by Stefanie Fogel
previewed on WII
Puzzle Agent is the first title in Telltale Games new Pilot Program. Designed to foster creativity and innovation in the gaming market, the program is similar to the way in which TV show pilots work. Game "pilots" will allow the developer to test out new ideas, concepts, and content that are perhaps a little offbeat, that run the risk of not being embraced by the gaming public in the same way as more mainstream titles. Successful pilots can then go on to receive the full episodic treatment of other Telltale games such as Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island. I had a chance to see a little bit of Puzzle Agent at E3 and, if what I saw is any indication, I think the Pilot Program is off to a very good start.
Fargo meets Twin Peaks
Puzzle Agent combines Professor Layton-inspired brainteasers with the artwork and narrative style of independent cartoonist Graham Annable, Telltale Games' first art director and creator of the internet cartoon Grickle. Players take on the role of Nelson Tethers, the one and only agent in the U.S. Department of Puzzle Research, as he is sent to investigate the Scoggins Eraser Company and why it has mysteriously shut down. Along the way, he will encounter secret societies, red gnomes, and puzzle-obsessed townsfolk in a story that Telltale Games Design Director Dave Grossman describes as "Fargo meets Twin Peaks."
During the demonstration, we were shown two of the more than 50 puzzles in the game. The first one has the player create a path to the hotel for Tethers by manipulating objects, such as fallen logs. The second one involves a crazed and frazzled looking townsperson who has swallowed a rubber band. Inside the man's tapeworm-ridden stomach, the player must rotate tiles around to create its image. Other brainteasers will have Tethers judging a ladies arm wrestling match, rearranging the items on a person's dinner plate, and figuring out which gnome was stolen from a display. Tethers is given a "performance evaluation" after each completed puzzle that gives the player a star rating based on how many wrong answers they gave and how many hints were used.
The game's hint system is based on pieces of chewing gum. Tethers loves gum. Chewing it helps him think. Unfortunately for him, though, Scoggins strangely seems to be all out of new, unwrapped gum, forcing him to find and use the pre-chewed wads stuck on objects around town. Acting as the game's "currency," players must hunt down the wads if they wish to "buy" hints to any of the game's puzzles. The system seems designed to encourage careful exploration and strategic thinking. Do you use your last wad of gum on that riddle that has you stumped? Or do you save it in anticipation of even harder puzzles down the road? Or do you abandon the puzzle for the time being and go out in search of more gum?
Giving Telltale their props
Puzzle Agent will be released later this month on the PC, Mac, Wii, iPad, and iPhone/iPod Touch. Grossman says that the game has been designed to play seamlessly and easily on all of the platforms. Realizing that hunting and pecking for objects to click on a touch screen can get a little tedious, the developers have included a radar to help players find the important stuff. The interface is simple and accessible. Each puzzle is presented as a FBI case file in a manila folder. Tethers also has a notepad for keeping track of objectives and hints.
Puzzle Agent seems like it is shaping up to be a quirky and fun addition to Telltale's already impressive stable of adventure titles. While not everyone will appreciate Graham Annable's particular art style, the game's dark sensibilities will appeal to those who love the work of the Cohen Brothers and David Lynch, and the odd humor will appeal to anyone who is a fan of the developer's previous series. Even if Puzzle Agent fails to ignite interest amongst gamers and remains only a single pilot "episode," you have to give Telltale Games credit for being daring enough to try something new in a market that is overpopulated with well-tread franchises and endless sequels.