: preg_replace(): The /e modifier is deprecated, use preg_replace_callback instead in /home/gturner/public_html/content/themes/tng_v4/comment.tpl.php on line 31.

Bone: Out from Boneville & the Shot/Reverse Shot

May 16, 2006 By Glenn Turner

Long ago, there was a quirky black & white comic book named Bone that told the story of how three odd cousins who, after having been run out of their hometown, become lost in a world full of dragons and rat creatures. Armed only with a map found along the way, they struggle through lands they've never seen and don't belong to in order to return home. The comic's story, like its art, was deceptively simple on the surface but meticulously composed, and it deftly straddling light-hearted humor with serious fantasy. Shortly after the release of its first few issues was warmly embraced for its witty and accessible writing, as well as Jeff Smith's skillful compositional abilities. Consequently the comic ran for 55 issues, comprising a series of nine collected volumes all together.

News that Bone was being adapted into an episodic adventure game for PCs was embraced a bit more hesitantly, especially when it was discovered that its developers, Telltale Games, were concentrating on having the game be more accessible to those who don't upgrade their video cards every six months. Instead, Bone: The Game would be driven by the comic's charm, whip-smart writing and even his sense of framing.

Out from Boneville mines its source material for dialogue quite effectively: conversations between Fone Bone and Thorn are as endearing as ever and Phoney Bone's selfish, miserly antics and miserable attitude remain cacklingly fantastic. The game's story occasionally roams away from the comic's and might upset some purists, but the game adopts Smith's storytelling sensibilities and that's where it really shines. Instead of adhering to standard adventure game protocol, Out from Boneville breaks loose from the single static shot to more effectively convey the action and character interplay in a scene.

For an example of standard camera use in an adventure game, take the critically lauded Syberia. It features brilliantly detailed landscapes, gorgeously atmospheric portraits, as if to say look at the breathtakingly amazing work I've created. It situates the camera miles away from the characters, even when they're conversing and interacting. Yes, it sure does look pretty, but watching a inert shot of two characters talking for ten minutes, without being close enough to see any facial tick or nuance, is enough to put even the most patient gamer to sleep. One could argue that Syberia's distant camera helps convey the sense of lifelessness and desolation that prevails in the game's world, and while that can be true for general shots, it still doesn't explain why the camera remains so remote while characters carry out a discussion.

This use of framing has been an adventure game staple since the days of Sierra's Mystery House. The reason for this has been purely practical: graphics in those games were used to display the world, not the player interacting with the world or its inhabitants. The resources didn't exist to use the visuals for storytelling purposes; instead the character wandered through a static image like one wanders through a theater stage. In the last ten years, 3D game engines have allowed games to go from a single theater stage to shooting outdoors, so to speak, but adventure games haven't taken the jump. They merely use the 3D engine to allow characters move more fluidly and give a greater sense of depth. In adventure games, the camera has remained, for the most part, fixed.

Granted, the adventure genre hasn't exactly been known for innovative visual storytelling methods, but to cling to the same twenty-year old static, distanced long shot for an entire scene only serves to alienate the player. That's why it's fantastic to see that Telltale Games frames character's face and allows the player to see how they visually respond to a conversation.

There is an exemplary scene where Grandma Ben, Thorn, Fone and Phoney Bone are sitting at a dinner table, having a bit of supper before heading to bed.* The piece opens with your standard establishing shot, a distanced view of all of the characters huddled around the table. Most adventure games would be content to stay with that one perspective for the entire scene, but not Out from Boneville. Telltale moves in for a closer look at the characters when they're talking. They even catch characters reacting to what someone else is saying, such as Phoney Bone arching his brow at one of Fone Bone's diplomatic remarks.

This technique is nothing new: shot/reverse shot visual storytelling has been embraced by filmmakers for decades, and consequently it's standard operating procedure in most videogame cut-scenes. However, its inclusion in Out from Boneville is a welcome, and much needed, change of pace from the majestic, but highly impersonal and inarticulate, long shots favored by contemporary adventure games.

This isn't to say that Out from Boneville's camera is perfect. During some oddly integrated action sequences the camera swings upwards to take a birds-eye, practically two-dimensional, view of the scene. Both of these mini-game scenes involve outrunning swarms of creatures while dodging any obstacles in your way, and both mini-games feel clunky and horribly out-of-place, mostly thanks to the vertically scrolling shooter feeling the camera instills. Regardless of these mismatched scenes, the camera does work wonders in other portions of the game, such as when it twists and turns while following Fone Bone through a darkened cave.

Out of all of the current videogame genres, adventure games are the most reliant on story. Lose the story and plot points fade. Clues dry up, puzzles can't be solved, the character's motivation dwindles and the game can't be completed. The adventure genre is also rather unique in its reliance on conversation, and often requires discussion and contains lengthy bits of dialogue exchanges between characters. Out from Boneville takes the visual sense from Smith's comic and applies it to the in-game conversations, for once allowing us to see a conversation in an adventure game play out with the same dramatic flair you'd find in other visual mediums like comics and film.

Given that the primary thrust of the adventure game hasn't been improved in years it, it's no surprise that the genre is considered to be bereft of life. However, with Out from Boneville Telltale Games have shown that there are improvements that can be made within the boundaries of the genre, and they ultimately shaped their game to be a bit more engrossing by adopting the sensibility of other visual storytelling methods. Consequently, it makes the final act of the game more satisfying and piques interest in upcoming episodes, infusing Telltale with more funds to produce more games, then others follow Telltale's successful formula and everybody wins. The more compelling your content is, the more excited the player will be to play the next one, and Telltale Games realizes that such things can come from a simple shot/reverse shot.

Bone: Out from Boneville and its second episode, The Great Cow Race, are available to download and purchase from Telltale Games for $12.99 each.

* Readers familiar with the comic will wonder where this scene exists in the source material. It doesn't, at least not in the first six issues. Telltale did take a few liberties in adapting the comic's story, including condensing some subplots. This dinner scene touches on a few minor parts of the storyline that couldn't be worked in otherwise, such as Phoney Bone's upcoming betting scheme.

Digg this article Save to del.icio.us Filled under:

1 comment for ‘Bone: Out from Boneville & the Shot/Reverse Shot’

#1 Grimson May 16, 2006 02:39pm

I remember when I played the first demo way back, and I wasn't too impressed with it then. But, I decided to give the second demo a shot, and lo and behold I found the camera angles to be nice and fairly innovative for the genre. Kudos for articulating that particular quirk so well. I really do hope tell-tale suceeds in their plan, as i would love to play this when it reaches more of a completion. The music and the voice acting are pretty good in most parts, although the puzzles are a bit more simplistic than I'm accustomed to from this genre, though I don't really think it's a detriment in this ame. Good write-up!