Starting On the Wrong Foot
Telltale Games' heart is really in the right place. It really is. Their recent adaptation of the first issue of Jeff Smith's Bone comics, Out From Boneville, is made with the endearing spirit of a fan. You can tell that the team knows its source material very well, and you can appreciate the challenge that comes with adapting any work and the impending ire of fanboys if anything is not to their liking. And yet, it's very difficult to play Bone and have any more generous reaction than, "Good effort, guys. Here's a pat on the back. Better luck next time."
Considering that Out From Boneville is the first in a proposed series of games, that is a dangerous attitude. Games whose first parts don't sell well generally don't receive sequels; there are enough failed episodic games out there to make Telltale's plan one of those which treads the fine line between chutzpah and foolishness.
Bone, both the comic and the game, tells the story of the three Bone cousins, small mammal-like creatures with bone-white skin. There's Smiley Bone (the devil-may-care wacky one of the bunch), Phoney Bone (the greedy, grumpy one), and Fone Bone (the timid-but-nice-and-ultimately-heroic protagonist). One of the reasons Bone is so well-loved is, where other stories would end their characterizations there, Bone not only pits the various characters' philosophies against those of others, it rationalizes each outlook and the characters develop as the arcs draw on. Smith's characters -- even most of the supporting cast -- are surprisingly well-drawn, both from an illustration standpoint and a writing standpoint. The storyline is epic in scope -- the wacky adventures of three lost cousins ultimately leads into a life-or-death, the-world-is-ending behemoth. Last summer Scholastic published Bone: One Volume Edition, a 1300 page epic that collected all nine volumes into, well, one, and sold it for $40.
While I'm not here to be a commercial for the comic, I can't say that it's not the better deal.
Out From Boneville isn't all that dissimilar from older PC adventure games: for the most part it's a one-click interface; one clicks on objects and characters to interact with them. There are also several minigame-style segments: a pair of chase sequences, a logic puzzle, a hide-and-seek sequence. The unfortunate thing is that none of this is particularly fun.
There is inherently no joy to be gleaned from clicking on objects and characters or from navigating through a conversation tree, and most developers of adventure games realize that the interface is a necessary evil. In a platformer, one experiences joy of play, an opportunity to test one's skills, but an adventure game is a solely mental challenge. One plays to enjoy a storyline and to solve puzzles. Since interfaces in adventure games are all of the same basic type -- streamlined to fit each specific game -- none of them are particularly memorable. But anyone who's played The Dagger of Amon Ra, The Secret of Monkey Island, The Dig, or The Longest Journey will remember specific puzzles and plot points. The unfortunate thing about Out From Boneville is that there's nothing inherently memorable about it or its interface.
The fact that Out From Boneville is the first in a multi-episode series works to its detriment. Traditionally, the first few puzzles of any adventure game are the easiest. They're warm-up exercises designed to get the veteran player back in shape and the first-timer used to the style of play. Soon, at least in a well-designed game, the puzzles get harder and more complex, requiring multiple steps and, often, complete breaks in logic (my favorite, from The Longest Journey, involves getting a key by combining a rubber ducky, a string, and a clamp). Out From Boneville never gets to that point; the puzzles -- and there are very few of them -- are all obvious and trite.
Many of the required actions are as simple as "find so-and-so and talk to them." In conversations, the player is presented with a series of options or questions and must select one to continue the conversation. It's effectively a non-choice -- one merely determines the order one hears dialogue. None of the options affect the story in any way, or provide irrevocable choices. And while the dialogue is snappy and amusing -- nearly all of it taken verbatim from the books -- it's simply not fun to play through. Less so a second time around.
The minigames I mentioned earlier are uniformly dreadful. One segment involves playing hide-and-seek with a group of possums. We find ourselves in their clearing in the woods surrounded by a series of stumps and holes where the possums might be hiding. It appears that we're set with the tedious task of clicking on each hidey-hole until we find the right one, until you make a mistake and the possum squeaks out, "Nine more chances!" Not only are we expected to click until we find -- an inherently boring action -- if it turns out we aren't right in our guesses, we've got to start the entire thing over from the beginning. The possums helpfully shout out "hot" and "cold", but it's not exact -- and, ultimately, where is the fun in that? Where is the skill?
Or the two chase sequences. The player controls Fone Bone with the mouse, moving him left and right across a scrolling screen, using the mouse button to jump over tree stumps and rocks. There appears to be a glitch in the second chase sequence -- even when the game is playing in full screen, as far as I can tell, Windows still recognizes the mouse pointer, and the player can quite easily -- and often -- click outside the game screen, causing it to minimize; when maximizing the screen again the game plays for a second or two and usually the player is caught by the monsters giving chase. It's one of the worst examples of Death by Engine I've seen in a while. The sequence is also far too long. The player has, by now, proven that he/she can handle a chase sequence -- this is, after all, the second chase sequence in the game -- and it drags on for several minutes this time. It feels like the equivalent of giving a boss a million hit points to make him tougher. Rather than asking us to prove our skill, and once we have, continuing on with that, the second chase sequence tries as hard as it can to wear us out. I'm not a purist -- I'm not one of those who thinks it blasphemous to include sections in adventure games that require dexterity or skill -- but generally I expect such segments to be fun.
So while no joy is to be had from playing Out From Boneville, it would appear that we play it for the joy of story -- but, here, the fact that the game barely deviates from its source material (one or two minor scenes are eliminated or condensed, but it's not particularly noticeable) actually works to its disadvantage. Putting aside for the moment the fact that, as a fan of the comic, I know everything that's going to happen, Out From Boneville -- both the comic and the game -- is not the most engaging story. As I have said, the comic grows to feature an epic, exciting storyline -- but the first installment is all setup. We're introduced to a lot of characters, all of whom will be crucial to the plot and fully-realized and loveable by the end -- but we're only given the basic sense of each of them at this point. The world of the characters, which will grow familiar, is only a skeleton.
When we have the full book in front of us and we know that a fuller understanding is only a few pages away, or when we're paying a few dollars at the comic shop for the next installment, the investment required to see more when our curiosity is piqued makes the revelation worth it. However, Telltale Games' pricing plan -- which is proving to be quite controversial -- is throwing a wrench into the system. Out From Boneville is available only online; it's a mediocre game that last around two hours and is being sold for $20. Telltale is being curiously mute as to the cost -- even the number -- of future episodes. As said before, the comic is nine volumes long, so if they're charging $20 per episode, that's going to run $180. Which is understandably quite steep. On Telltale's forums, the magic number being gossiped about is that the game will be four episodes -- incidentally, I'm not sure how that's going to work if they're going to cover the entire series, unless subsequent episodes cover two or three chapters at a time -- but still, the entirety of Bone will be an $80 game. Double the price of the One Volume Edition.
Anything episodic needs to hook players, viewers, or readers from the get-go; otherwise, people will slowly drift away and ultimately there will be no one left to enjoy the series. But the way things are looking, the game won't make it to completion unless Telltale refines their mistakes and distribution system. Which is a damn shame, because the source material deserves the utmost respect and a larger fanbase, and a proper video game would have expanded said fanbase by leaps and bounds.
30 September 2005