Back to the Future

Adventure games are interactive stories in which players advance by solving intricate puzzles. The genre saw its heyday in the CD-Rom era, when nerds would share their progress and trade clues via dial-up modem.

Telltale was founded by veterans of that Golden Age. Their mission was to reinvent the genre for the download era. The epic-style of the disk-based adventures was jettisoned in favor of a TV model: Each title would be delivered as a series of streamlined episodes; each episode would have its own story arc while also advancing a season arc. And of course the 2D pixel-art of the earlier generation was traded in for more cinematic 3D animation.

By the time I joined, the company had enjoyed enough initial success to acquire rights for some well-known franchises. I came aboard to write for Wallace & Gromit, and I stuck around to work on a number of other series with ampersands, like Sam & Max and Law & Order. But the crowning achievement of my years at Telltale was Back to the Future. This is partly because of the classic stature of the IP, and partly because I got to serve as the series “show-runner”, along with fellow writer/designer Mike Stemmle. It’s also because I got to collaborate with Bob Gale, the writer behind all three of the original movies.

Story development kicked off with a stroke of synchronicity: the plot we pitched to Gale dovetailed with an idea he himself had been kicking around for some time. The idea was a natural: what if Marty McFly traveled back in time to meet a teenaged version of Doc? This timeline gave us a Depression-era Hill Valley to play with, which of course suggested a gangster prototype of Biff Tannen. Young Doc would be faced with a crossroads decision: to follow his destiny…or allow an ill-advised love to lead him off the path. The wrong choice would lead to a dystopian future, and it would be up to Marty (and the player) to make things right.

This capsule summary doesn’t capture the complexity of crafting a time-travel plot. Story sessions turned into endless head-spinning logical disputations: if such-and-such occurred in future-timeline A, then this logical precondition could never have happened in the past. Throughout the process, Gale good-humoredly kept us focused on character and emotion.

We captured the branching plot structure in flowcharts, then scripted directly in “The Telltale Tool,” a proprietary authoring system. The same tool enabled us to stub in the state-machine logic, so we could play through the flow and make edits before recording sessions began.

Ultimately Back to the Future served as a transition from Telltale’s early games like Homestar Runner and Monkey Island, built on zany gags and leap-of-logic puzzles, to later games like The Walking Dead and Fables, centered around moral agency. BTTF contained its share of puzzles, somewhat simplified to appeal to a general audience, but the meatiest challenges were interpersonal.

The climax of the series was a confrontation between player avatar Marty and his new/old friend, teenaged Doc. In order to get the latter over his existential crisis and force him to make the right decision, Marty has to intentionally provoke a fight. After the episode was released, strangers wrote to tell us how personally harrowing it had been for them to take these actions. It was gratifying proof that games can be as emotionally involving as movies, if not moreso.

Back to the Future set a new sales record for Telltale and enabled the company to “level up” to a wider audience. The series earned a solid 7.5 Metacritic rating, and equally important–it earned the approval of the franchise’s creator. “There’s never going to be a Back to the Future Part IV,” commented Bob Gale. “We’re not doing that. But, Telltale’s Back to the Future game is pretty close to what a Part IV could be.”