Adventure Time

adventuretime1Warning! This article contains moderate to major spoilers for all of Tales From The Borderlands and Life Is Strange.

“Telltale make old-school adventure games”. That’s what people said to me, but it’s a lie. They made adventure games, that’s indisputable, but calling Tales From The Borderlands or Minecraft Story Mode or even The Walking Dead adventure games is a bit of a stretch. They borrow some elements from the old point and clicks, sure, but calling Game of Thrones an adventure game is like calling Gone Home an FPS. This is all largely incidental to my greater point, but it’s something that’s irked me and felt worth mentioning.

Irrespective of precisely which genre Telltale games exist in, let’s call them Narrative-Led Games for now, they have definitely been successful and they have definitely stuck to a template. A template that began with The Walking Dead and, despite a few of the edges being worn down a little, has remained fundamentally the same ever since. You establish the protagonist or protagonists, make some dialogue choices, perform some quicktime events, make some difficult (if largely binary) decisions and, occasionally, walk around a bit clicking on stuff until you click on the correct thing. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but after six titles where little has changed beyond the setting you start to get a little worn down by the mechanics.adventuretime2

I don’t want to sound like I’m fed up with Telltale; arguably Tales From The Borderlands is the best thing they’ve done and I thoroughly enjoyed its writing and characters, but the actual gameplay just wasn’t much fun. I don’t think it helped that I played it alongside Life Is Strange, Dontnod Entertainment’s first foray into the NLG field, which really highlighted the parts of the Telltale formula that have gone stale. On the other hand it also served to showcase the areas where Telltale still excels so it’s not all negative.

Let’s start at the bottom: quicktime events. A lot of people hate QTEs on principal these days but if they’re done well they’re a perfectly valid gameplay system. The problem is that Tales From The Borderlands doesn’t do them well on the whole; a lot of them only have a single viable outcome – you succeed or you fail/die and restart from a checkpoint. That’s not fun, it’s not interesting, it’s not “oh I failed that QTE so now this thing happened that takes me in a new and exciting story direction that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced”, it’s just annoying. So what do the QTEs actually provide here? Mostly they just seem to exist to check I’m still paying attention and punish me if my reactions are too slow. The one ray of hope is the wonderful Power Rangers/fighting game boss fight towards the end, which was the only QTE section in the game that didn’t make me want to cry. Life is Strange doesn’t have QTEs which is probably just as well because they don’t really mesh well with being able to rewind time at will.

adventuretime3Walky-aroundy point and click throwback sections. I don’t really understand why Telltale still uses them – much like the way they handle QTEs there’s often nothing you can do other than walk forward looking at each highlighted object in turn until you get to the one you can also use to progress the story. Sure, they sometimes have funny descriptions but that on its own isn’t enough. I dislike the term but when much of the game is cinematic in style it feels weird to suddenly have control returned to you, seemingly without purpose. I’m not saying Telltale should go down the Life Is Strange route and give you control the majority of the time, I don’t think it would suit the style of game they’re going for, but I would be quite happy if they stripped them out entirely and essentially turned the game into an interactive cut-scene.

Control of not just what you say but also what you do is important in Life Is Strange because I think you need to feel like you have agency as Max, that you’re in control despite fucking things up a lot. That’s not to say they pull it off perfectly, there are a number of points in that game where they infuriatingly have Max and Chloe do incredibly stupid things that you would never choose to do (like “let’s go meet the murder-rapist in the junkyard at night on our own”) and then leave you to clean up afterwards.adventuretime4

The most important part of any NLG is, of course, the narrative. I think it’s fair to say that people aren’t playing these games for the complex puzzles or the twitch action sequences, they want a good story and some interesting characters and maybe an explosion or a car chase or something. That might be movies. My point is your game is going to suffer if your writing is bad, and this is one area where Telltale still rules the roost. The writing in Tales From The Borderlands is excellent and remarkably consistent; there are a couple of moments where they wear a joke a bit thin and one section that they just ripped off from Spaced but otherwise it’s very impressive.

They also nail the characters; obviously it helps when you’re working with licensed properties so you’ve got some ready-made, but there’s plenty of original design there too. I liked my protagonists, I grew attached to them and even though (or perhaps because) they were largely selfish assholes I wanted to see them succeed. As a bonus some internet people got super mad that Athena was gay and that makes me happy.

adventuretime5It’s not immediately fair to compare the writing in Tales to Life Is Strange because Telltale have been at this a long time and Dontnod haven’t (their only other game is the critically popular but not that well received generally but actually really quite good when you play it Remember Me) but I’m going to do it anyway. The writing in Life Is Strange is very up and down; sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s awful and sometimes it just feels a little flat. It tackles some really dark and difficult subjects at times and it generally does so well, but if they had managed Telltale’s level of consistency that game would have been incredible.

Similarly, while Max and Chloe were clearly very well realised a lot of the incidental characters didn’t feel like they really had anything beyond the very one-dimensional personalities that were portrayed in your brief conversations with them. Take Alyssa – all I know about her is that she has no awareness of the world around her, which is why you constantly have to save her from being hit by things. She’s basically a running gag and that’s it. Scooter was never the most complex of characters in any of the Borderlands games, but he was well-written enough that I still cared when he died – I couldn’t give two shits about Alyssa and I only saved her all those times in the hope there would be some kind of payoff later in the game (there is, it’s rubbish, you’re better off leaving her to her fate).adventuretime6

So is it all bad? I’ve made it sound pretty bad, but it’s really not. Dontnod are only just getting started and it looks like there will be a second instalment of Life Is Strange; they’ve done a great job but they’ve got plenty of room to improve. Meanwhile, Telltale have really sharpened their writing and character building to a fine point but they’ve got complacent everywhere else. The success of Life Is Strange is hopefully the kick in the arse they need to innovate a little more and give us something that’s a bit more fun to play in addition to being fun to watch.

I really enjoyed both games and playing them side-by-side made for some interesting comparisons that you probably wouldn’t otherwise see. I wish Tales From The Borderlands had better gameplay and I wish Life Is Strange didn’t foist the idiot ball on Max quite so often, but really I just hope Telltale and Dontnod keep making Narrative-Led Games and keep improving because they’re pretty much exactly what I’ve wanted ever since I worked my way through piles of Choose Your Own Adventure and Fighting Fantasy books as a kid.

Last five articles by Adam B


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