The Great Cow Race
US: Jul 2007
At the beginning of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, Allen’s character tells an old joke he sees as a metaphor for life. Two women are leaving a restaurant that they haven’t enjoyed. “Terrible food,” one says. “Yeah,” says her friend, “and such small portions.”
In a nutshell, that’s how I felt about Telltale Games’ Bone: Out from Boneville: the puzzles were oversimplified, the minigames glitchy, the whole experience tedious, and the game was over by the end of the evening.
The second game, Bone: The Great Cow Race, fixes just about all of the problems that the first one had—it’s a better game, it doesn’t follow as slavishly to the source material, its minigames are shorter and more fun, and its longer length makes the purchase feel a bit more justified. However, it leaves me a bit cold, and I realize that the more I think on it that the fault lies not with the game but with the genre that Telltale has chosen to work with. The adventure game has been relatively unchanged as a genre in almost 10 years, and out of any genre, it’s the one that feels the most dated at this point. It’s perhaps the easiest genre, with the exception of the RPG, to tell a long, complex story, and it has the distinct advantage of not having to resort to cutscenes to do so—unlike RPGs which, under the reign of Square, seem to be unable to integrate the story with the gameplay; egregious examples like Xenosaga, whose story and gameplay have nothing to do with each other, are the rule rather than the exception. However, while there are a wide varieties of gameplay experiences to be gleaned from RPGs—Dragon Warrior is different from Shadow Hearts is different from Final Fantasy is different from Kingdom Hearts—almost every adventure game gives you one of only two play experiences.
I spent the vast majority of the ‘90s playing PC adventure games. Sierra probably had the biggest influence in the creation of the modern “3D animated adventure game”—most of their games featured a playable character that you moved with the keyboard or, in later games, with the mouse; one interacted with the screen either with typed commands (“TAKE BISCUIT”) or by the mouse and icons (clicking on the biscuit with a hand-shaped cursor). Many Sierra games featured frequent, often illogical and unpredictable deaths—taking the biscuit would, without warning, trigger a booby trap which would kill the character—and it was quite possible to get stuck—if you don’t pick up the biscuit in the first room, which you cannot backtrack to, you will not be able to defeat the biscuit-allergic final enemy in the last room.
In 1993, the Miller brothers released Myst. Myst is a first-person game with few characters, no conversations, few cutscenes, and no inventory. Where Sierra games privileged conversations with characters (many games handling this with a conversation tree) and puzzles involving inventory items (combine the biscuit with the chocolate to make a chocolate-covered biscuit to feed to the biscuit-allergic final enemy), Myst privileged exploration of various areas and mechanical puzzles involving the flipping of many switches. In its wake, dozens of “you wake up on an island with lots of machines, now get to solvin’” games sprang up.
Both types have distinct advantages. Sierra-style games are better for character and story, and handle the personality of a protagonist very well. Myst-like games allow a deeper sense of immersion with the world and they stress exploration. For the most part, and I realize I am oversimplifying for the purposes of my thesis, neither genre learned a single thing from the other. Myst-like games rarely give us a protagonist with a defined personality to be invested in, and Sierra-like games rarely give us exploration that feels like anything beyond tedium. There are two reasons why every single Sierra game allows one to change the walking speed of the characters. Computers in the ‘90s varied a bit more in terms of processing power than they do now, and it was common to have a game running a bit too fast or a bit too slow (remember the Turbo button on your computer, anyone?). But more importantly, it’s simply boring to watch King Graham of Daventry or Laura Bow or Freddie Pharkas, Frontier Pharmacist walk slowly across the screen. Every single person I know immediately set the walking speed for as fast as it could go the second they started a Sierra adventure game.
Playing The Great Cow Race, I find myself missing the ability to almost immediately move my character to the other side of the screen. Cow‘s graphics are very pretty, the screens are big, and the camera does these nifty tricks such as sweeping in and turning to move with the character as he walks across the screen. The problem is it takes maybe a minute or so to cross the larger screens, and, as is standard with games such as these, you’re going to be doing a lot of backtracking, meaning that you’re going to be spending a lot of time watching the Bone cousins padding across the screen.
One mechanic that I sort of admire is the mid-game section. There are three protagonists—Fone, Phoney, and Smiley Bone—and for the great majority of the game you’re in control of all three cousins and can switch between them. I’m a complete and total sucker for multiple protagonists—I even claim to like Unlimited SaGa because of this fact—and yet I feel empty. When one is able to switch between multiple protagonists in an adventure game, I can’t help but think of the pinnacle of that mechanic, which is Day of the Tentacle; that game did the concept so well that Bone cannot help but suffer from the comparison. Tentacle features three characters going through the same area in three different time periods, and while each character has many puzzles that use solely his or her time period, the puzzles which involve interactions across the years are masterfully integrated with each other. A character is stuck in a tree in the future; to get her out, the same tree needs to be cut down in the past section, so it never existed. Characters in the past hide things so others can retrieve them in the future. Amendments are proposed to the constitution in order to reap their rewards later on. (Seriously.) Throughout each character’s scenario, the same exact locations are visited, and while they cannot directly interact with each other (though they can have conversations and pass items back and forth) the consequences of one character’s actions on another’s time period are always as clear as an adventure game gets. A character in the past will usually know what to do in order to aid a character in the future.
While Cow‘s characters are spread out over a much smaller area and are set in the same time period, the three characters’ stories feel like so much less of a coherent whole. For the most part, the separate protagonists are used to keep the game moving (if you’re stuck in one scenario, you can always switch to another), and as a pacing device (which I will explain in a moment) rather than as a puzzle in itself.
The three scenarios, rather than being linked, are more or less treated separately. The game is paced so that the scenarios are given the same rate of progress. For example, Phoney Bone needs to talk to a certain character that’s currently in Fone Bone’s level, so Fone Bone must solve a certain puzzle in order to get him to leave for Phoney Bone’s territory. However this is not logically handled—not only is it unclear that Phoney Bone needs to talk to that character, it’s also unclear that Fone Bone solving the puzzle will get the character to move. While it’s a good idea in theory, it hurt immersion greatly.
So to sum up: The Great Cow Race is not as good as Day of the Tentacle which is leaps and bounds ahead of Out from Boneville which is a poor imitation of Jeff Smith’s Bone comic. Telltale has improved, and here they’re very close to getting it right. But if I want to play an adventure game, gameplay wise, there are better ones on the market. And if I want to experience the adventures of the Bone cousins, I’m going to read the original comic.