Wallace & Gromit in Fright of the Bumblebees
US: 27 May 2009
At this point in the development of TellTale Games, they have their formula pretty nailed down. Warm the player up with a few puzzles that occur in a limited space so they’re easy to solve, introduce the main plot arc for that episode, expand the area they can travel around and give them a mutli-task puzzle that can be solved in any order, and double down on another wave of multi-task puzzles followed by a finishing puzzle that, like the beginning, should be easy on the player and leave them with a nice feeling. TellTale’s latest episodic effort, Wallace & Gromit, sticks to the formula while using a new brand of humor for the content.
I’ve used any number of analogies to describe TellTale’s games: interactive sitcom or a sophisticated Tivo experience, the point being that this particular brand of adventure game is meant to be a pleasant, short experience. A minimalist interface and an optional hint system make it possible that you won’t even need the walkthrough for these games (though they’re freely available on the website). The point is to give the player into that pleasant sensation of being rewarded for solving problems at a nice fluid pace. Any puzzle that gets you stuck should only require a hint or two to get you moving in the right direction. The game deserves special credit for improving on the hint system of the Sam & Max episodes. The various characters around you will now bark out suggestions, making the hints less intrusive. As always, they are just clever enough to not simply give away the puzzle because they leave enough information out about a puzzle for you to draw the final conclusion.
The first episode, “Fright of the Bumblebees,” starts off just like an episode from the original show. The familiar music wafts in, Wallace drops through an elaborate contraption, and your first task is to make him breakfast while playing as Gromit. Play is divided between the two characters, and their observations about the situation blend into each other. Gromit, upon finding a pair of dogtags that Wallace bought for him, always throws them away. When you switch to Wallace, he’ll pick them up. In this way, clues will be layered on top of one another depending on who you are playing as. Once an item has been used, it gets thrown out of the inventory, and once a place no longer has anything to do in it, the game skips past it when you try to walk there. After Gromit fixes breakfast, an irate neighbor swings by to offer Wallace a deal. He’ll drop the charges against Wallace for wrecking his store if he’ll deliver fifty gallons of honey by the end of the day.
Overall the game nails the feel of the show fairly well. Playing as Wallace, we invent and combine items to make a crazy solution to our honey problem. Gromit, who never talks, must clean up the mess that the player generates as Wallace. It’s hard to not compare the game to Sam & Max because of the buddy dynamic, but the developers are smart to give Gromit his own time. While the show can rely on Gromit’s facial expressions and pacing to endear us to him, the game has to give Gromit his own identifying activities. That’s not to say that a lot of Gromit’s classic humor isn’t present in the game; when he doesn’t want to do something, he’ll just shake his head, and when people talk to him, he still gives that same arched eyebrow. But the dynamics of the joke are gone without a TV show’s traditional pacing. The game tidily takes care of this in its own unique way by identifying each character with certain kinds of puzzles. Wallace collects and his multi-task puzzle involves inventing something new. Gromit helps people and his own puzzles involve undoing Wallace’s mess.
The game’s animators deserve credit for also recreating the aesthetic of the show fairly well. Gromit’s arms and legs move in that strange, almost impossible motion wherever he walks. When the light hits him just right you can see stretching for what would be the clay molding of the character. The hands and mouths in particular got a lot of attention, somehow managing to animate in 3-D so that it still looked as it would on the show. The arms will make that same bizarre waggle when a character is excited, and overall the entire thing animates like a proper claymation feature.
I have two complaints about the game.. If you’re playing it on an Xbox 360, the controls are a bit wonky. Movement is right stick, and the object of attention is left stick. The problem comes in when you’re trying to get your character to look at something, and instead they look at something else. You can use the bumper buttons to manually go through each visible item but that gets a bit tedious. I’m not sure what solution that I would recommend, since the game was originally designed for a mouse, except to just make the left stick control a cursor. Players who find it clumsy can use the bumpers (which they will anyways) while those who know exactly what they want can target it much more quickly. This gets particularly intense with a puzzle involving the multi-part egg cooking machine early on in the game but never gets that irritating afterwards.
The second complaint that I have also seen addressed on web forums is the voice actor used for Wallace, who suffers from a distinct case of not being Peter Sallis. A fellow by the name of Ben Whitehead does the voice for the game and to his credit it’s nearly pitch perfect. Speaking as someone whose watched every show and movie in the franchise, the only time I really noticed Whitehead was when he screeches and howls. Sallis, to his credit, does a very unique exasperated shriek.
The only thing missing from the game is that strange sense of doll house spectacle that the original productions could create. I had the good fortune of seeing a Wallace & Gromit set at a museum in England and it only magnified the strange subtle pleasure of Aardman’s animation: the thrill of watching dolls come alive and live in a tiny world. The game by expertly placing us in the role of Wallace and his loyal friend seems to have removed that element. The world is now real, the dolls are now people, and you are a part of it. In its video game form, Wallace & Gromit works well, but it does not work quite like the show does.