Telltale's Jurassic Park would have been a great film, but it was a poor game.
The fourth Jurassic Park film has just come out, a full 22 years after the original 1993 Steven Spielberg masterpiece. And why not? The original film was a classic with its awe-inspiring dinosaurs, all hungry toothy grins and almost comically arrogant eye movements; an incredible score by John Williams that's equal parts wondrous, exciting and sentimental; multi-faceted characters whose ecological concerns conflict with their own inner child that drove them to study dinosaurs in the first place; and its rich setting, Isla Nublar, a comic concoction of untamed jungle choked by corporate interests in a soulless bid to appeal to the masses.
Telltale's rendition of Jurassic Park: The Game contains all of these and more. It's smartly written with a deep, varied cast, an engaging plot, characterful beasts and more. It's also not a very good video game.
But it was an important one. It took Telltale Games, a studio known for comedic point-and-click adventures, into the realm of drama - albeit one where its cast spends half of its time running from dinosaurs - and paved the way for its excellent follow-ups that have included The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, Game of Thrones, and Tales from the Borderland.
It all started on Isla Nublar with cinema's most famous can of shaving cream. Where the actual sequel to Jurassic Park focused on Jeff Goldblum (and who can blame them really, after his amazing one-of-a-kind laugh that's more syllables than it has any right to be), Telltale's semi-sequel, which has its roots in the events of the first film, has a more engaging premise. Those embryos Newman from Seinfeld was trying to smuggle out of the park, well, he wasn't the only one. His employers have sent in backup, while elsewhere on the island dino doctor Gerry Harding is trying to reconnect with his 14-year-old daughter. Further characters are introduced and the plot only gets increasingly complex as its cast members all begin to display ulterior motives.
On paper, this sounds fertile ground for a killer Telltale adventure. Only it isn't. It's fantastic material for a film. As a game, it's so overwritten there's no room for players to exert their own agency.
The Walking Dead and later Telltale games gave the players choices, and choices that carried across multiple episodes. But Jurassic Park didn't have any such feature. (The velociraptors won't remember that.) Going back to it now, I was shocked that each episode requires booting up separately with zero data transferring between them. Even if The Walking Dead's important choices were few and far between, they made a difference. Equally importantly, its smaller choices had weight too. Depending on how you treated Kenny, for example, you may have found him to be a hostile, controlling jerk or a supportive, tragic ally. Comparatively, Jurassic Park would often give you choices like "run", "hide" or "create a diversion" only to reject the options that aren't part of the script. This led to a fatally strained relationship between the game and its player.
Jurassic Park also made the bold yet ultimately inadvisable choice to let players play multiple roles in its expansive cast. 2011 was a different time; Heavy Rain had recently come out and multiple perspective storytelling probably seemed like a good idea for a game in which its cast frequently gets separated. And perhaps it would have been had Telltale reined it in to two or three roles. But instead the developer decided to let you play as every character, and it switches you between perspectives at an alarming rate.
At one point one playable character gets into a fight with another playable character and I didn't even know who I was playing as when the first punch was thrown. Another time the game forces the player to have an argument with themselves as it toggles your role between two bickering characters. Suddenly the player is merely a script reader exhausting set dialogue trees until the characters run our of things to say.
This schizophrenic approach was probably opted for in hopes that it would make the player associate with each cast member. And we do! But we don't feel for them because we get to choose their actions: we feel for them because we get to see them react to ours. Imagine how greatly The Walking Dead would have suffered if players were able to swap into Clementine's shoes after each of her chats with Lee. "Clementine, it's too dangerous. You can't come with us." "Okay! Whatever you say, Lee!" Giving us a say in how a character acts doesn't necessarily bring us closer to the them: it dilutes their development.
Telltale must have realised this was a problem and smartly decided a single perspective approach works best for these sorts of things. After The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us Telltale gave this multiple perspective concept another shot with much better results in Tales From the Borderlands, in which players occupy two roles, but each person's story is told in flashback from their perspective, so it's always clear whose mind you're in. Plus the contradictions in the story's telling are used to great comic effect. Jurassic Park offers no such elegance as you guide each character down their pre-determined path.
Jurassic Park also marked Telltale's departure from its puzzle-focused gameplay that made its earlier adventures such a treat. The problem was that it didn't stray far enough from the studio's roots. Logic puzzles were fitting for Monkey Island and Sam & Max, which were wacky comedies about a wimpy pirate and a dog detective respectively. Jurassic Park is about realistic characters in danger. Forcing them to solve simple puzzles failed to provide an engaging challenge and only served to sabotage the pacing and artificially extend the length of the game through busywork. Telltale obviously realised this in retrospect, which is why The Walking Dead's debut episode only contains a puzzle or two and its later entries do away with these laborious activities completely.
Telltale figured that the more exciting nature of the Jurassic Park license meant that it should branch out into the exciting world of quick-time events. And in theory, the studio was right. These do provide a sense of urgency and it gives Telltale freedom to craft some really well choreographed setpieces. An early encounter between a T-Rex and a mother triceratops with a couple of onlookers caught in the middle has a wonderful sense of escalation as things go increasingly wrong in creative ways.
What a shame it is that these QTEs suffer from atrocious performance issues. On PS3 drops to single digit frames-per-second are common, while second long lock-ups between prompts are the norm. Sometimes prompts are missed entirely or don't respond because of how poorly the game is chugging on the hardware. This is something Telltale games still struggle with, truth be told, but it's much, much worse here than the ropey implementation in its later titles.
And yet, for all its foibles, Jurassic Park: The Game had a really affecting tale underlying it. It may have been told in the wrong medium, or with the wrong design - and poorly executed at that, but it understood the spirit of what made Jurassic Park so great. It understood that the dinosaurs weren't just one-dimensional movie monsters, but actually gave them character and dimension. They're creatures brought into a world where they don't belong, and the responsibility of man to provide for its creation is central to this semi-sequel. There's also a class issue of Hammond and InGen displacing native inhabitants to make way for an amusement park that only the rich can afford to visit. Even the less heady stuff like the central relationship between a divorced man and his estranged teenage daughter are generally believable and give us an impression of their home lives without spelling out the details as to how they got to where they are.
Jurassic Park: The Game is a great sequel to the original 1993 film embodied in a subpar game. It's basically an excellent two-hour movie stretched into seven hours wherein players need to occasionally push buttons and hit their marks to continue. It looks pretty bad by today's standards - and indeed it wasn't even a looker back then - but it's not without its charms.
What I have to commend Telltale for is that, even though Jurassic Park was a critical failure, the studio didn't backpedal. It didn't say, "hey, people didn't like our 'interactive drama' approach, let's go back to point-and-clicks". Instead it analysed specifically what did work about Jurassic Park (the characters, the plotting, the contemplative tone punctuated by bursts of action), then recalibrated what didn't (the lack of agency, abundance of puzzles, performance issues). Jurassic Park as a standalone title in 2011 was a failure, but in 2015 we can look back at it as a necessary stepping stone: a Barbasol can of untold potential.