Saturday, July 3, 2010

Puzzle Agent

So yeah, Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent is a new adventure game from Telltale.

This is what I love about their approach so much: they really have taken the idea of episodic gaming to its richest and most creative avenues. They're calling Puzzle Agent a pilot. As in a TV series pilot episode - the first episode of a show, designed to outline and demonstrate the characters and setting and test if a full show could be made from it.

This is just another example of the power of this platform, way beyond simply rendering graphics or having comfortable controls; this experimental approach to gaming is without a doubt most lucrative on the PC. They can afford to create a short game (even by their standards, I think), and release it to the gaming public, gathering feedback and calculating whether a full series would be profitable.

And I hope they choose to make more, because I haven't been so excited about an adventure game since Grim Fandango. The thing is, Puzzle Agent really gets what the adventure genre is about. It's less about the puzzles and more about the atmosphere. Since these types of games have you explore a single area for quite some time, it's important that the setting, characters, dialogue and music are memorable and thrilling. And here they are all amazing. The game takes a very courageous approach: it ditches the immediate appeal of slick 3D graphics and gives us a cartoon world that's minimally animated, inspired by the drawings of Graham Annable, who has collaborated with Telltale on this project.

The game's look can be daunting at first. When I saw the trailer I was taken aback. But the game's atmosphere is just so precise and powerful that you get sucked into it immediately. The story itself, of an FBI agent, Nelson Tethers, being sent to the town of Scoggings, Minnesota to investigate the closure of an eraser factory is surprisingly dark and suspenseful. The game is clearly influenced by Twin Peaks or any other show/movie where a cop is sent to a small town where things aren't what they seem. But the story manages to be fresh and had me wondering what would happen next.

But, of course, the puzzles are the 'game' part of the adventure game and you can't ignore them completely. And here is where PA falls short. I hope that the series continues and that Telltale work on the puzzles more. The idea itself is nice. It is worked into the story that the people of Scoggins are obsessed with puzzles. So wherever you go there is some puzzle to solve. The problem is the puzzles split to two kinds: easy-as-pie puzzles where you almost don't do anything. There was one puzzle that I didn't even completely understand what to do, but I dragged some things around and in a minute I solved it. But the other kind of puzzle is the obtuse kind. These puzzles aren't particularly hard, but have irritating mechanics that aren't explained well enough in the puzzle's instructions. But I suspect this too is a result of the over simplification of the puzzles. That's alright, though. I'm guessing this was deliberate in order to appeal to more audiences who aren't used to the usual adventure scheme of an inventory and combining items. This way the game is challenging and straightforward enough so that someone who has never played an adventure game can get into it. Still, I hope the difficulty level and coherency of the puzzles improve if another game gets made. Because, despite the puzzle issues, this game was an absolute pleasure. Best 3 hours of gaming I've had in a while.

I'm really happy Telltale are around and doing their thing. My favorite game genre is Adventure and with Telltale around I know there's always something good to look forward to.