Adventure games occupy a unique space from other genres. Story and characters take front and center stage and must motivate the player. The most prolific adventure game company today is Telltale Games. Telltale, well known for its timely episodic releases, has produced series such as Sam & Max and the Strong Bad games. In this article, we’ll be looking at their design choices for the first episode of Back to the Future.
SPOILER ALERT – To analyze their design choices, we’ll be looking at specific moments in the game.
Adventure games thrive on lateral thinking, and the theme of their puzzles helps set the mood. In the Myst series, the lateral puzzles involve obscure interfaces. In the indie hit Machinarium, it’s all about broken technology. Back to the Future’s puzzles thrive on hacking social systems.
Halfway through the game, the player needs to get a barrel of alcohol to Doc’s lab. The pieces fall into play slowly – the mob is using a soup kitchen as a front, a journalist is transporting barrels of soup to needy organizations, and some of the barrels have liquor. The player sees a mobster come in with the alcohol, set it on a shelf, and bang on a pipe to have it whisked away to the basement.
Other adventure games might have the characters on patrol, or use a large inventory to barter a solution. In Back to the Future, the player talks the other characters into getting what she needs. The player can convince the mobster to turn away for a moment, and trick the journalist into delivering a barrel of alcohol straight to Doc’s house.
The concept is simple, but brings the characters home. The player now has incentive to talk to the characters and pick more interesting dialog. The player gets to see Marty’s reactions, and is actively listening when the characters make funny quips. A talking adventure game protagonist is a soliloquist by nature, but its the relationships in stories that flesh characters out. Social puzzles elegantly draw on this strength.
Interacting with the other characters is not always done through the dialog options. In the opening scene, Marty wants to get Doc’s notebook back from Biff. The player has four options when talking to Biff, but none of them work.
In improv this is known as blocking – saying “No” and halting the action. It fits Biff’s character well, but it can be a dangerous technique to use. New players may falsely learn that characters won’t do anything helpful. To rectify this, the player has to ask Marty’s Dad to stop intervening before she can get the notebook. Telltale is letting players know Biff is the exception to the rule, and talking is usually helpful.
The player’s options are clear when talking to a character, but environments can be ambiguous. Players resort to visual skimming, trusting their eyes to identify the significant objects. Discovery can be a painful mechanic. Missing one item is frustrating; having all obvious items is boring. Different games use different philosophies – Escape the Room games don’t even change the cursor, while FPSs may make items glow.
Back to the Future finds a middle ground. Interactive objects blend in with the environment, but hovering over the object makes the cursor light up and displays the name. The player is able to scan faster, and make accidental discoveries. The names allow designers to place important objects close together, without players accidentally clumping them. Combined with clever placement and good camera angles, Back the the Future keeps emphasizes the discovery over the frustration.
Adventure game protagonists have a kleptomaniac streak, and keeping track of their stuff can get tricky. Solid, usable inventory interfaces are rarely flashy, but crappy UI can sour the best gameplay.
Back to the Future has a full-screen inventory – which confused me at first. In the Strong Bad games, the inventory covers the top of the screen, so players can make visual connections. A full-screen inventory actually makes puzzles harder, since the player has to recall either her stuff or the environment. However, this is a game based on social puzzles, which doesn’t need a ton of items. As long as the player has less than seven objects, the player will be able to keep everything in working memory.
On the upside, a full-screen inventory elegantly answers the question: “Can I combine items together?” A combining mechanic means each item expands the user’s incorrect options exponentially. It’s impossible to combine items in Back to the Future, and the cursor indicates that, reverting from the “use item” cursor when the inventory is opened. Players who don’t know about combining aren’t bothered with the details, and gamers who try it see it isn’t supported. With fewer wrong choices, the player hits more clues and humor when making incorrect ones.
By basing its design choices on its social-puzzle emphasis, Telltale keeps the focus on the characters and emotions, and minimizes the frustrating pitfalls adventure games often have.