The first episode of Telltale Games’ adventure series Back to the Future was met with great enthusiasm upon its release at the end of 2010. Critics praised its excellent voice-work and Telltale’s great job of capturing the feel of the beloved movie franchise. Episode 2: Get Tannen, released last week, has these same qualities, but seasoned gamers might be frustrated with the level of difficulty within puzzles and a rather limited game world.
The events of the game take part some months after Back to the Future III. In Episode 1, it’s 1986, and Marty McFly finds that Doc Brown has been arrested in 1931. He travels back in time to rescue him, meeting his own grandfather and the 17-year old Doc Brown. Now in Episode 2, returning to 1986, Marty finds that due to his actions in the first game he has altered the timeline: the Tannen family mob now rules Hill Valley. He and Doc go back to 1931 to retrace their steps to make sure everything goes back to normal.
The story, characters, and the humor is spot-on. Telltale has done a tremendous job of making the games fit well with the movies. The Hill Valley town square, center of the trilogy’s events, is the main setting: we get to revisit old characters and meet some new ones, such as Kid Tannen (Biff’s father and mob boss) and Edna Strickland (a relative of James Strickland). This all feels integrated with the movies’ mythology and provides a colorful backstory to the town. In one particularly inspired moment in Episode 1, Marty makes Doc Brown drop his job at the Hill Valley Courthouse to dedicate himself entirely to science. It’s a far cry from Back to the Future: The Animated Series, which focused on the adventures of Doc Brown’s kids, and ultimately, only had the DeLorean as a thematic link to the movies. It is curious that the series hasn’t, until now, barely mentioned Clara and Doc’s kids.
Telltale’s adventures have played a great part in the recent revitalization of the adventure genre. Tales of Monkey Island and the Sam and Max series have been successful in bringing a whole new audience to a genre long thought dead. Their interface and engine are slick and seductive. It’s point-and-click, but there’s usually a rather large world to explore that takes advantage of the 3D graphics. I’ve played several of Telltale’s games on a variety of machines, and they work well even in older computers, which is a plus.
The problem with the Back to the Future series of games is that it seems to be specifically geared towards this new audience for this genre. Interaction is kept to a minimum, and puzzles are almost non-existent. Everything is too easy and the solution is often completely obvious. In adventure games the challenge regularly comes from gathering items in one location (or more) so they can be used at another. In Back to the Future, especially in this second episode, there is an excess of “void” puzzles, (one-room puzzles in which all the elements you need to solve them are there since you can’t leave). Actually, the episode consists of three or four puzzles of this kind, with an extended section in the middle. In this section, however, you can only explore three rooms, and only have full run of two of them.
Most solutions to puzzles require the player to merely talk to another character. Conversation puzzles can also work, but those often involve some kind of subterfuge. When Marty talks to a character, however, he often just tells them what he wants from them and they will give it to him. At one point, Marty is required to manipulate a disillusioned policeman into arresting Kid Tannen. I don’t want to give the solution here, so I’m just going to say that the solution completely wastes what could’ve been a decent puzzle by ignoring any kind of psychological verisimilitude and practically telegraphing what the player is supposed to do. This is symptomatic of the whole approach to the game, because everything is too obvious. Playing it, I felt more like I was watching an interactive movie than playing an actual game.
Younger and inexperienced gamers will most appreciate Back to the Future: The Game. Seasoned gamers will likely be frustrated. I can only hope that Telltale’s future games — I’m looking forward to Jurassic Park — offer more of a challenge.
Back to the Future: The Game – Episode 2: Get Tannen is awaiting an ESRB rating, however the first episode is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Alcohol Reference, Language, Mild Violence. This game can also be found on: Mac, PS3, and iPad.