When Telltale announced their next title would be a follow-up to the Back to the Future trilogy, there was a certain fear that the well-meaning developer would somehow “Lucas” (as in George) things up. As with the original Star Wars films, Back to the Future is a series that doesn’t really need to be revisited; in fact, Bob Gale’s clockwork-like scripts assure that every possible loose end is wrapped up by the end of the third movie — and the screenwriter has even gone out of his way to personally address any perceived plot holes throughout this trio of films.
To go back and tamper with these airtight stories would be tantamount to movie treason, which is why Telltale was especially savvy in leaving familiar eras behind, instead concentrating on content uncovered (or only hinted at) by the original trilogy. And while Telltale’s puzzles have taken a step down in creativity since the stellar Sam and Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Back to the Future: The Game does the seemingly impossible by acting as both a heartfelt tribute and a fitting follow-up to the beloved film franchise.
The new story mostly focuses on 1931, an important year where relatives of the Brown, Tannen, McFly, and Strickland (you may remember him as Marty’s high school principal) families all intersect in meaningful ways that shape the present as Marty knows it. As expected with any time travel story, Doc Brown’s journey to Prohibition-era Hill Valley hits a few snags, landing him in prison as the prime suspect in a speakeasy arsonist case — leaving Marty with the responsibility of clearing his name without muddying the waters of his small town’s timeline. Over the course of these five episodes, Marty’s meddling inevitably tampers with the status quo, eventually flinging Hill Valley into a dystopian police state governed by none other than Doc Brown himself. As with the original films, Back to the Future: The Game explores how little moments can greatly change history, and does so with the same sense of meticulously crafted and internally consistent logic — no doubt assisted by Bob Gale, who acted as a consultant on this project.
While the game’s story retains the popcorn appeal of the original trilogy, 25 years of cynicism (as opposed to wide-eyed ’80s optimism) have contributed their share to the main conceit of the series; namely, the ethical implications of time travel beyond simply altering the status quo. If you look at the three movies as a whole, what begins with an accidental trip to the ’50s in Part I soon escalates into a journey to the past for entirely selfish reasons in Part III. Back to the Future: The Game makes time travel ethics its theme — though not in an overbearing way — building a sympathetic villain who acts as an example of environment determining one’s personality and actions; and throughout these five episodes, we see both Marty and Doc come to the realization that the fixing of their timelines can and does cause irreparable harm to the lives of others. Heavy.
Telltale’s ultimate faithfulness to the franchise allows them to pull off this slightly more mature take on time travel without seeming like interlopers trying to milk cash out of a sacred pop culture cow. Voice actor A.J. Locascio makes for an eerily perfect Marty, selling the same charisma as Michael J. Fox’s blank slate suburban everyteen; and though Doc Brown sounds noticeably older than his movie self, Christopher Lloyd lends the same sense of warmth and excitability to the character he played oh-so many years ago. Even the impersonations are great, most notably the series’ pseudo-Crispin Glover; the actor’s absence from the second and third movies robbed audiences of a great character, and Telltale has done their part to make up for this by giving us quite a bit of material from Marty’s uber-nerdy forefathers.
Click the image above to check out all Back to the Future: The Game screens.
If you’re wondering why I haven’t yet addressed the actual “game” portions of Back to the Future: The Game, it’s because they really take a backseat to the telling of a new BTTF story. When news hit that Telltale was working on a Back to the Future series, veteran adventure gamers no doubt got excited for what time travel could do for the genre, what with Lucasarts’ 1993 hit Day of the Tentacle showing the potential for a time-travel mechanic in a traditional point-and-click adventure game.
Unfortunately, none of that creativity is on display in Back to the Future: The Game; Telltale doesn’t get more ambitious than your standard dialogue and inventory puzzles (something they were really moving beyond in Sam and Max Season 3), and once you’re in a time period, you’re stuck there until the story deems you ready to move on. The game also contains brain dead puzzles that require you to click every item on the screen, select the correct dialogue option, or do the polygon equivalent of “pixel-hunting” for small objects — all ideas that Telltale should have left behind by this point. It’s unclear whether these choices were made for the sake of a more casual audience, or to ensure that the actual game didn’t interfere too much with the story they were trying to tell, but it’s still disappointing to see Telltale’s lack of ambition in an area they’ve steadily been improving upon.
Ultimately, though, the story told by Back to the Future: The Game is one worth telling — not to mention one that won’t earn the ire of Back to the Future fanboys. The game itself does suffer a bit from such a heavy focus on plot, but the “To be continued…” tacked on to the end of episode five — along with a few dangling plot threads — shows that the developer could be ready to improve upon what they’ve started with these five episodes. In the words of Doc Brown, “Your future is whatever you make it.” So make it a good one, Telltale.