Puzzle Agent

Posted by Patrick Talbot.
First posted on 24 August 2010. Last updated on 13 August 2011.
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Puzzle Agent
Agent Tethers is the sole agent in the Department of Puzzle Research at the FBI.
Puzzle Agent
A ranking is given to Agent Tethers on his performance each time he solves a puzzle.
Puzzle Agent
The denizens of Scoggins have a sarcastic and dry sense of humor.
Puzzle Agent
Agent Tethers speaks to town sheriff who does not take a liking to the FBI.
Puzzle Agent
A map guides Agent Tethers around the strange town of Scoggins.

The adventure game genre has welcomed episodic gaming with open arms. Games produced episodically are not very long and are developed much like cliffhanger movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s. Moreover, some developers are using this template as a way to fund the development of games that will serve as "pilots" to gauge marketplace interest in their projects. Television shows have done with such testing for decades, and adventure games are now finally experimenting with this format. Puzzle Agent (also known as Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent) is just such an experiment.

Telltale Games has created a unique stratagem dubbed the Pilot Program to encourage development of games that are eclectic and unusual. The program allows the intrepid developer to explore new game concepts and foster creativity and originality in the game development process. Pilots that are deemed to be successful can then be considered for full expansion into a new franchise. Puzzle Agent is the first game to be born from this program.

The game begins in a secluded office at the basement of the FBI building. In the Department of Puzzle Research, lone agent Nelson Tethers is finally given a new case. The factory that produces erasers for the White House has been mysteriously shut down, and he is to be dispatched to Scoggins, Minnesota where the eraser factory is located to investigate. Upon arriving to Scoggins, however, Agent Tethers sees a quirky little town with more secrets to hide from outsiders that he expects. Further, the humorous accents of the townspeople contradict the darker nature of this private town and its denizens. Through the many strange puzzles he encounters in this town and the sarcastic commentary he records from his observations of its denizens, the bizarre mystery behind the shutdown of the factory is gradually revealed.

Development of this project is led by Mark Darin, who is best known (before joining Telltale Games) as the creator of the indie adventure game Nick Bounty. The project also represents a collaboration with famed animator Graham Annable, who is best known as the creator of the indie comic Grickle. Not surprisingly, the results of this partnership are exceptional. From the onset, gamers will be struck by the charcoal pencil 2D drawings of the background and character arts that are in this game. The unique art style, which mirrors closely the art style in Grickle, serves to give the gamers a homespun gaming experience while immersing them in a creepy mystery that is slowly told through an engrossing narrative.

For gamers who like logic puzzles, this game pay heavy homage to the genre. From the beginning of the game in Agent Tethers' office, you can spot a representative sample of classic logic puzzles, many of which you will also encounter later in the game. This in itself can even be considered as a bonus hidden object game. It is a nice design touch, and the developer is to be commended for thinking outside the puzzle box—literally speaking.

Of course, the core of Puzzle Agent lies within the puzzles which you, as Agent Tethers, need to solve. All of the puzzles in this game are introduced in the same fashion. You are first presented with an introduction written inside a file form that contains instructions to the puzzle itself. You are then presented with the puzzle proper. Some puzzles are very simple, such as figuring out a missing fuse in a fuse box. Other puzzles can be really challenging, such as retracing the footsteps on a map from a man frozen in the woods. There are over 30 puzzles to solve in this game, most (but not all) of which must be completed in order to catch the villain (or villains) responsible for closing the eraser factory. As a matter of fact, nearly every step you take in your investigation in the town of Scoggins will lead to a puzzle which you will need to solve as a prerequisite. Whether you are interviewing a suspect or just trying to open a locked door, you are tasked to solve a puzzle before you can proceed. For some reasons, all of the denizens of Scoggins seem to be obsessed with puzzles, and Agent Tethers will have to use his own puzzle knowledge to beat them at their own game.

If you encounter any difficulty with solving a puzzle, you have the option of skipping it and returning to it later on. Some of these puzzles are optional, while the rest are mandatory if you want to finish the game.

An intriguing reward for plowing through the puzzles is the ranking that the game assigns to you based on your success at solving these puzzles. The more times you submit an incorrect answer to a puzzle, the lower the ranking you will be given after solving the said puzzle. The game offers built-in hints to some of the puzzles, but sometimes the hints are not very helpful. You are limited as to how many hints you can use for a puzzle. In order to increase your bank of hints, you need to find used chewing gum littered around the streets and buildings in Scoggins. Evidently, you learn early on that Agent Tethers chews gum to help with his concentration.

The control of the game is straightforward. You click on items or characters with which you want to interact. When you talk to another character, a list of dialog topics appears on the page of a notebook that Agent Tethers supposedly carries. I find this to be a little contrite since Agent Tethers never uses a notebook but a mini tape recorder instead to record his findings. You can also look back at your files on the puzzles you have solved and see the ranking you have received for each. The latter is nice feature for gamers who like to score achievements.

The game's dry sense of humor is mixed with unexpectedly eerie moments. The townspeople are various definitions of eccentricity. Some of their dialog will make you feel awkward and may even send chills through your body. The story involves a fictional Nordic cult and evil red gnomes that pop up unexpectedly to give you a quick scare. The mood is decidedly quirky, humorous, and oddball, but it can become unnerving rather quickly. At the least, it makes for an interesting experiment in game presentation.

Overall, Puzzle Agent is a great pilot game. With its minimalistic art style, quirky characters, and a creepy story, the game succeeds in showcasing the willingness of Telltale Games to experiment with new video game concepts and content delivery. Rest assured that the case in Scoggins will be the beginning of Agent Tethers' long tenure in the Department of Puzzle Research at the FBI. If you are looking for an adventure game that will stimulate your brain, Puzzle Agent will serve your needs nicely.

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