer. I went about everything wrong here by pushing my ideals for the conversation. So I'm going to try something else.

    I'm sorry for being a pushy asshole, and for screaming.

    I ask you to put your anger away. Not your criticism, not your opinions, and not even your frustration. I just ask that you put your anger away. I ask that you stop, calm yourselves, and reply in a rational, calm manner. You know, the opposite of mine.

    And then stop, and think about whether or not you're about to make your point about the games, your frustrations, Telltale, or each other. Cancel out the part that is about each other. Just completely cancel it out. Keep your points to the subject at hand. I'm going to stop blaming all of you. I'm going to stop making this about all of you. I'm going to stop making it about me. This is about Telltale's design philosophy.

    And now I'll make a new point. Telltale should be open to criticism by reasoned, calm people. They shouldn't consider their way the end all, be all. As creative minds, they should be open to criticism. I think?

    I say that, but then questions start swirling around in my head.

    What if they did do everything we wanted?
    Would they still be creating their way?
    Would their personal creativity exist?
    Would the games be better?
    Would we be satisfied?
    What does "improving" mean?
    Is there a height of perfection they can improve toward?
    Is there a height of perfection they can evolve toward?
    What if there isn't?

    Maybe we're all looking at it the wrong way. Maybe we're using the wrong terms.

    Maybe what I call improving is actually just adding this or that and feeling better about myself? Innovation is doing something nobody has done before?

    What's the point of sticking with the same old thing? What's the point of changing, if you aren't going toward a real goal. Jake said it's like a tree. Well, where's that tree branching off to? Will it ever end? Will it just keep branching and branching? Sounds infinite to me. I don't want to be just another branch. 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?

    I dunno. Nothing makes sense. If I think about it any more, I'll go mad. I don't have any answers. I just want everyone to be nice, and I want to go do something else.
  • Although it is quite a mess in here, I'd like to give my two cents regarding Telltale's plans with their future games.

    I have been a fan of Telltale for quite a few years now, and some way or another gotten my hands on a good chunk of their games. (Steam Sales, Preorder bonuses, what have you.) I can't say I'm much of an Adventure Game Veteran like most of the folks here, though I think I can fall into the Telltale Veteran category. It's great to see Telltale exploring different kinds of things an areas of gaming, and also good to see them tapping into a new set of fans.

    Though it brings up a problem with Telltale, one that has been recurring for many years now. The problem being that whenever Telltale has a successful, or what they believe to be successful, model that worked for Game X it will work just as well for Game Y. That is not at all the case, The Walking Dead's model worked because it created characters you cared about and gave an emphasize more on choice and story; and that's essentially what the idea of the Walking Dead franchise is.

    That same idea may work pretty well for a license like Fables but what about one like King's Quest? The premise of King's Quest it to find inconceivable solutions to very obscure puzzles in a bizarre fashion. Sure it would be cool to see what King's Quest would be like with an interesting backstory, but it's not what King's Quest was known for. Even if King's Quest turns out to be a "true blue" adventure game, who's to say they won't automatically go back to Walking Dead's formula for other new franchises, instead of the "true blue" Adventure Game formula.

    I guess to sum this all up, the point I'm trying to make is don't sacrifice what makes the franchise good to reach a broader audience because it worked in another game of yours. I still think you should focus in the story-telling department but give the puzzle and gameplay department an equal amount of love. Sure puzzles in games or puzzle games in general may not be everyone's cup of tea, though expanding on what makes it good for some and how it could be made better for others should be taken into consideration instead of scrapping it all together.
  • Lambonius wrote: »
    Telltale's last decent game was Tales of Monkey Island. And even that one sucked compared to the originals.
    No it didn't.
    Every Telltale Sam and Max game pales in comparison to Hit the Road.
    No they don't. Hit the Road was decent, but the story was stupid, the ending was stupid, and more than a few of the puzzles made no sense.
  • Chyron8472 wrote: »

    No they don't. Hit the Road was decent, but the story was stupid, the ending was stupid, and more than a few of the puzzles made no sense.

    They all make sense in the world of a cartoon.
  • I just thought it would be funny if I could jam his face into it and it worked.
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