GDC11: Jurassic Park: The Game Hands-On
I dropped by the Telltale Games booth at GDC last week, and while I didn’t have the time to wait in line and inquire about just what it takes to become a game scenario writer (not that I’m looking for another job or anything — it’d just be cool to know), I did get to grab a gamepad and run the demo for Telltale’s upcoming Jurassic Park adventure game.
It wasn’t 100-percent clear exactly where in the story the game picked up. I was introduced to Dr. Gerry Harding, one of Jurassic Park’s resident veterinarians. You might remember him from the sick triceratops scenes in the film.
The demo available at the booth was played on a gamepad despite being the PC version, so the controls were probably pretty far off from what players with a mouse and keyboard are going to experience come April. But for the most part, I got a pretty decent sampling of what Jurassic Park will be like — a combination of adventure game mainstays that we’re used to from Telltale, like what’s seen in Back to the Future, coupled with a bunch of quicktime events to simulate fighting and escaping dinosaurs.
The demo I saw started, it seemed, somewhere in the middle. Harding was driving in one of those Jurassic Park Jeeps with his teenager daughter, Jess, and an unnamed injured and unconscious woman. The implication is that Harding doesn’t know who the woman is or where she came from — from the plot synopses I’ve read, I’d bet she was the mercenary sent by Dodgson (the dude who met with Dennis Nedry in San Jose — “What’s with the hat? What’re you trying to look like, a secret agent?”) to retrieve Nedry’s can of embryos.
From voice acting perspective, Jurassic Park was top-notch. Its characters are natural and understand the dialog their delivering, even during the more stressful moments of the story. I didn’t spend too much time with it, but I’d wager that the acting is on par with what we’ve seen in Back to the Future up to now, which has been pretty stellar.
Harding and Jess are waylaid by a triceratops snacking in the middle of the road. It’s just a baby, but already it’s as tall as Harding and impossible to move with force. The two characters split up, and you set about solving the puzzle of getting the dinosaur out of your way.
The story concerns Harding, but you’re not tied to him the way you are to Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Rather, you have the option to switch between different cameras in a given scenario — you can control Harding out on the road, trying to get the trike to cooperate, or send him over to a nearby maintenance shed, or switch to Jess in the car. To solve the puzzle, you’ll have to do all three: as Harding discovers the power is out, you can move to the shed, which is locked with a keypad. Harding calls to Jess to help find the code, so you can switch to her.
Inside the car, you get various options for Jess, all marked with different buttons on the gamepad. There’s a button that honks the horn, another that flashes the light, and a third that allows you to open the glove box and find a manual inside that contains park facility codes. Jess shouts it back to Harding, who uses it to open the shed and restart the gate controls to close the door to the triceratops pen. Now you just have to get the baby trike back inside its paddock.
One of the notable things about Jurassic Park is that when you’re in a scene with items around that you can manipulate, you can actually pan the camera around to search for additional options. With the triceratops baby, it quickly becomes apparent that Harding is powerless to move it — he’s going to need help.
Flipping back to Jess, you can coordinate your efforts between characters. Honking the horn and flashing the lights distracts the trike and it moves away from the branch, giving Harding an opportunity to grab it and move it clear of the road, then toss it back into the pen.
Suddenly, things get crazy, though. As you start to close the pen door as Harding, whirling the control stick around to do the action, the alpha triceratops hears all the honking, and it isn’t happy. As you close the gate, it charges — blowing out of the pen and attacking the jeep, with Jess and the injured woman still inside. The damage makes the horn continue to sound, further enraging the animal.
What ensues is the other half of Jurassic Park’s gameplay: basically, a series of quicktime events in which a character struggles to do something while a dinosaur more or less charges straight at them. Harding’s closing the gate falls into this category, as does Jess’ struggles to tear out the wires from the steering column that will kill the horn.
I, for one, rather enjoy QTEs when they’re well-implemented, and Jurassic Park’s seemed to be just that. They had a range of different actions, from quickly tapping a sequence of controls or dodging a dinosaur using the control sticks, to trying to assess which button to push quickly while the action is ongoing. They’re also merciless — I died more than once because I wasn’t fast enough with my button pushes, even with the mashing ones in which I had to repeatedly pound on the A Button to get a character to move. The QTEs add a high degree of tension to the action without requiring you to control the characters. You’re participating in the story, but not so much that you’re vastly altering it.
That’s probably going to turn some gamers off, because the entire experience of dealing with the dinosaurs is on rails and only partially effected by what you do. For example, after disabling the horn, Jess was able to climb clear of the Jeep and run for the shed, but halfway there, she literally bumped into the leg of a T-Rex. You can avoid that bump or cause it, depending on your interactions with the controller — I botched it my first time through — but the result is the same. The Rex turns toward Jess and she has to actually do some quick dodges, dips and dives to avoid becoming a snack. You control her jukes, but again; failure isn’t game over in this case.
Just a few seconds later, though, as I was trying to get Jess across the road to avoid getting trampled by the nearby alpha triceratops, Jess did get killed. I wasn’t fast enough with my button-tapping, and Jess was gored by the trike and sent hurtling into the woods.
Starting over at a checkpoint at the beginning of the event, I got Jess clear and into the shed. There was still the matter of Harding and the injured woman, though. Harding made his way back to the Jeep as the trike and the rex started to spar. A few Simon Sez-like button pushes from me and Harding had the woman out, attempting to cross the road back to the shed. The interface told me to tap the A button rapidly, but again, I was half-assing my job — causing harding to get nailed by the trike horn, then chomped by the rex, as the two locked in battle. Whoops.
Eventually, a slammed the buttons fast and hard enough to get Jess, Harding and the woman into the shed with the door shut. It was there that I left the demo, grinning widely — if the rest of Jurassic Park is as satisfying an experience, it should be a very good time.
Although it was just a short demo, my impression was that Telltale is handling Jurassic Park with the reverence and attention to detail they’re giving Back to the Future, which is very good news. The game itself edges much more toward the quick time event end of the spectrum, and that might be an issue with some gamers: it depends on how highly you value story versus gameplay. Telltale is making a game about this Jurassic Park story, and the gameplay is a vehicle for the telling of that story — it’s not the other way around, like most games, and because gameplay takes a bit of a back seat to the overall experience, it probably won’t appeal to everyone.
But that doesn’t mean that Jurassic Park is bad; just that it has a flavor some will love and some will leave. The production values are high, the voice acting is strong, and Telltale is very conscious of its source material, so from what I’ve seen, fans of the original film will be very pleased. QTEs might be a hang-up for some, but they do add quite a bit of tension to their moments while adding to the feeling of watching and participating in a movie, rather than a game. That’s a feeling I rather enjoyed — hopefully there’s even better stuff in the game when it’s released in April.