Interview: Inside Telltale's 'Jurassic Park: The Game'

Next week's release of Jurassic Park: The Game represents an interesting--I'd even say, dramatic--shift for longtime adventure game developer Telltale. Although the company has only been around in its current form since 2004, many of its founders were former LucasArts employees who, nearly 20 years ago, pioneered the adventure game format on PCs with the Sam and Max series. In this decade, they've worked out a pretty effective formula of developing episodic, story-based games that have mostly been character-focused comedy/adventures featuring (sometimes devious) puzzles and their patented brand of humor. And while they've dipped their toe into other genres in the past--notably a couple of CSI games--Jurassic Park sees the studio edging a little closer to action territory, with a greater emphasis on speed and survival than in games from the company's past.

Recently, we spoke to Telltale CEO Dan Connors, and Designer Joe Pinney about bringing Jurassic Park to consoles and the PC, about putting players on the clock and (possibly) watching them get killed, as well as some teases about their recently-announced Walking Dead game.

Making a Jurassic Park game the Telltale way

Jurassic Park: The Game takes place immediately after the plot of the 1993 film, and is set on the main site of the chaos, Isla Nublar. The action revolves around a minor character from the film, scientist Dr. Gerry Harding as well as the missing shaving can filled with dino embryos stolen by Wayne Knight’s computer tech character Dennis Nedry. “We wanted to deliver an experience that feels like you’re going into one of those Jurassic Park films.” This is from Jurassic Park: The Game designer Joe Pinney, who explains that this was a chance to get up close and personal with the human stories from the movie while also contending with hungry, angry dinos.

So why tell this story? Telltale CEO Dan Connors sees the game as the right thing for this juncture in the company’s development. “We were seeking out a franchise that still had great storytelling about it and great characters about it, but also added a little more tension and drama to our storytelling.” The Telltale team felt that the “ever-looming dinosaur threat” would be the perfect vehicle for new ways to get players hooked and create tension not seen in previous titles from the company.

Working with the source material

Connor explained that thanks to the original films and novels, the world of Jurassic Park was and is ripe for exploration. During the interview, I mentioned that each of the three films almost felt like a different genre, and he explained that this was actually part of the appeal of the franchise, allowing the developer to branch out in the kind of action and storytelling from which they’re normally associated.

Pinney clarified that the game will take place after the first movie, albeit with a little overlap as the accidentally released dinosaurs get out and “start eating lawyers and things.” If you’ll recall from the movie, as a tropical storm is set to hit, most of the personnel were evacuated save for the main characters thanks to sabotage by Nedry, but the game has a few more people trapped on the island as well as others trying to get into the facility to plunder some of the billion dollar research just lying around. Instead of attempting to make Jurassic Park 4-ish, Connor explains that they were attracted to the timeframe of the first film because of the rich vein of fiction that still went unexplored there, particularly with regards to that missing Barbasol can of embryos.

You know, I think the Barbasol can is just so iconic, [and] it is that one thing that’s never really cleaned up. So, to have that hanging thread there for us to get in and do some exposition around, it was almost too perfect for our designers to not trying to make that a big focus of the motivation of the story.

The team at Telltale also hoped to use the game to drop in some new dinosaurs including the Troodon, and Mosasaurus, as well as new environments and locations not seen in the movie.

Elaborating on the story and characters, Pinney said that “anchor character” Dr. Gerry Harding—chief veterinarian for the park—is joined by his daughter Jessica as they attempt to evacuate with the rest of the park staff. “But they literally end up running into a woman who is trying to get onto the park, and who has a mysterious agenda. And it turns out to be tangled up with these embryos.” We’ll also get a chance to meet a doctor responsible for developing the dinosaur embryo-creation process as well as some new characters attempting a rescue operation for our survivors.

Drawing out the themes of Jurassic Park

Re-watching the first movie, it’s surprising how brainy it is, how focused it is on its characters as well as presenting a arguments about science, creation, and responsibility. How many action-adventure movies can you think of in the past few years that stop to take the time out to explain chaos theory, or whose lead never once picks up a gun or weapon to fight off the enemy?

When I asked Connors if any of these elements would make their way into the game, he said that these themes made their way into the conversation among the designers when they first started working on Jurassic Park. During meetings, they justified some of the plot points that pop up as the result of man’s inability to control nature. “You don’t know where it’s going to go,” he says, “it’s going to make its own choices.” At the same time, Telltale was looking to explore some of the human relationships from the story (the original was as much about Sam Neill’s character Alan Grant dealing with fatherhood anxiety as anything else). According to Pinney, “We kind of wanted to present the range of experiences that people had in the movies that really turned us on when we saw [them], including the intimate character stuff, and the sort of exploration of this strange, new world.”

Pinney jumped on this same point, saying that story and character were essential to the mission statement of Telltale. And while they would be exploring some of the themes of the film, it wouldn’t simply be a rehash of the ideas behind chaos theory.

On bringing an action-oriented game to the consoles

“It’s definitely a new thing for us,” says Pinney. “There are moments where you have to act, or you will die.” Jurassic Park is unique among most Telltale titles in that it’ll be receiving a retail console release alongside its PC counterparts. But how did that change how the studio was thinking about the game, how it would be paced, and how the console audience would respond to it? According to Connors, the team was well aware that they would be dealing with an audience used to more immediacy in their games:

We didn’t want people to lose that stream of engagement that keeps them involved in the world. We didn’t want them to stop and try to think, “Where am I now, and what am I doing, and why and I doing it, and what is this pulley that I have, and why do I have a banana and how do they work together, and how do I use them on this T-rex?”

“Is it more of a survival horror game,” I asked Pinney. The designer explained that this wasn’t exactly the case—“It’s kind of an evolution to our approach, but it’s still very much a Telltale game,” meaning you’ll still be talking to characters and getting inside their heads in order to survive and escape the island. He’s very clear that this remains a Telltale adventure game focused on story and character and not something in the vein of say, Resident Evil (or more appropriately, Dino Crisis, I suppose).

However, instead of thinking about the puzzles in the game the traditional way, Pinney sees them as “problems,” in need of resolution if the story’s characters are to survive. It’s dealing with things like the need to get to a location but needing to activate power to get there, but look, there are raptors on the prowl. Pinney also teases that players will be getting to know some of the dinosaurs and using that knowledge of their behavior to survive, in scenarios that will require players to anticipate and exploit some of the dino behavior to solve some of the game’s puzzles.

This also meant thinking critically about the controls since PC and console controls are typically their own things. Connors assures gamers that Jurassic Park is actually unique among Telltale titles in that it’s the first where they did not simply map the PC controls to the console, but instead built the controls and user interface, menus, etc. for each version of the game with its specific platform in mind. Pinney says that while the game is at its heart a point and click adventure, the new controls sidestep the usual pointing and clicking. The developer has also pushed its engine to output bigger and better visuals than in Telltale games past, particularly necessary since this was a game that might not benefit from the cartoonish, exaggerated characters of something like Back To The Future.

Interestingly, this was also the first Telltale title to be released as one complete piece, and not as episodic DLC (which was apparently the original plan for the PC release, but was scuttled when the game was delayed). What that means is that right now, the studio doesn’t have any specific plans for post-release support in terms of additional episodes.

Dying in a Jurassic Park

This all occurs in the context of a rarity among Telltale titles: one where a player character can die. In most cases, the failure condition of Telltale games is that you simply don’t progress in the story or there’s no failure condition at all. The designers put player death on the table early on in the development process, but sought to find a way to keep it from being punishing or too hard, or that detracted from exploration.

“When there’s a T-Rex chasing behind you, it’s just not going to feel right if you let go and let it happen and you don’t die,” explains Pinney who says Telltale tried to find a balance between exploration and consequence in the game. He says part of that is thanks to a dynamic difficulty system that tunes itself to player skill. But, Pinney also joked that there were quite a few death scenes in the game, and everyone had a favorite as the heroes scream and die.

The Walking Dead are coming…

Details are still pretty scarce right now, but the episodic The Walking Dead game is still on the way. As with Jurassic Park, this will be another opportunity to introduce new characters to an existing franchise, this time focusing on survivor Lee Everett and a little girl he finds and protects named Clementine. Again, Pinney says story and character are essential to the player experience, drawing a comparison between Jurassic Park and Robert Kirkman’s zombie thriller/melodrama.

There’s an analog, because it’s like [The Walking Dead] is the story of the zombie apocalypse and what happens. But just like Jurassic Park, it’s not just about zombies eating people, it’s about the people and what happens to them, and how people are really the most dangerous things in zombie-times as opposed to the zombies.

He also hyped the cel-shaded style of the game which isn’t necessarily drawing from either Tony Moore or Charlie Adlard’s work, but instead is using the artists’ styles as a source of inspiration for their own team. “The art style that been developed for it, it’s like watching a comic book. The background art, the textures have scribbles in them.”

You can actually see some of the art from the game below.

Jurassic Park: The Game will be available on November 15th from Telltale on the Xbox 360, PS3, and the PC.

Jurassic Park Debut Trailer

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