Wireframe

Freewalk: revisiting Telltale’s explorable spaces

By John Mauldin. Posted

Telltale reinvigorated the ageing point-and-click adventure genre by simplifying and expanding on its mechanics and marrying them to dramatic, branching, episodic narratives. The end goal was to better plug its players into what was the most fun and engaging for them: their stories. One of the most fascinating parts of working at Telltale over the years, though, was getting to see how they evolved one of the genre’s oldest mainstays – exploration, or, the ‘adventure’ part of the point-and-click adventure.

In Telltale terms, we called these sections ‘freewalks’, because we were giving our players free rein to move their characters around. In classic point-and-click games, these were sections where puzzles lived, and advancing the story often meant exploring a scene and dissecting the set-piece’s elements. What became a constant push at Telltale over the years, though, was to learn from movies and television. Scenes became more tightly focused, and systems like inventories were scrapped in order to keep the player closer to the plot.

This balancing act of staging, interaction, and narrative intent are well worth examining as one long conversation about how to effectively fill an explorable space. So, here’s a quick close-up on a few of the memorable freewalk sections that have stuck with me after all these years.

Scared is Hard, Hungry’s Heavy

In episode two of The Walking Dead, Starved For Help, the game takes a slight departure from the nightmare-fuelled action of previous scenes to give players a different taste of our characters’ reality. Having secured themselves at an abandoned motel, our caravan is running low on food. Instead of timers, fail states, and immediate danger, however, we’re safe to explore our surroundings at our own pace. This feels like a much-needed breather, and we actually have the chance to talk with everyone, in any order, before moving forward. This is partly because the point of this scene isn’t about ‘winning’, but having more time and freedom to absorb the weight of the current situation.

As it turns out, our player only has four food items with which to feed ten hungry people (see Figure 1), which is made clear at the beginning of our scene, but not truly felt until the scene plays out. It feels and plays slowly, like a classic, open-ended adventure scene, but it’s grounded by a one-off mechanic to make the scene feel more special.

Figure 1: As Telltale evolved, inventory systems were relied on less and less because they became a barrier to entry for new players. That didn’t stop us from developing mechanics that were only used for one particular scene.

Our mechanic takes less than a second to explain, and we don’t even have to worry about who likes what kind of food. It’s a simple-to-understand task that, at first, makes the time and safety we have to catch up with our party members feel like a gift, until we realise there’s no way to ‘win’, and help everyone. This is a clear case of the ‘weight’ of our scene mattering more than completing a puzzle; the stakes aren’t life or death, but about how the rest of the caravan members will ‘remember’ you going forward.

End on the Pig

Faith, episode one of Fables: The Wolf Among Us, actually has one of the shortest scenes in the whole game, but this is also what makes it flow so beautifully. In this scene, we’re seeing the small space Bigby (the sheriff) lives in, but the big reveal is seeing who he’s sharing it with, and our players getting to talk with the character Colin (the pig). In the original layout for this scene, however, there were actually more cameras and objects to interact with. But as short as it was, there were still multiple cuts made to the scene – specifically, to the number of camera shots.

In the end, things are tightly framed to give the scene an almost staged, linear flow. We start inside the kitchen, head out, around the corner, and towards a chair where our player finds – what else – but a fairytale pig, fast asleep. And what everyone realised about this scene was, once the pig is on camera, there’s nothing more interesting in the scene, so why encourage backtracking, or going anywhere else but forward? In the end, we decided to let the scene get to its most interesting point as quickly as we could, and called it a day.

“So-and-so will remember that” was a visual mechanic Telltale created to continually remind the player that they were an integral part of – and having an active effect on – the ongoing narrative.

Throwing Everything at the Wall

These are moments where I think Telltale became more focused and streamlined in its approach to freewalks. My final example, meanwhile, comes from Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series, and, in this particular case, the lesson we learned was to throw everything at the wall. Unlike other franchises where mechanics were stripped out in order to keep the player focused, Guardians of the Galaxy was a case where one of its characters, Peter Quill, had powers that the team felt would be fun to try to realise within our world as best we could.

This meant expanding and stretching the limits of our freewalks by adding in three entirely new mechanics just for Guardians (see Figure 2), each of which had to play well with one another, and work simultaneously together, because we wanted our player to feel connected to their teammates, and to have some futuristic gadgets at their fingertips the way Peter Quill would in the comics and movies.

Figure 2: In Guardians of the Galaxy, we tried to deepen our freewalks by adding jet boots, a comms link, and a Pulse Scanner.

Not every game could support such full and expansive mechanics as Guardians of the Galaxy, but our aim was to always make these freewalk moments – whether they involved starving survivors or slumbering pigs – as focused and as memorable as we possibly could.

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Figure 1: As Telltale evolved, inventory systems were relied on less and less because they became a barrier to entry for new players. That didn’t stop us from developing mechanics that were only used for one particular scene.

Figure 2: In Guardians of the Galaxy, we tried to deepen our freewalks by adding jet boots, a comms link, and a Pulse Scanner.

Telltale’s first episodic outing was Sam & Max Save the World in 2006, and there would be six years, and 14 games, before making The Walking Dead in 2012.

“So-and-so will remember that” was a visual mechanic Telltale created to continually remind the player that they were an integral part of – and having an active effect on – the ongoing narrative.


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