Wot I Think: Back To The Future Ep 1

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.

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32 Comments »

  1. Choca says:

    I’ve always found Telltale’s adventure games boring. Pretty well done, but too clean and too safe to really be interesting.

    • drewski says:

      And worse – not funny. I tried the Strong Bad series and I could have put up with the simplicity of the gameplay if the dialogue was funny, but it wasn’t.

  2. Carra says:

    I bought the third season of Sam & Max during the steam deals.

    Finished the first episode and it’s again a lot of fun. Minus the retarded new control scheme. Making it easier for X-Box players is fine but couldn’t they just have kept the old PC controls besides?

    • Xocrates says:

      They have made abundantly clear in the past that the new control scheme gives them a lot more flexibility, particularly with camera positions, so it’s unlikely that they go back to pure point and click.

      By the way, as far as I know, the change had nothing/little to do with the console kids.

    • DrGonzo says:

      So it just happened to coincide with them launching some games on 360 with the same control scheme then?

    • Xocrates says:

      Consoles might have been a reason, but given that games with the old control scheme seem to work fine on consoles, I doubt it was the major one.

      Though to be fair, I’m basing myself more on the official word than on fan speculation. What actually happened is still a bit up for grabs.

  3. Tainted says:

    They gave this episode to me for free but I won’t be given access until after episode 2 is released. I’ve got plenty to be getting on with anyway. Never been much of an adventure gamer but I’ll give this a go because I love BTTF

  4. Andy_Panthro says:

    As someone who has been unimpressed with Telltales games (played S&M s1, TOMI e1) I guess I should be giving this a miss from your description.

    I had hoped they might get better with time, but perhaps they’re just not for me.

    I always preferred Sierra-style adventure gaming, where death is always an option.

    • Xocrates says:

      To be fair, S&M 1 is one of their weakest works and TOMI Ep1 is one of the weakest of the series (though most people would say it’s already pretty good).

      They did get better in time, S&M series have generally got better for example, they do have their up and downs though, but either way there’s not much that can be done if you don’t like the style of the games.

      And personally, I abhor the sierra-style adventure games. Being punished for trying stuff in a genre that heavily relies on experimentation is bad enough, but after getting used to lucasarts-style which actively encourages experimentation, being able to fail kicks me out of the game (heck, I was unable to finish Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis after found out I could die. I became so paranoid that it simply paralysed me.)

    • Acorino says:

      Heh! Interesting. Because, death in Indy is never a surprise, contrary to Sierra adventures, where it is always around the corner, ready to jump on you.
      And most of the time, it’s your fault and you’re warned before even the possibility occurs.
      The big exception is the ending, which may need some trial and error.

    • Acorino says:

      Yay! Never ever edit your comments or they may be eaten by a blind monster hungry for spam that mistakes non-spam by smell, apparently. Gah! Oh RPS, brilliant the writing and the comments of the hivemind, but always dodgy and aggravating the site code…

      Anyway, in my digested comment I wrote that “Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis” always warns you ahead before even the possibility of dying occurs. It’s very fair with deaths. The big exception is the ending, which may need some trial and error to solve.

  5. Lysander Gray says:

    Tofurky?

  6. Creeping Death says:

    “occurring as far as I can tell in a sort of hybridised sequel/alternate continuity bubble”"

    What makes you think there is any alternate continuity? It’s a straight up sequel.

  7. fenriz says:

    ah just perfect. You’ve worshipped lucas games for 20 years and contributed in making people forget about the Sierra’s elite masterpieces of choices/non-linearity, or even letting them think those were lucas copycats… and now you(as voice of the typical gamer) suddenly dislike linear and accessible adventures like telltale’s, which are nothing but the natural(market) evolution of fricking monkey island.

    I’m gonna clap my hands twice to make up for 20 years of “lucas lol-games rule” conformism. Bravo

    *clapping*

  8. EBass says:

    Hmmmmmm many have derided the death of the adventure game, but I see at as no great loss. Don’t get me wrong I loved them at the time, but that was when us gamers were used to teeth gnashing frustration as a part of game design and the hardware of the time allowed for beautiful 2d art which was perfect for adventure games and the stories they told but rubbish for telling similar stories in RPG or FPS form.

    The puzzles in Telltales games are far too easy and that stunts the game for me, but niether do i want to be doing what I did in the old Lucasarts adventures (wonderful though they were) of “using” every item in the game world with every other item in order to fluke a solution (attack rat to stick anyone?). Anyway all these time travelling antics are superflous as the best time travelling adventure game ever has already been made in the form of Day of the Tentacle.

    • Acorino says:

      Well yeah, but then, not all adventures stick so rigorously and unwisely to conventions like the ones from Telltale do.
      Some old adventures still hold up very well, and I think those are the ones that didn’t fall back too much on conventions and feel less like a routine job.

      Like The Last Express. Or the Tex Murphy games. Or Azrael’s Tear. Death Gate. Conquests of the Longbow. …

      Well, Amnesia and Heavy Rain are also in some or even a lot of ways adventures, not according to the most conversative definitions, but then, who defines anyway what is an adventure and what isn’t?
      I know that a game needs to fulfill certain values to be considered as an adventure for me, but those may be different for anyone else.

  9. kwyjibo says:

    The only Telltale adventure I’ve played is the free Sam and Max and Abraham Lincoln one they gave away as a demo. It was shit.

    Simple non-puzzles, poor signposting, stupid irrelevant minigames and an 80 Metacritic rating. How standards have slipped.

  10. James Brophy says:

    I’m a huge fan of the telltale adventure games. I think your mostly on the money there. It could do with some more fun fan serving corners. Like entering the date yourself into the time circuits to get a comment from Marty. Obviously Marty wouldn’t let you go anywhere but towards saving doc, but it would be great for a few one line gags.

    I do however think that asking for a loss condition in an adventure game makes as much sense as asking for an adventure game tree in pong. given that you sit with the environments for an extended time and you want to encourage not punish exploration; a loss condition would be detrimental to the player ethos your attempting to create in an adventure game.

    Playing it pushed all my happy buttons with the bttf stuff. however it had a very similar feel to the Wallace and Gromit games. “How empty can we leave an area before people start to loose interest.” I later found out the the Wallace and Gromit games were so sparse because the entirety of telltale was on the other side of the office making Tales of Monkey Island. After playing bttf all i can think is “what is the team actually working on, on the other side of the room?”

    The lack of complexity becomes painfully obvious when you compare it to the first Sam and Max episode of the last season which had a Marvelous time travel gambit to open and close the episode.

    Clearly they are laying track for future parts of the story, (the missing clocks in docs place, the story of of how the shoe got into the Delorian and the glaring plot device of docs note book.) It would just be nice to see a little of that complexity in the opening story. Even as an intro to adventure, it’s anemic.

  11. Turin Turambar says:

    The little i have played was much less impressive than Sam & Max Season 2 and 3. Why? Because the game is mediocre once you erase the wacky comedy and one liners of Sam & Max. Puzzle wise, it wasn’t very interesting, also.

  12. silverhammermba says:

    Telltale’s games are best classified as hardcore adventure games.

    They aren’t hardcore in the sense of extreme difficulty or depth, rather they are hardcore in the sense that only hardcore adventure game fans will be willing to sit through mediocre puzzles and ponderous dialog simply fore the sake of advancing a moderately interesting story.

    Telltale may be attempting to make adventure games more casual, but in doing so they have alienated themselves from the nerds mostl likely to be interested in the IP.

    • Acorino says:

      They aren’t hardcore in the sense of extreme difficulty or depth, rather they are hardcore in the sense that only hardcore adventure game fans will be willing to sit through mediocre puzzles and ponderous dialog simply fore the sake of advancing a moderately interesting story.

      Quite similar to JRPGs, then.

  13. Navagon says:

    So pretty much just a Telltale game in BTTF’s clothing. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, mind. But still I was hoping that the time travel aspect would add a degree of complexity to it maybe even with the possibility of royally screwing everything up and being forced to start over.

    Maybe things will get more complicated as the story progresses.

  14. Acorino says:

    Yeah, basically they’re just squeezing the license into their adventure game template, instead of logically forming the gameplay around the actions taken in the movies.
    In this way, it’s no better like all the arcade games, action games and platformers based on movie licenses that have so little connection to the work they’re based on, except for offering some inspiration for the graphic artists.

    Except, of course, it is better, since adventure games are a storytelling medium. Still, it doesn’t quite do justice to the movies.

  15. malkav11 says:

    I’d be disappointed if I didn’t know I love Telltale games substantially more than the average RPS writer.

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  17. subman says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0DjiOn1rUWo

    is more what I’m looking for from a BTTF game…

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  19. karry says:

    Eeeehhh…tried it, and the whole art design direction was pretty painful. Their games were okay with cartoony style, but this one they went with stylized realistic, and it doesnt look that great. Not to mention that the mimics and articulation are quite bad…maybe i would like the puzzles, but for right now i’ll just lay it aside for a few weeks.

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