Thursday, January 6, 2011

Back to Episodic Gaming

This may come off sounding like a filler post, but sometimes the first thing that comes to mind is the best thing to write. I've just completed Back to the Future: The Game's first episode, and I'll have to wait until next month to keep playing. Which is fantastic.

Quick background for anyone who hasn't been reading GameCola's rabid fanboy news articles over the last several weeks: Telltale Games, the people behind the most recent Sam & Max and Monkey Island games, began releasing a point-and-click Back to the Future adventure game that effectively plays out like Back to the Future: Part 4: The Interactive TV Show. Five self-contained episodes, a new one released every month, which form a complete story.

My initial reactions to the game were threefold: One, it felt like Back to the Future. I kept drawing parallels to Star Trek 2009, which seemed to shoehorn in as many classic quotes and situations as possible to appease fans and say, "Look! We're really Star Trek!", whereas BTTF:TG incorporated and adapted quotes and situations where the story really called for them. Maybe it's just the self-referential nature of the movies that made it work, but I never once felt like the developers were stretching or trying too hard. The main plot and the events therein were perfectly believable as a logical part of the franchise.

Two, the game truly felt like a movie where I had some sway over how things happened. I normally gripe about games that are too cutscene-heavy, but this isn't your average licensed game--this the next installment in the Back to the Future story, told through the video game medium. There's not an absurd amount of exploration--the game offers a limited number of locations to visit, and breaks areas down into linear sections where you can't really run around in all directions. You've got a handful of inventory items, almost all of which are very clearly not going to be helpful except where it's very obvious you need an item.

Instead of feeling restricting, these limitations keep the story moving along. Enough of the challenges are sufficient enough to appease veteran gamers, but a well-designed incremental in-game hint system keeps less-puzzle-minded adventurers from getting hopelessly stuck. There are other games with more brain-bendingly clever puzzles, but I wouldn't hesitate to say that BTTF:TG's first episode contains the most consistently coherent puzzles of any adventure game I've played, and that is a satisfying thing indeed.

Now, back to my list. Three, I finally understand the appeal of episodic gaming, and even episodic television. At the end of the game, I was excited for more. And I will have more. In February. I have to wait. Now I know what I put my YouTube fans through when I take a month to produce my next video. In an age where I can go online and order absolutely anything to be delivered the next day, that sensation of anticipation is exhilarating. This is especially neat for me, because I abhor spoilers and have been let down by every new geeky thing I've even slightly anticipated in the past year, so I really don't keep up with the Next Big Thing aside from possibly knowing that it will exist.

Name virtually any new game I've played over the past...oh...three years, and I can guarantee you that even the absolute most fun ones in the bunch had frequent stopping points where I'd say, "Alright, enough of that; time for something else." Not so with BTTF. I only stopped playing to give myself time to cogitate over the next solution, and to go to sleep at a halfway reasonable hour, after having stayed up more than half an hour later than anticipated.

The last time I was so eager to continue playing a game was in my senior year of college, when I replayed Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to try out more solutions and hear more dialogue options. I wanted to keep enjoying the fun. No stupid gimmicks, no grinding for XP, no excessive backtracking, no nothing. Nothing to put a dent in my enjoyment of an otherwise terrific game. Plain ol' fun. Where has that gone?

Whoa, this not-filler post turned into a real review.

I like the thought of having to wait for the next installment. If the next episode is even half as fun, it'll be worth stretching out the experience over a few months so I can savor a flat-out fun video game.


Michael Gray said...

It's a great game, to be sure, but I'm still not sold on the idea of episodic gaming. My cynical side can't give up on the idea that they're just splitting up a normal game into multiple parts for financial purposes.

It's sort of like taking a Shakespeare play and releasing each act separately. Why?

Flashman85 said...

I can't say I disagree. Telltale obviously has enough going on that they could get away with releasing one big game every few months, and still be profitable, but I don't think adventure gaming works as well for this format.

If we were truly doing episodes, which may or may not have anything to do with the previous installment, and could run indefinitely instead of for exactly five episodes every time, then maybe it wouldn't seem so odd.