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Control Freaks: The Case For Telltale

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With the dust beginning to settle after the release of Chapter One of Tales of Monkey Island, thankfully the majority of people left standing have embraced Telltale's approach to the series. One or two pockets of dissatisfaction remain yet, however. The sticking point which I want to examine here is that of the control system: to be precise the numerous calls to return to the point 'n' click movement used in the first three games, a staple of adventure gaming for the longest time.

  • The Argument Against Change

I'll try to represent this argument as accurately as I can. The idea is that back in the old days, everything was so simple. You'd click where you wanted your character to move and it would move there. What's not to like?

Introducing keyboard controls in the mix or some other mousey mojo to directly control a character is simply not necessary for an adventure game in which the focus is puzzle solving. It overcomplicates a system that never needed 'improving' in the first place and attempts to innovate where no innovation is required.

Take the episodic Sam and Max series, for example: surely these games, created by Telltale themselves proved that point 'n' click movement is just as viable as it ever was, even with the move to full 3D. It's simply mystifying why, after that, they would decide that a change in control scheme was needed after all!

  • The Argument For Change

You may have gleaned from the title of this piece that I am somewhat opposed to the above arguments but before I get into the real meat of why, let's look at the key advantage of direct character control. People who insist that the new method of control affords no advantages at all over the old one are wrong, plain and simple. There is an easily demonstrable advantage, and one that has been well-talked about.

Whearas with point 'n' click movement each scene must be carefully framed so that it is absolutely clear precisely where each click of the mouse will send the character, direct control has no such restrictions. You can have sweeping camera movements as the player walks along, with no chance of confused mouse-clicks occuring. You can have camera angles where it is not certain where the character's feet are placed, as long as the player can clearly see which direction they are facing.

Thumb “There's nothing good about having to persistently click the edge of the screen simply to keep Guybrush moving in the same direction.”

I could go on, but it would be easier to say this: If, at this moment, you are thinking something along the lines of 'No! Point 'n' click movement would still work under those circumstances, you'd just have to-' then consider this: this game is being made by people who are paid to think about this sort of thing for a living. Whatever you are thinking of is no doubt something that has already been considered and rejected because it just doesn't work in all the situations it needs to. This may sound presumptuous on my part, but it's even more presumptuous to think that you've spent five minutes and suddenly managed to solve control issues which Telltale have been thinking about full-time for five years.

At this point, The Argument Against Change often switches approach, asking: are these new camera angles really worth it to mess up a control scheme that has worked so perfectly in the past? And so we come to the most controversial part of my argument:

  • Why Point 'n' Click Movement Wasn't That Great To Begin With

Yes, I said it. And I'm going to try to justify it, now.

Before I do, it's worth saying that point and click movement certainly has the advantage of making everything in the game doable by mouse clicks and arguably achieves this in a more graceful manner than Telltale's nascent click-n-drag scheme. At first, too, it seems like an absolute ideal: you look at the point where you want your character to move, you click on it and off the character goes, the game doing all the pesky pathfinding for you.

The problem is, that only works as long as the place you're trying to get to is on-screen. Increasingly, however, adventure games have tended to use large, scrolling scenes. You may remember the long walk between the lookout and Melee Island Town in The Secret of Monkey Island or rowing the coffin across the swamp in LeChuck's Revenge. As well as point 'n' click movement works for some of the time, there's nothing good about having to persistently click the edge of the screen simply to keep Guybrush moving in the same direction.

Things get even more hokey when we add a 'run' option into the mix, such as what was introduced in Sam and Max. As well as having to carry on clicking, there's endless opportunity for said clicks to be misinterpreted, so the act of running from one side of the street to the other often results in Sam running or walking in a stop-start fashion like a dog possessed, making the whole thing look laughable in completely the wrong way. They try to fix this by introducing a click-and-hold to make Sam move toward the mouse, which solves the immediate problem but remains an awkward remedy at best. For example, if I want to run using this method I have to double click and hold down the second click - hardly ideal. Perhaps point 'n' click movement isn't as intuitive as it's cracked up to be, after all.

  • Conclusion

Do these aformentioned problems mean that point 'n' click movement is completely worthless? Of course not - those old games still play wonderfully, and the controls largely work. But I'd say exactly the same thing about these new control methods - they largely work. I'll admit click-n-drag may need some work or getting used to but by using WSAD it's a snap to get Guybrush to move where you want him to, even if once in a while he might get snagged on a post or something.

In other words, Telltale's solution so far is not flawless and I wouldn't pretend it is - but neither is point 'n' click movement. To pretend that point 'n' click movement is and always will be the ultimate ideal, then, is unfair on the amount of work Telltale have so far put into figuring all of this out. Long may they continue to work out the control schemes that make the most sense for their games and not the ones that fulfill certain parts of the community's almost desperate need for familiarity.

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”Surplus Gamer"
18th July, 2009.

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