Back to the Future: The Game Episode 1: It's About Time
First posted on 15 January 2011. Last updated on 30 June 2011.
Back to the Future: The Game
The season is comprised of 5 episodes:
- Episode 1: It's About Time
- Episode 2: Get Tannen!
- Episode 3: Citizen Brown
- Episode 4: Double Visions
- Episode 5: Outatime
Back to the Future is a popular sci-fi comedy movie trilogy released between 1985 and 1990. Naturally, it comes as a big surprise, as well as with some suspense, that Telltale Games has decided to develop a new episodic adventure game series based on this licensed franchise. Many critics wonder if the intrepid developer will be able to do it the "right" way. Most gamers, however, will likely consider trying out the game series simply because of its ties to the movie franchise.
Back to the Future: The Game Episode 1: It's About Time begins with a tutorial that also serves as an introduction to the fictional universe of Back to the Future. In fact, this tutorial is based on a scene early from the first movie, where Emmett Brown (also known as Doc) is preparing to test drive his new time machine which he has built into a DeLorean sports car. Marty McFly, the protagonist of the series, watches with Doc as the car is sent into the future. This scene is undoubtedly familiar to all fans of the movies, but it serves well to introduce the basic premise of the story to players who may be new to the series.
The main story of the game takes place in 1986, some months after the events of the final movie. Marty misses his old friend, Doc, who has settled down at the end of the 19th century. Back in the present, the bank has decided to foreclose on Doc's properties and starts to sell them as repayments for Doc's debts. While Marty tries to stop this sale, he realizes that there is little he can do since Doc appears to have disappeared for good. Suddenly, Marty spots the DeLorean arriving back from the past—without Doc, but with a warning that he may be in trouble.
It is easy to be drawn into a new incarnation of an old adventure. While the game's story is brand new, it features a lot of familiar elements from the movies. These range from established characters such as Tannen and Einstein the dog to memorable gags such as fading newspapers and even manure! In fact, the game builds up its narrative in a way that is very similar to the movies.
Fans of the series will enjoy seeing how well all of the returning characters in the game look like their movie counterparts. They can also look forward to hearing Christopher Lloyd reprising his role from the movies by lending his voice to play Doc in the game. Unfortunately, Michael J Fox, who plays Marty in the movies, is not able to reprise his role in the game. Instead, newcomer voice actor AJ LoCascio makes a rather good imitation of him and the character he plays. While the rest of the voiceover cast is equally professional, they seem to lack the enthusiasm often demanded by their roles. Admittedly, this may just reflect how people speak in the past. For example, people seem to talk faster nowadays as compared to a few decades ago. Still, some of the dialog seems to be too mundane and slow moving from time to time (no pun intended).
Graphically, Telltale Games has chosen to adopt a cartoonish approach in modeling and rendering the characters for the game. While this style is also used in the developer's other games, a more photorealistic style may be better suited for a series that is based a live action movie franchise. Having this said, the cutesy visual style does not detract the game in any way. By contrast, the interface for the game has been redesigned with a more techno themed skin. Beneath this skin, however, the interface works rather the same way as the developer's other games.
There is no way, at least not in this first episode, to use the time machine to travel to any time period at will. In fact, the game progresses very linearly and limits any free exploration. There is also an annoying bug in the game, so that it is possible to get stuck without the possibility of ever solving the game—the only fix is to reload from an earlier save. Such an oversight is very unfortunate! Similar to other episodic games from the developer, this game is divided into smaller parts, each featuring only a few available locations. While it is necessary to have some structure in order to keep the storytelling from going astray, the episode often feels more like a retelling of a movie rather than a clever adventure game. Some players may choose good storytelling over good gameplay, but many players may not. Your personal preference on this will dictate whether you like this game or not.
Since Telltale Games aims in this game to focus on telling tales (pun intended) rather than providing challenging puzzles, the game features a very generous and robust hint system. Similar to other games from the developer, there is an option in which you chose how often you want a hint. In addition, you can get a hint on demand by clicking on a hint button. At any stage in the game, you can access up to 4 hints. The first hint you get is usually just a reflection of the current puzzle. If you choose to get more hints on the same puzzle, more information is revealed, until the last hint where you are given exact instructions on how to solve the said puzzle. If you are just wondering what to do next, there is even an option to review the current task or objective. Finally, there is a button which summarizes and retells what you have discovered so far in the story. This summary can be useful if you are continuing a game after being absent from playing it for a while.
When reviving a licensed franchise that has been untouched for so long, there are a lot of ways to adopt the material to the new media. With this series, Telltale Games has chosen to stay true to the source. The original story is primarily set in late 1985, some 25 years before this game is released. This means that what is considered new back then is now considered old. For example, the DeLorean can be seen as either an iconic pop culture remnant or a very dated sports car. Likewise, the dialog for the game needs to reflect the correct time period and not to include language that is not common in the 80s. After all, much of the humor in the original movies is based on cultural misunderstandings from the different eras. An example is when Marty asks for a "Tab", a soda, in the 60s and gets a reply, "Tab? I can't give you a tab unless you order something." Unfortunately, such humor does not translate well when it deals with the future. For example, in Back to the Future Part II, Doc and Marty travels to the future to 2015, where flying cars are common and kids are playing with hoverboards instead of skateboards. In hindsight, it seems rather unlikely that this vision of the future will come true now in the real world, to put it mildly. The game deliberately avoids any references to the future, possibly to avoid criticisms that may otherwise be drawn from such comparison between the fictional future and the real future.
While I am sure that many young gamers born after the original theatrical release of the movies will still enjoy this game, I believe that the target audience is most likely fans of the original series. Although the game succeeds in creating an entertaining story that continues the events of the movies, it does so at the expense of providing an innovative and challenging gaming experience. For novice gamers who are curious about adventure games, this game can serve as a rather harmless and frustration free exercise to test out the genre. However, I doubt gamers who are not familiar with the movies will find any interest in this game. Further, despite of the many nostalgic moments in the game, some fans firmly believe that the story has already ended with the original movies such that any attempt to revive this franchise will be futile. Interesting enough, this episode ends with a trailer (or teaser) on what to expect in the next episode. It seems, at the least, that the story will progress in a funny and paradoxical way. Despite a few misgivings, I look forward to future (or possibly past) episodes, just to see what lies ahead (or possibly behind).