By Alec Meer on January 3rd, 2011 at 10:41 am.
Happy one-digit calendar change, everyone. I’ve been exploring more dramatic date-tweaking, thanks to Telltale’s surprise jump-starting of Reaganite blockbuster Back To The Future. Reborn as a point and click adventure, it’s been fluxing a fair few 80s-children’s capacitors with a drip-feed of teasing art and videos. Episode 1: It’s About Time landed just before Christmas, and I took a few hours out of a steady diet of booze, cheese and vegetarian turkey substitutes to join its voyage to pop culture’s past…
Back To The Future wouldn’t have suited anything other than an adventure game, and not just because those retromancing concepts are relatively era-matched. Obtuse puzzles and obtuse characters, piecing together a bizarre strategy that seems ad-hoc but could clearly only ever work one way… The movie is, essentially, an adventure game: Marty McFly’s cartwheeling tale of item collection and charming coercion. While it’s certainly true to say that BTTF sticks closely to Telltale’s unwavering template, offering precisely nothing the company hasn’t repeatedly tried its hand at previously, the formula fits. Characters as obstacles, recurring visits to the same locations: it’s very much the same backbone of convenience and coincidence that runs underneath the movies.
The story, occurring as far as I can tell in a sort of hybridised sequel/alternate continuity bubble, can’t quite keep up with the retro-cheer. While the game gets off to a strong and reverential start, filled with fan-pleasing references and enactments, it quickly collapses into a tale of cardboard cut-out gangsters, with a supporting cast desperately unable to compete with the focused likeability of an impressive Michael J Fox soundy-likey and a hoarser but still-charming Christopher Lloyd. The early, repeated nostalgia-crescendos quickly collapse into blandness and a lack of urgency.
The latter’s where the game most deviates from the films, which were always hung around nick-of-time saves. That concept is in there, with the key plot point revolving around preventing Doc Brown meeting a messy end in the past, but the lack of any fail condition means this can’t ever be taken seriously. If you can’t work out a puzzle, or ask a character the wrong question, nothing changes, the status quo forever remains: the serpent continues to eat its own tail until you hit upon the progress-inducing solution.
It’s here that BBTTF most needs to up its game: less meandering coolly around a tiny slice of Prohibition-era Hill Valley, more race against time shenanigans – and perhaps even risking the casual audience the game clearly seeks to court by introducing some element of tangible danger.
But enough armchair designer chin-scratching. While this first episode doesn’t exactly reach 88 miles per hour, it makes enough of the concept and license to suggest stronger stuff is entirely possible. The move from the out-there abstraction of Sam and Max’s absurdist sci-fi and Tales of Monkey Island’s magic doohickeys to something more Earthly is quietly refreshing, with the puzzles creeping towards more genuine logic rather than what-if thinking. Another long-held Telltale game complaint remains, unfortunately, with the inventory sparse and puzzle combinations thus often defaulting to relatively untaxing trial and error rather than demanding ingenuity. Future episodes may correct this, as Marty’s bodywarmer hopefully becomes stuffed with ever-more items.
Alas, the game’s also stingy with its interactivity, mystifyingly and unforgivably restricting Marty’s time-hopping DeLorean trip to a cutscene. I’m entirely aware that adventure games are built around puzzles rather than action, but getting to push all those exciting buttons and levers as the Flux Capacitor does its pseudoscience thing would have reduced the game’s nagging dichotomy between activating minor actions but only watching the major ones.
Again, while broadly the license suits the genre, the short-form nature and established tech of this particular adventure game episode impose critical limitations. The game’s very much at its best in terms of aesthetic design – that music, those voices, and to some extent the stylised, toonish art, but most of all in the good-natured characterwork and nostalgic nods. Without any of that, this episode might seem almost as non-corporeal as Marty’s vanishing hand during the first movie’s climactic stage scene.
The cliffhanger (and resultant trailer for episode two) simultaneously sets up hope and fear. Like Telltale’s other series, it’s clear old environments are in for a heavy recycling session, but the nature of the dilemma Marty and Doc are left with offers promise of the heightened complexity this series -and Telltale’s over-familiar design in general – is so desperately in need of.
Whether that’ll actually happen is another matter. Telltale’s adventures have forever been relaxed to the point of horizontality, but the nature of the license means they’re looking more than ever to a non-gamer audience. Received wisdom holds that casual means keep it simple. Maybe so – but that doesn’t mean you can’t take risks at the same time.