Let’s be honest, as a games developer taking a much loved movie classic and turning it into a game is probably one of the dumbest things you can possibly do. You won’t get it right. You should move on and do something else. You definitely shouldn’t do it when that much loved film classic happens to be Back to the Future. So when Telltale games announced they were to create that game you could almost hear the collective gaming community asking “are you sure about that?” Even if you make a great game there are always the hardcore fans of the film who, despite whatever good you do, will take a dislike to your game.
There are many good reasons to stay well clear of the Back to the Future series as a basis for a game. Chief amongst which is the fact that by the end of the third film the story had been told and all the loose ends neatly tidied up. However sitting here now, having finished the game the reasons to not revisit the series aren’t immediately obvious, mainly because the developers have done a damn good job in not messing things up. Telltale games’ decision to involve Bob Gale (one of the original writers of the films) as story consultant on Back to the Future means things in the story department stay pretty tight throughout. That is undoubtedly a good thing, and even more so because the gaming parts of Back to the Future are something of a disappointment.
The action takes place over five episodes (all of which are available and unlocked the minute you slip the disc into the drive). The action takes place a few months after the conclusion of the third film. Doc has disappeared and an upset Marty has to watch as the city of Hill Valley starts to clear out his possessions to flatten his lab. Suddenly however the DeLorean time machine returns but there is no sign of Doc. Marty quickly discovers that Doc is trapped in 1931 and sets out to rescue him. Along the way he meets his prohibition era grandfather and earlier members of the Tannen family. To say anything more about the story would spoil things but it remains faithful to the Back to the Future universe and has a decent amount of fun by exploring the implications of changes in the past just like the films did.
Indeed the game even goes a step further and plays with the idea of time travel ethics and turns it into one of the central themes of the five episodes. Midway through the game takes on an Orwellian twist and suddenly becomes slightly darker in tone. Given the light natured earlier episodes it was something of a shock but the game displays a surprising amount of maturity from then on. It happens to be one of the best things about the Back to the Future game but undoubtedly the shift in tone could leave some cold. Generally however it works well, even if the later episodes aren’t quite as grounded as earlier ones. The game is at its best when it explores some of the character’s history during the 30s and it is helped by some excellent voice acting. Christopher Lloyd gives the game even more authenticity as Doc whilst voice actor A.J. Locascio does an amazing Michael J Fox impression.
It’s such a shame then that the game part of Back to the Future doesn’t really match the rest of the package. Assuming the role of Marty you guide the time travelling teenager around the various parts of Hill Valley (the game cleverly keeps you coming back to the same areas again just like in the films) fetching items to solve puzzles and talking to people. It is bog standard point and click stuff and anyone weaned on the LucasArts adventure games of the 90s will find this very easy. For those who don’t there is a very generous hint system but most of the puzzles are very logical. There are only a handful of difficult moments during all of the five episodes and anyone hoping for some clever Day of the Tentacle time mechanics of using different items in different times are going to be disappointed. There is something of a lack of ambition when it comes to the game side of things and clearly Telltale have made a conscious decision to make sure nothing gets in the way of the story they want to tell. Aside from a handful of clever word association puzzles most of the game involves using the right item with the right person and your inventory won’t ever grow too large. Most the chapters take between two and three hours to complete. Whilst they are bite sized in nature they never outstay their welcome.
Thankfully however that story is a winner and makes the game well worth playing through. There is a genuine feeling that this is the fourth film of the series thanks to the tight storytelling and excellent voice acting. Admittedly the few who haven’t seen the films may see a lot of it fly over their head. As an adventure game however it is disappointing and very easy. The quirky graphics serve the game well but there is a lack of polish with slow down and stuttering frame rates is a common occurrence. None of it is enough to spoil things but it is a shame that the developers couldn’t manage to strike a better balance and find a truly excellent game to go with a very good story and excellent characters.