Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Advancing the Art: Telltale Games' Hint System

I've recently started playing Telltale's new adventure, Back to the Future: The Game, still in progress at this writing with the first two of five planned episodes released.  I'm not going to talk about the game in detail at this time, or any time soon -- suffice it to say that the voice casting is first rate, there are lots of dramatic plot twists, and it feels very much like a sequel to the original movies.

What I do want to talk about is Telltale's approach to balancing gameplay and storytelling, where many of the challenges lie for any game designer hoping to reach a broad audience of hardcore and casual players.  Regular readers will know that I love playing the old classic text adventures, but I can also recognize that there's a reason the genre never saw long-term mainstream success -- most such games have too many fatal dead ends and what-do-I-do-now moments to engage all but the most dedicated adventurers.

Telltale has opted for a friendlier approach with its recent point-and-click adventures -- solid puzzles are there for the dedicated, but the company has invested significant effort in a hint system ensuring that any player should be able to experience the whole story.  (The hints can, of course, be calibrated or turned off altogether as the player desires.) 

What I like about this approach is that it never feels like the player is breaking down and resorting to a walkthrough -- the assists are woven into the storyline and dialogue, subtly at first but becoming more explicit the longer the player fumbles or seems at a loss.  Some of these hints are obvious -- for example, the lead character may mention something along the lines of, "What I should really be worrying about is..." to get the player back on track.  But many of the hints are as cleverly designed as the puzzles they support, so that a skilled player won't necessarily see them, and a novice player isn't denied those "A-ha!" moments that make adventuring so much fun.  It's like Infocom's escalating Invisiclues, but the implementation is more subtle and free of the temptation to skip ahead.

Case in point (which I will try not to spoil in any detail):  The second episode of Back to the Future involves a speakeasy password puzzle that recalls a similar situation in Ron Gilbert's Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge.  I got stuck for way too long on that one back in the day, but in this modern context Back to the Future gives us progressively more explicit hints if we just hang back and watch others interact with the doorkeeper.  Even though I was on the wrong mental track to a possible solution, and really did need the hints, I still had the pleasure of discovering my error and "solving" the puzzle without having to "cheat" by resorting to an external source.  This approach to hints feels much more organic than a list of clues -- it nudges the player along without pulling him or her out of the experience.  In fact, I might not even have realized I was seeing the hint system at work, had I not reached the third stage of the process, where watching another speakeasy patron fumble through the puzzle with more of his thought process exposed finally turned on my personal lightbulb.

I know the standard arguments about this sort of thing -- but as the hint system can be turned off, I don't think they apply.  There are other limitations to Telltale's approach from a classic adventure gaming perspective -- the player sometimes feels more guided than I might prefer, with non-interactive cutscenes and limited options, and sometimes good storytelling comes at the expense of more detailed interactivity.  Some "puzzles" really are just a matter of using this item with that item, a criticism of the genre that goes way back, and some dialogue trees all lead to the same result, with the available options provided only for the sake of humor and characterization (not that there's anything wrong with that, it's one of the things I love most about Telltale's output.)

But for me, bottom line, while I enjoy solving a good puzzle, I'm not too proud to take a hint when I need it, that is, when my patience with myself wears thin.  What Telltale Games has done very nicely, in my opinion, is to recognize that everyone has their own threshold for beating their head against a given wall, and the Telltale Tool provides a sophisticated means for designers to accommodate those differences.  Trying to balance friendliness and storytelling with gameplay is not easy, and at least as far as adventure games go, I can't imagine a better solution than this. 

Telltale's hint system may be a small thing, but I believe it advances the art and the accessibility of interactive storytelling in some important ways and should serve as a model for interactive fiction moving forward.

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