Wallace and Sam and Gromit and Max: an eternal golden triangle

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Tagged: reviews, sam and max, wallace and gromit, if, episodic games, telltale

Telltale Games has released the first episode of their Wallace & Gromit series, for PC. (Available as a direct download or on Steam.)

I'm not doing a full review, because you can get those anywhere, but I wanted to pick up a few contrasts between W&G and Telltale's previous episodic adventure hit, Sam & Max.

...The first contrast being, Wallace & Gromit isn't an episodic game series. Not in the sense we usually mean. The "episodic" model is: you buy a small game, which doesn't cost very much, and then next month a followup comes out and you buy that, and you keep doing this until you decide you're hooked (either because each episode is awesome, or because they build into a story arc and you want to see the end). Maybe you know you're a fan straight off the bat -- I certainly was when Sam & Max season 2 began -- so you buy a package deal for the whole series. Up to you.

Not this time. Telltale isn't offering Wallace & Gromit a la carte. You have to plunk down $35 up front, and then you get four small games delivered monthly. It's not so much "episodes" as "buy a game that's only a quarter done yet." (Or, I suppose, wait until July, when you'll be able to buy the whole thing at once for the low-low-price of... still $35.)

I'm not sure what spurred the change. The point of episodes is that you can draw in new players with a low-price game. ($9 for each S&M episode.) Not all those new players will follow through the rest of the series, but then how many players do you push away by asking for $35 up front? Maybe the name recognition (and existing fanbase) of S&M is enough to make this work for Telltale. I guess we'll find out what they do with their next offering.

Anyhow, I am the existing fanbase, so I paid up and jumped straight into the pit.

The most interesting interface tweak is keyboard navigation. Unlike in the S&M series, you move Wallace and/or Gromit around using the arrow keys. Now, keyboard movement has been the spurting carotid rupture of third-person adventuring ever since -- I don't know, Gabriel Knight? Steering an avatar around a 3D space with arrow keys is generally as much fun as parallel parking. However, W&G manages to minimize the hassle. You can still click on objects to walk up and interact with them. This is 75% of your navigation to begin with. The arrow keys only come into play when you have to walk across a wide space -- down a hallway, along a street -- so you're really just holding down one key. Obstacles are rare, large, and blunt, so you don't get stuck behind anything. The only place I had any real trouble was the town square, which is large enough that perspective does odd things to the directions.

Why this interface change? I'll hazard a guess: to make the game cozier. In the S&M series, the locations are fairly open, because there has to be floor everywhere. You have to be able to click on floor next to every object.

W&G is centered around a cluttered house. By cutting out the floor, the designers are able to pack more interesting objects into each room. The kitchen, for example, gives you an over-the-counter view with appliances in the foreground and background both. And by the same thought, the characters themselves can be larger; they can take up more of the screen, because you're not trying to click around them.

Another difference: W&G has no dialogue menus. (What, really? A third-person adventure with no dialogue menus? Outrageous!) If you're sharing the display with another character -- Gromit and/or Wallace count, when you're playing Wallace and/or Gromit -- some of the scenery acts as conversation topics. That is, when you're standing near the flower lady, you can click on various flowers to comment on them. It's the same one-click as any other action; some objects can be taken, some examined, some manipulated, and some commented on.

This works so smoothly that players may not even notice the lack of those beloved (or perhaps despised) menus. Mind you, it makes for a less conversational game pace. You're not going to spend as much of each game interrogating people, because the conversation choices don't change or nest. But then, that fits the theme. Sam and Max are cops; they interrogate. Wallace and Gromit are inventors; they play with toys.

So, does the contraptionating part of the game work? Answer: yes. (I told you this wasn't a full review.) Some of the puzzles felt a little awkward, but then I said the same about the first S&M episode. As with that series, I expect W&G to smooth out as the designers get comfortable with the model and build up some running gags.

My only other negative comments are, first, this episode felt a little short. (Perhaps the lost dialogue time needs to be replaced by some other sort of pacing interaction?) Second, I miss Peter Sallis (the original voice of Wallace). This game's Wallace does a great Peter Sallis impression, but it's still an impression.

And, third, I love Gromit -- Gromit is the best -- but he's no Max. The doggy eyebrows can express the perfect shade of exasperation, resignation, or confusion, but they just don't carry the narrative like the rabbitty-thing's awful, cheerful, unsay-that-now-please bon mots.