Jurassic Park: The Game – A Beautiful Disaster

Movie tie-in games are trouble… More than any other design angle, taking a movie (or series of movies) as the inspiration and basis for a game is a treacherous path seemingly filled with more dangers than even the oft-lamented ‘Series Reboot’. Whatever angle designers come at it there is are a sprinkling of hurdles designed to induce failure, and given that most movie tie-ins are for big budget or cult-classics, the failure can rarely be swept under the carpet. In some alternative universe, I can imagine myself sitting, head on desk, having just been told that I need to develop a movie-game, with a sense of dread rising up through my body. This parallel-me is faced with a list of dangers such as: pleasing long time fans of the franchise; effectively and consistently building on someone’s creative work; stretching a two-hour movie into a 20+ hour game; Maintaining the standard of writing and storytelling; possibly meeting a movie release schedule… oh, and making a fun compelling and rewarding gaming experience… See?… trouble…

Given all of this, it’s impressive when a team manage to pull it off and make something great. ‘Alien Isolation’ and the LEGO games are both good examples from my recent gaming history; the former managing to capture the sense of desperation and tension of the first Alien movie and the latter consistently merges quirky humour, faithfulness to the original IP, and a boatload of charm to form some highly playable couch classics. For each of these ‘hits’ however, there are at least two ‘misses’: that uncontrolled & underwhelming hype train that was ‘The Matrix’ game; ‘Star Wars: Masters of Teras Kasi’ (which, as we’ve recently been reminded by World 1-1, typically makes list of the worst fighting games ever); and a multitude more, all the way back to that Atari 2600 game nobody is allowed to mention. Even when a movie-game is competently put together, they can still feel like misses if the fans don’t warm to it; 2009’s ‘Ghostbusters: The Video Game’ should have been a success of Staypuft proportions given the cult status of the films, writing by Dan Akroyd, voice acting from the original cast (including Bill Murray the late great Harold Ramis), true-to-film ghost wrangling proton-pack action, and a general faithfulness to the films. Despite receiving generally good reviews, players gave it a fairly cool reception and was quickly forgotten.

‘Jurassic Park’ is undoubtedly one of my favourite films and has been the subject of game tie-ins on many systems over many years; the early 16 bit titles focussing on side-scrolling action, the Sega CD’s point-n-click offering (which I would still like to experience as the screenshots from it plastered across magazine pages amazed me as a child), and the arcade light-gun shooter based on the second film are just a few examples of the plethora of ways that this iconic movie has been pulled into game form. If I had to pick a favourite, I’d go with last year’s ‘LEGO Jurassic World’, which made No. 3 on my list of 2015, with its take on all the movies thus far recreated in itty-bitty plastic blocks… the game adaptation that I WANTED to be my favourite however, was Telltale’s 2011 “Jurassic Park: The Game”; I’ve referred to it in the past as both the best and the worst Jurassic Park game rolled into one and made useful comments along the lines of “I can’t recommend it, but I think you should play it”. Before discussing this disasterpiece of a game, it needs some context in the Telltale story; Telltale tried and tested their episodic release model with the PI duo ‘Sam & Max’ and used three seasons of this mismatched pair to refine their take on classic point-n-click gameplay. ‘Back to the Future: the Game’ was released a year prior to JP:TG in 2010 and was 100% point-n-click. 2012’s ‘The Walking Dead’ was the series that really broke Telltale into the mainstream spotlight with its branching, interactive storytelling and represented a distinct step away from traditional point-n-click being heavily focussed on ‘no backsies’ dialogue choices. This left 2011’s JP:TG stuck in the rift between the classic point-n-click and branching, dialogue focussed, interactive storytelling.

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… you are now arriving at the visitor centre…

It’s the best…

One of the headline qualities of Telltale Games are their ability to effectively capture the ambience of their source material and JP:TG is no exception. Visually they manage to transport the player back to Isla Nublar as we remember it from the first Jurassic Park outing with a keen eye for detail and consistency (Obviously aside from continuity discrepancies with the much more recent Jurassic World). There is an obvious eagerness to evoke nostalgia directly from the film, whilst also expanding out the experience seamlessly into new territory; the first episode is a water-rippling, love-letter to the movie focussing on the former by recreating three distinctive locations. Early on the player finds themselves walking the boards of the pier at the east dock, last viewed through a grainy media-player window as Dennis Nedry speaks to his contact on the boat. Next we get to ‘meet’ Nedry himself, in an eerie virtual-recreation of the site of the Dilophosaurus attack, explore the scene, and piece together the events and finally, no trip to the park would be complete without passing through those iconic, sunburst, doors and soaking up the atmosphere of the visitor centre lobby.

As the game moves into new regions of the island, consistency is maintained by drawing in familiar elements from the architecture to artifacts. The angular concrete from the emergency bunker and maintenance shed is mimicked in other infrastructure along with the coloured pipes and conduits. A manual override lever is identical to that which unlocks the signature park gates and a whole collectables fair worth of props and fittings make an appearance alongside the original musical queues, font, and colour schemes; all digitally captured to welcome us to Jurassic Park.

It might be a less popular opinion, but I’d also list the plot as a big positive for this outing into dinosaurland. Whilst never being directly shown any of the events from the movie, the game takes place overlapping this timeframe and focusses on that tantalising loose end, the embryos in the Barbasol can. Dr. Harding, the vet featured in the movie, is wrangled into the story as one of our key our protagonists (despite distinct differences of appearance between the CG Harding and the ‘real’ one) along with his daughter, whilst his other daughter (Sarah Harding from The Lost World) is referenced in dialogue…

Without wishing to sound too geeky, this raises the question of when Ian Malcolm left the tour car and went to see the triceratops and met Dr. Harding, was he already dating his daughter? or did the relationship start as a direct result of these events?… 

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Early on you visit the site of Nedry’s demise…

… using these elements the game rolls in some colourful caricatures into the mix to create something in keeping with the series – it doesn’t break too many moulds, and lifts a few choice moments from the source material, but it is a largely solid element in the game.

… and the worst…

So far so good… or put another way “Oooooh, Ahhhh, that’s how it always starts, then later there’s running, and screaming“…

To be blunt, it’s the ‘game’ that lets JP:TG down; almost as soon as the player is given any hint of interaction it all starts to unravel. Telltale have obvious tried to unpick the traditional point-n-click gameplay and open up the possibilities by not directly putting the player in control of any one character. The actions are performed by the most contextually appropriate character.

For example: if a character is looking at a control panel and you click to press a button on the panel, it is that character who will perform the action.

Unfortunately this makes it difficult to determine exactly what will happen when you try to interact with something and from a game design view it is now not entirely clear how the player explores an area. To solve this, the player can bring up a menu to select which ‘scene’ in the current area they would like to view, again, exactly what happens when you change scenes depends on the context. If there is only one character in the area, then changing the scene will typically cause the character to walk to that place.

For example: There are two ‘scenes’ in an area, one looking at a button and one looking at the door. If there is only one character then changing scene will cause them to walk from the door to the button; however, if there are two characters with one at the door and the other at the button, then changing the scene will simply change which character is being controlled. 

It’s awkward to explain and cumbersome to use. In order to solve a puzzle the scene may need to be changed several times; bringing up the menu for each is immersion breaking and clunky. Likewise, within the scene you don’t get to ‘explore’, you have control of the camera and can pan and tilt around in order to highlight the different interaction points. It’s hard to understand how Telltale, given their heritage, got this so wrong. One of the joys of point-n-click is exploring an environment to solve the puzzles, but this arrangement feels constrictive and without being able to freely wander the player often lacks a real understanding of the virtual space (making some puzzles trickier than necessary).

There has also been an effort here to make JP:TG a more conversation driven experience (something Telltale refined for their later releases) and at certain points the game is purely dialogue with the player selecting responses from a list of choices. Sounds fairly standard right? The problem is that unlike other point-n-click games, there is generally no option to simply walk away from the conversation (as the player is not really in control of any one character). Once locked in dialogue, the player is often required to say a particular thing to move the game along meaning that there isn’t really any ‘choice’, it is simply a guessing game to see what will work.

For example: At one point it is necessary for a character to reveal a piece of personal information in order for the conversation to move on; any attempts to lie, threaten, or charm the other character failed, so despite it being out of character (imo) the ‘reveal personal information’ option was eventually forced. 

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Even allowing for the game being a few years old, the action looks good on-screen… unfortunately you can’t enjoy any of that as you’ll be glued to those button prompts…

This all adds up to an underwhelming point-n-click experience; the continual menu interruptions, a lack of freedom, and the always present sense of just ‘clicking buttons’ to keep the plot moving. During the action side of things it continues to slide into the raptor pit (I know that’s not a thing, I was just struggling for a metaphor) with 100% Quick Time Events. Each QTE sequence is ranked, so I guess if you were masochistic enough you could go for 100% gold, but there’s no point. I’ve accepted in the past that QTE’s can be a necessary part of the gameplay, but here I’d prefer to just watch what is happening rather than being forced to memorise sequences of buttons. JP:TG can’t even boast to having “good” QTE gameplay; there is often not enough time to react during a the first run through, the button presses on a controller are awkward, and then there are the consequences of failure. Miss a button and one of two things happen; either the character stumbles and continues, or gets eaten and you need to restart that sequence. There’s no scaled consequences: either you win or lose.

We all have games that we wish were better than they turned out; seeing the potential of a game squandered is frustrating for gamers. In this case a traditional point-n-click experience would have made this game so much more. I can’t fault Telltale for their diligence to the source material, but from a gameplay point of view this title is a blotch on their excellent record…

…I’m still waiting for that perfect Jurassic Park Game experience…  

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