on Dec 26, 2014
Thanks again to Pushing Up Roses for joining us on the show. Everyone had fun and we’re all open to doing this again in the future. We’ll see what happens. Be sure to give her channel a look. I mean, where else are you going to go for smart, informed, long-form analysis of twenty-year-old adventure games? IGN?
I think we’re done with Jurassic Park, though. Actually, Chris said some smart things in the comments and they deserve to be in a post, so I’ll let Chris have the last word on Jurassic Park:
Last episode I asked, “What would a Jurassic Park game look like now that [Telltale] has improved their craft?”
This is what Chris had to say about that:
Honestly I’m guessing they wouldn’t touch a character/plot light, action-focused series like JP these days. I’m willing to bet it taught them a lot about what not to do when making an action sequence going forward, though.
Tales from the Borderlands is probably the most action heavy of the new breed of Telltale games, and how does it differ from JP? Just thinking about it sort of makes me want to do an ES on the subject, but let’s look at this scene from Tales from the Borderlands and compare it to JP:
1. Inputs are simplified and some attempt is made to standardize them. Like, in JP when I grabbed the fence it was “Mash A to grab a fence.” When I was picking up the woman it was “Hold LB and RB to grab, then tap Y repeatedly to lift.” The latter is probably more analogous to the action being performed than the former (“Hold with left arm, hold with right arm, apply effort/lift”) but the inconsistency makes all inputs feel random. Sometimes movement is done with swings of the right stick, but sometimes movement is done by tapping face buttons. There’s no consistency to anything and it feels sort of like I’m tapping random buttons to unblock a cutscene rather than engaging in a set of generalized mechanics. In later games this is largely fixed. Not entirely fixed, mind you – Telltale is a pretty slapdash house in some ways, and a lack of a core design ethos seems to be among them – but it’s certainly less of a problem in Borderlands. Right trigger is generally the “fire weapon/attack” button both inside the loader bot and on foot. Player-input based movement is reserved for “dodges” and other quick movements rather than every single directional switch, and it’s almost always a big easy to hit swing of the analog stick. Excluding the menu selection mechanics for the loader bot, you can play most of this scene with just your right hand. It makes the whole thing flow a lot more easily; the player gets what the game is generally going to ask of them and the result is an exciting action scene they feel a part of rather than “Oh shit I was supposed to press X to slam the door in the raptor’s face, not A! What was I thinking?!”
2. Inputs need to mean something.* They don’t need to reflect player choice per se, but the points at which you ask for input should be meaningful. Like, why were we smashing “A” to grab on to the fence? Some of these are in the next episode, but what is the point of making “mash B to close a gate,” “check the glovebox for maintenance shed access codes,” “hack your way through the jungle one swipe at a time,” and “press LB to pick up a dropped syringe” mechanics the game felt we needed to engage with? They don’t forward the plot and they don’t build tension they’re just… sort of there. Busywork for the player to do. Compare the “hacking the way through the jungle” scene with the walk to the St. Johns farm from The Walking Dead. Hacking our way through the jungle made us learn what, exactly? That she’s terrible with a machete because I can’t time my button presses right in their weird minigame? Like I said in the comments in the last episode, it’s the worst of both worlds: terrible character development, terrible gameplay. But the walk to the farm is the opposite: Lots of time spent on exposition, character building, and a bit of foreshadowing. When player input does come up it’s your opportunity to role play as Lee and pick how you want to respond to these strange St. John brothers, which is way more meaningful than tapping X and A to cut trees. The story gets to have its say and you get your little mechanical flourishes all without padding the game out with nonsense mechanics.
3. Failures in action scenes need to be soft where possible with the *possibility* of actual failure. This is one Telltale still has a bit of trouble with, but it’s definitely something I think we’ve learned from their games. You don’t want a game you can turn on and play itself, but you also don’t want to have characters immediately die when they screw up. JP has a mix of both, for some reason: Some QTEs result in a death animation and an immediate “Do it again, stupid.” Others fail soft – like the cliff, where you can miss a few bits and still survive. The standardized inputs I already mentioned help this a bit – death and screwups are less likely when there’s an agreed upon mechanic set. This is kind of hard to balance because you do need the possibility of failure there to motivate players… but it needs to be hard to get to or the stakes need to be easily communicated. The Wolf Among Us has some good fights that let you fail a bunch and let Bigsby get some bruises along the way, which is a good example of this idea. It feels like you’re choreographing a fight more than actually fighting, but in its own way that’s fun too: you can choose how “exciting” and close to defeat Bigsby gets before you decide he “wins.” No one wants a 10 minute QTE to end in “And then the died. Oh wait, no, do it again.” And no one wants a 10 minute QTE where they can get up and make coffee and nothing matters. It’s more of an art than a science, but JP feels like throwing poop at a wall to see what sticks with regards to this.
I could keep going, but I dunno. Jurassic Park seems like an important stepping stone for the studio; a failure that needed to happen in order to get some of these much better games out of it. I know we’re ragging on it pretty hard, but a lot of that stems from both loving the source material (at least in my case) and knowing this studio would eventually be able to do so, so much better. And they’ve been picking good IPs for it (if we ignore Minecraft for the moment). Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and Tales from the Borderlands all have action scenes that are plenty enjoyable, sure. But they also emphasize characters and all of those action bits are backed by tension because we care about what happens in them. That’s the magic here – Telltale games are about characters, not systems and mechanics. The mechanics should help us to shape their adventure, but the mechanics are not the adventure themselves. And the slow obsession with constant interaction, button presses, trigger holds, and the ever-present fear of losing has slowly given way to the modern “help your friends through an adventure!” approach. And JP gets some credit for making that possible.
* Note: Not every mechanic needs to “mean something” or be integral in gameplay. I love when there are little touches and do-nothing mechanics that exist to build the world or character. But there’s a difference between optional interactions or intentionally systems-driven bits of a game and building a whole game out of “Hit the button at the right time to chop down a tree.”