Nelson Tethers of the FBI’s Puzzle Research Division does most of his work behind a desk. As you can imagine, a lot of the country’s major puzzle related queries are solvable from a central location. Having grown up around puzzles, he’s excellent at what he does and is actually one of the top Puzzle Agents in the country. So when a puzzle related mystery surfaces that requires Nelson to emerge out of his office, and head off to the remote small town of Scoggins Minnesota, it must be a serious problem.
Puzzle Agent is the first game in Telltale’s Pilot Program, which works similar to how television pilots work. Smaller teams in the studio create an initial episode from their idea to release to the masses, whose level of interest will decide if the game will get picked up for a full season release. It allows for riskier ideas to see the light of day because the team size is not as large as a normal episodic series. If it doesn’t succeed among fans it’s just a failure of a single episode instead of a full season. It’s a unique concept that will hopefully lead to fresh new playable ideas on a more regular basis.
The mystery began when the White House did not receive it’s shipment of Scoggin’s Eraser’s. Upon investigation, all they received were puzzles. Due to the unique circumstances Nelson Tethers was the top choice to send to investigate. Shortly after arriving in town he noticed that all of the townsfolk were obsessed with puzzles. To Nelson this would be a great thing, finally connecting with so many puzzle enthusiasts, but things are not always as they seem. Everyone just goes along with their business and not ask questions. The Eraser Factory (the main point of interest in this investigation) has been locked from the outside due to an “accident” that occurred there, but none of the townsfolk seem particularly concerned. When Nelson begins digging deeper he learns of the Hidden People (which still freak me out), and the Nordic culture that Scoggins is rooted in.
The atmosphere is reminiscent of the works of David Lynch, which is definitely a plus for me. The story has a good balance of eerie confusion and lighthearted humor. It definitely fits with the Telltale style of storytelling, but the introduction of a psychological horror aspect is something I really enjoyed. It may be due to the fact I’ve been on a psychological movie kick (Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind recently), but the mood of the game really played into my interests. The introduction gives a good indication as to how Nelson’s mind works, which I instantly connected with. He has a positive attitude throughout, and kept his cool in tense situations. I really liked him as a character and would love to see more of him, should Puzzle Agent get picked up for a full season.
The game plays quite a bit differently than your typical Telltale adventure game. First of all, you don’t move Nelson around the scenes. Instead he stays in a central location, and you click around the scene to find points of interaction. I like how they handled this aspect. Upon each click of the mouse a circle pulsates outward from where you pointed revealing each point of interaction. The area the circle affects is wide enough that you don’t have to spend too much time searching, but it still gives you freedom to do so if you want to. This system seemed very natural on the PC, and I can imagine it making even more sense on the iPad/iPhone version. The basic gameplay is solving puzzles which are presented on their own screen. They tend to come in two flavors: Brain Teasers (of which most of the solving is done in your head), and Click puzzles (of which solutions come by moving things around with the mouse). In addition to solving the 37 puzzles in the game, Agent Tethers will converse with the townsfolk to help further his investigation into the Eraser Factory. I liked how conversation trees were presented as notes he was taking in his notepad. The puzzles definitely present a challenge, but throughout your time in Scoggins you collect pieces of gum which help Nelson focus and serve as the game’s hint system. I felt that they presented a good enough challenge without being unfair. There were a few instances where I broke out a piece of paper and was working the problem out on the page, but even that was kind of enjoyable.
The game works the puzzles into the story fairly well too. It’s pretty rare to encounter one just for the sake of solving it. I feel like this helps preserve the authenticity presented in the story. You could almost explain it as the characters remembering puzzles based on where they are, upon discovering Nelson’s profession. The whole presentation of the game really pulls you into its world. The game world is one of uncertainty and mystery which is definitely reflected in the audio design. For puzzle solving screens, you hear a song that made me feel relaxed and under no pressure to speed through to the solution without thinking things through. But there are certain scenes which are intended to creep the player out in which the audio goes from an uneasy string section into a loud cacophony of foreign sounds. It stood out as something that Puzzle Agent does especially well. The music is good enough that I would like Telltale to offer it through their store. Aside from the music, the voice acting is all very good as well. The characters all have the Minnesotan accent which added a lot to their charm. Sheriff Bahg’s voice in particular made me smile whenever I heard it.
The visual style is also pretty unique. Puzzle Agent is based on the work of Graham Annable, more specifically his Grickle series. Grickle is a series of comics and 2D animations which seem to explore a similar mysterious tone, and often involve elements of the extraordinary. The game emulates this style with a mix of 2D and 3D assets. The characters are all hand drawn, and animated which mirrors the Grickle animation shorts perfectly. Certain parts of the world are rendered in 3D to allow for different camera angles during cutscenes, but even these are textured in such ways that they look 2D for the most part. The 3D stuff reminded me of the look of Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People (a previous Telltale production), which also was recreating 2D art in a 3D plane. You can tell a lot of attention went into the look, and it’s very impressive how much they were able to pull off.
From start to finish, Puzzle Agent feels really special. The art and ambiance mix with a fascinating story, while constantly keeping your brain challenged with interesting puzzles. If this is any indication as to what we should expect from the Pilot Program consider me excited. I sincerely hope that everyone else shares in my enjoyment, and that a full season pickup is in Nelson Tethers future. You owe it to yourself to check this game out.
I liked pretty much every part of this game.
Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent – The Mystery of Scoggins will be out on PC/Mac sometime today, with a WiiWare and iPhone/iPad release in the near future. You can get a copy of your own right here: Telltale Store.