Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Adventure of the Week: Bone - Out From Boneville (2007 Director's Cut)

I haven't previously written in detail about the recent adventures created by Telltale Games, but the company's launch titles are now far enough past their commercial prime that I'm willing to spoil them a little.  And Telltale's built-in hint system means that you're not going to learn any secrets here that would otherwise have kept you happily (or unhappily) stumped for days.

Bone: Out From Boneville was originally released in September 2005, as the first of what was meant to be a series adapting Jeff Smith's popular Bone comic books and graphic novels.  The series was unfortunately interrupted after two releases based on the first two collected Bone books; slightly improved "Director's Cut" editions were released in 2007, but the recent movie rights sale means it's unlikely we'll see more Bone stories from Telltale any time soon.  But Smith's continuing story exists in print form, and these games provide an engaging introduction to the world of Bone.

One thing I appreciate about Telltale Games is that their licensed titles are unfailingly affectionate, faithful to and respectful of their source material.  Telltale's games have led me to some great new fictional "friends" -- I was not familiar with the worlds of Bone or Homestar Runner before playing the Telltale adventures, but now I'm a fan of both.

Telltale's later productions are generally telling new stories in familiar universes; Out from Boneville, however, is a direct adaptation of Jeff Smith's book, and as such there are some compromises and edits necessary.  I played the game before reading the original, and didn't miss the cuts, but afterward it's clear that the story has been compressed, streamlined and rearranged to work as an adventure game, with some key events merely alluded to, and others moved into the second game.  Almost all of the puzzle elements are completely new, of course, and while all are inspired by the events of the book, some are better integrated with the story than others.  But most of my favorite dialogue lines in the game originated in the book, all of the new material seems completely in character, and the basic story works well in these two fundamentally different formats.  Both the books and the games are worth exploring on their own merits.

Bone: Out from Boneville is a point-and-click adventure, and it's not particularly difficult; the emphasis here is on character and story.  But there are some decent and varied puzzles to deal with -- a few are visual and kinetic, many are conversational, and others are traditional item-use situations.  I will recommend the Director's Cut of Out from Boneville over the original, primarily because a couple of potentially frustrating arcade-style chase sequences can be skipped in the more recent version.  It's available for purchase at Telltale Games' website, and I strongly recommend that interested readers give it a go before continuing here.  Because there will be copious and thorough...

The game opens with a prologue (added to the Director's Cut version) describing the game world's idyllic past, and a present looming danger, in stirring mythological terms.  The action comes down to earth as we discover our hero Fone Bone and his cousins Smiley Bone and Phoney Bone lost in the desert, after fleeing from Boneville after Phoney's mayoral campaign picnic went horribly awry.

Though the character animation and voice-acting aren't up to Telltale's current standards, this sequence is an efficient and entertaining introduction to the three personalities at play here -- Fone is the Everyman character with whom the player is likely to identify, Phoney is the selfish, wealthy curmudgeon, and Smiley the happy-go-lucky ne-'er-do-well.  The first puzzle (new for the game) is triggered by an item discovery but is primarily conversational in nature -- Fone Bone spots a map tucked under the boulder Smiley Bone is sitting on, then Smiley retrieves the map but won't give it up unless Phoney gives him a dollar.  Fone Bone has to convince Smiley to play "The Old Gray Mare" on his banjo to provoke the grumpy Phoney into giving up a dollar to get him to stop.

The victory is short-lived, however, as a swarm of locusts buzzes into view, leading into one of the game's two arcade-style mouse-controlled sequences.   Fone Bone must run and jump to avoid the cloud of ravenous insects, and becomes separated from his cousins in the process.

While the exhausted Fone Bone sleeps after escaping the swarm, he is discovered by some mysterious monsters apparently searching for Phoney, but they do not disturb him.  He wakes up after they have departed, conveniently leaving a torch behind, and must now must find his way through the mountains in search of his missing companions, following a trail of Smiley's still-glowing cigar stubs (as seen in the book.)  There's some game-style platform jumping in this section, though it's strictly point-and-click, with no quick hand-eye coordination required.  At the end of the mountains we see this beautiful reveal shot, unveiling the Valley -- inspired by one of the nicest pieces of art in the original comic, it's Bone creator Smith's professed favorite moment of the game:

Next, Fone Bone befriends Ted the bug, who summons his big brother to fell a tree so Fone can cross the river, after we help Ted across first in a puzzle sequence.  Ted moves by making two short hops and a bigger third hop, so navigating the stones requires a little bit of visual puzzle-solving.

On the other side of the river, Fone Bone meets an argumentative pair of rat creatures.  It took me a while to solve this puzzle -- it's not hard to get them arguing with each other, but there are no dialogue paths that lead to a safe escape, access to inventory isn't available, and if Fone tries to run away while they are arguing, they stop him.  What we have to do is get them arguing about issues of quiche versus stew and self-image problems, and back slowly away, one step at a time, whenever they have momentarily turned to face each other.

The rat creatures give chase, but are scared off by a laid-back red dragon at the river's edge.  There's a funny bit of dialogue here, drawn from the book, that I completely missed on my first playthrough -- if Fone Bone challenges the dragon as to why he let the monsters get away instead of blasting them with fire, the laconic creature blackens his nose with a brief blast, and advises him, "Never play an ace when a two will do."

Next, we encounter a charming trio of possum kids.  (Incidentally, I suspect that Jimmy Two-Teeth from Telltale's Sam & Max games was derived from the possum character model, and reuses some of the same animation.)  These characters are seen only briefly in the book, but we will spend considerably more time with them in the game.

Fone Bone can help the young possums play "dead" by roaring like an angry bear, and can tell them a story -- an improvised one, or a truncated version of the story of Ishmael from his favorite book, Moby Dick.  He must play hide-and-seek with the bored li'l possums to learn how to reach the Hot Springs; the location features a number of possible hiding places, with the youngsters calling out to let Fone Bone know if he's getting warm or not.  We spend a fair amount of time in the possum's clearing, so the lively ragtime musical theme here is appreciated -- it was composed by Jared Emerson-Johnson, who has since written scores for many Telltale projects.

At the Hot Springs, Fone Bone encounters the beautiful Thorn and is instantly infatuated with her (as denoted by the cartoon hearts that pop up around his head.)  There's a great bit of interactive character development through conversation here -- no matter what we choose as his introductory line, he stands dumbstruck, and his subsequent utterances are never as articulate coming out of his mouth as he means them to be when we select them from the menu.  Eventually Fone gets himself back on track, and asks if she has seen his cousins.  Thorn hasn't seen them, and doesn't believe in dragons, but she does believe in the rat creatures he's recently encountered, and she takes him to Gran'ma Ben's farm for safety's sake.

The focus now shifts back to Phoney Bone, who has emerged from the mountains on his own near the same stream Fone Bone crossed earlier.  We must help him contend with his grumbling tummy -- with which he has an irritated conversation -- by rounding up a fallen apple nearby, after provoking Ted's big brother bug into knocking himself out against a rock (Phoney Bone's people skills and insect skills are equally lacking.)

Phoney Bone can try but fail to engage the red dragon in conversation.  Passing through the clearing, he also has to entertain the possum children, as they don't know what a dollar is when he offers them one to tell him where Fone Bone is.  Phoney is not really cut out to enjoy this sort of thing -- he hides in plain sight and has to guide the three possums to his location.  It took me a while to figure out that the possums don't directly respond to his cold, warm and hot indications -- instead, we have to observe their movement patterns and orientation when they stop, using the three commands to move each of them to Phoney's hiding spot.  The possums and Ted the Bug help him get to Gran'ma Ben's farm, where he is reunited with Fone Bone (after getting beat up by Gran'ma Ben when he gives her a little too much attitude about her "crummy little farm.")

The next few puzzles are farm chore-related.  Fone Bone has to chop wood and haul water, while Phoney Bone has to dig up turnips and collect more apples from the tree.  Apparently Boneville favors traditional gender roles, as in another sequence drawn from the book, Thorn offers to chop the wood but Fone Bone insists it's a man's job.  Of course, he's too short to even take the axe from the stump it's embedded in, and has to summon help from Ted's friends the termites to free the axe... head.  Fortunately he can use a flat rock to pound the metal wedge into a log, splitting it.  He also needs to grab a corn cob and get the dragon (lurking out-of-sight in the farm's well) to pop the kernels off of it, so that it can be used to plug a hole in the wooden bucket; before we can do this, we have to establish that it's a good idea by initially trying to plug the hole with the corn cob as-is, which proves too large to fit.

Phoney carries out his chores with his usual casual disregard for ethics -- he has to "borrow" the possums' shovel while they are playing "dead" to dig up the turnips near the Hot Springs, and provoke Ted's big bug brother into knocking him into the air so he can pick the tree's remaining apples.

With the chores done, a little dinner conversation establishes that Gran'ma Ben plans to compete in the Great Cow Race, and then the rat creatures return in force.  Fortunately, so does our pal the Dragon, who scares them off... and apparently knows Gran'ma Ben, whom he refers to as Rose.  This conversation also takes place in the original book, setting up an interesting backstory that the game series unfortunately never got to resolve.

But there's one more game to play, and now everybody's off to the Fair, with an ending that overlaps the next game and skips over a couple of events covered in the book.  For the moment, we can just be happy to see Fone and Phoney reunited with Smiley Bone.  And the story leads into "act two," Bone: The Great Cow Race, as an ominous hooded figure hints at a dangerous deal entered into by Phoney...

Bone: Out from Boneville isn't a difficult game -- the built-in hint system makes it possible for anyone to enjoy the complete story, and there's nothing wrong with that.  The hints are textual, not worked into the story, so using them is completely optional.  Sometime soon, we will tackle the second and unfortunately last Bone release from Telltale Games -- Bone: The Great Cow Race.

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