PAX East: Telltale Tries Something New With Jurassic Park

by Reads (3,339)

It’s clear that Telltale Games isn’t taking its adoption of a beloved franchise like Jurassic Park lightly.

For the Jurassic Park game, Telltale Games, the studio that is best known for its point-and-click adventure games (Sam & Max, Tales of Monkey Island, Strongbad’s Cool Game For Attractive People), has taken some serious deviations from its form to bring something new and fresh to the table. Sure, there are still adventure game aspects to be found in Jurassic Park, but new elements (for Telltale) have now been introduced, like quicktime events and even the ability to die.

“We wanted to branch out, especially since most of our games have been focused on comedy,” said Nick Herman, a cinematic artist at Telltale. “So we got our hands on one of those movies that everybody loves and decided to make a game that is very focused on story-telling. But at the same time, it’s still a unique story and experience.”

On the whole, the game was undeniably unique, given that it’s a hybrid point-and-click adventure mixed with an action game. Jurrasic Park is a game that takes place in the same world as the movies, but introduces a new story that follows original characters in something of a parallel storyline (think the Godfather game). Taking place roughly halfway through the events of the first movie, the Jurassic Park game centers mainly around a veterinarian named Gerry, his daughter Jess, and an ally of theirs named Nima, who are all trying to get off of the island.

The demo had us attempt to solve the issue of a triceratops that was too preoccupied by munching on a tree branch to get back into its pen. Things started out innocent enough, as the triceratops was harmless, albeit quite stubborn. Eventually, we managed to figure out that if we had Jess lean on the car horn, it would scare the dinosaur back into its pen. This worked, but that was right around when things took a turn for the worse. The blaring horn and lights drew the attention of the alpha triceratops, which came barreling out of the pen, pissed off as anything. Oh, and then a Tyrannosaurus Rex showed up and they started fighting. Seriously. It was at this point that the game took a shift towards being more action-oriented, throwing more quicktime events at us than you can shake a stick at. After a few attempts, we managed to guide Gerry and his daughter to safety, bringing the demo to an end.

Many of Telltale’s staples were present in the game, including the usual superb voice acting. Believable inflection and respectable lip syncing were shown off as Gerry and Jess debated how they could get that pesky triceratops out of the way.
Some aspects did leave me feeling a bit wanting, however; I wasn’t crazy about the visuals, which Telltale often handles well. In previous games, realism has been forfeited and instead charming, colorful art styles are introduced, like in Tales of Monkey Island. In Jurassic Park, though, it almost looked like Telltale couldn’t make up its mind over whether or not it wanted to go for realistic or cartoony. The results were very sterile characters that looked like dolls. To give credit where credit is due, however, the dinosaurs looked much better than the humans, even up close.

In the demo, the quicktime events these mostly revolved around escaping the charging or attacking dinosaurs and were quite fun, even if they were rarely challenging. What was especially interesting about these events is they presented a first for Telltale: a scenario where you can not only die, but fail.

While failure is possible during the events, it’s not always critical. There was one sequence in which a T-Rex was snapping at Jess, trying to grab her in its jaws, and I missed a number of commands. I eventually put in a correct command and Jess still managed to escape unscathed, just by taking a slightly different path than she would have had I succeeded.

But the game is not always so forgiving. In another sequence, Herman suggested that I intentionally miss the command so I could see the result. Gerry was sprinting towards the camera, trying to get past a charging T-Rex and triceratops, and when the command came up on the screen, I did nothing and without being given any second chances, I died. I died hard. In a spectacular display, Gerry was gored on the triceratops’ horns and unceremoniously smashed into the gaping maw of the T-Rex.  It was an elaborate result of my failure, which occurred the instant I missed my first command in that scenario.

That’s not to say that you’re not encouraged to experiment and explore, which are aspects that make Telltale games so fun in the first place. Herman had suggested that I fail that quicktime event because it was entertaining to see the result; a reward of its own. And better yet, when you die, you’re instantly respawned at the beginning of the quicktime sequence that you just failed. I commend Telltale for introducing a drastic change to one of its games (dying) and managing to do it in such a way that it’s still fun and forgiving, rather than frustrating.

Another intriguing decision by Telltale that I noticed while playing through the demo (and liked significantly less) is that its structure is best described as Adventure Game Lite. Heeding complaints from some fans and gamers (though not this one), Telltale removed parts of the environments in an effort to cut down on backtracking. Instead, you basically have points of interest that you can jump between instantaneously. For example, my points of interest were the gate that the triceratops was blocking, a locked door that was the entrance to a complex, and the inside of my car, where Jess was located. As Herman pointed out, these shifts from point to point also allowed players to “control” various characters throughout the game, rather than just Gerry.

The idea is good, in theory — nobody likes to waste time backtracking — but part of what makes adventure games so challenging (and subsequently enjoyable) is not having a clue where your next lead or item/person of interest can be located. By adopting this new system, Telltale has basically narrowed down your options and said to the player, “OK, the key to your next step is here.” Personally, I don’t like the idea of what is essentially hand-holding, so I asked Herman about the inevitable alleviation of the game’s challenge.

“That’s something we have to struggle with,” said Herman. “There’s a balance there. We don’t want people to have to call a friend or go online to figure out what they have to do next. We don’t want them to just put down the controller and say, ‘I’m done.’ So, we try to keep it simple, but design it in such a way that players still have to think about their next move.”

Herman also mentioned that the game will scale its difficulty according to how well you’re playing, which seems like a smart way to ensure that game still has challenging elements. If you keep missing those quicktime commands, it’ll let up on you, but keep nailing them and you could be in for a rough ride.

“We’re never going to win, though,” he added. “There will always be people that will say that it’s too easy or too hard.”

As is the case with most of Telltale’s games, Jurassic Park will be split up into five episodes that will be released monthly, starting in April. The game will be available on PC, Mac, Xbox 360, and PS3, with Telltale “in talks” about iPad and iPhone versions somewhere down the line.

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