Friday, May 18, 2007

Video Game Review: Bone 1 and 2

See the official website here.

The packing is well underway and I have three days to complete it, so I'm going to give you a post today. We haven't done a video game review yet, and according to my stats, the essays on Bone remain the most popular posts, so I thought it would be appropriate to talk about the video game adaptations. Don't count on a large number of game reviews in the future, at least from me; I'm a woefully inept gamer. I play little, use a laptop with no power, and have no television to which I can connect my nonexistent gaming console, assuming they still hook to televisions like they did in the old days when I played that cool talking spaceship game on a Texas Instrument.

Telltale Games, a small indie company, owns the license to the Bone video game adaptations, and they have produced two games so far, more-or-less covering the contents of Out From Boneville and The Great Cow Race. Though I got stuck for a time on one of the puzzles in the second game, an experienced gamer could probably get through the games in about forty-five minutes each.

These are adventure games, done in 3-D. The player plays as the three Bone cousins and, at least in The Great Cow Race, is able to switch back and forth between them. The 3-D rendering is unfortunate but necessary, and the game designers have given Bone an appropriately lush but cartoonish look that captures the atmosphere of the comic reasonably well. The voice acting varies, but is generally good. Fone Bone sounds great, though sometimes I think he could have used a few shots of espresso before entering the recording booth. His geekiness, which in the comic is mitigated by occasional true grit, has in the games become terminal.

The first game, Out from Boneville, is inept in some ways. Although the game does a decent job of winnowing the story down to its important elements, some of the puzzles have nothing to do with that story but act instead as frustrating obstacles. The game has gone through two versions (and I've played both). Originally, it opened with the three Bone cousins, Fone , Phoney, and Smiley Bone, lost in the desert after being run out of Boneville; the new version begins with a lengthy, dull cutscene in which Thorn gives a narration of Bone's cosmogony from the text of Crown of Horns. No doubt the developers felt this was necessary to avoid exposition problems later on, but it is a serious departure from the comic, which only reveals the cosmogony after considerable preparation. The new version of Out from Boneville makes other minor changes, the most important of which are new, better voice actors for Thorn and Gran'ma and a new model for Thorn. The original Thorn's hair kept disappearing into her shoulders when she turned her head, an image was that was both distracting and unsettling.

The greatest frustration with Out from Boneville is the repetitiveness. After a locust swarm separates the Bones, the player has to guide Fone Bone into the Valley and lead him to his first encounter with Thorn, which, though less sexually charged than the same scene in the comic, is quite funny. After this, the player has to go through virtually the same exercise with Phoney Bone. Worst of all, the process of getting the characters to their goal involves two (two!) games of Hide 'n' Seek with the 'Possum kids. The 'Possums are minor characters in the books who spend an inordinate amount of time on center stage in the games, mostly for the purpose of frustrating one or the other of the Bones and, with them, the gamer.

Much of the story is told through dialogue trees, as is typical in adventure games. This points up one of the great troubles of the genre--pacing. Like many adventure games, Out from Boneville is sluggish and consists largely of interactive narration. For that reason, many of the jokes are less funny and snappy than they have a right to be. This is particularly unfortunate because much of the humor and clever dialogue is original to the games and does not appear in the comic books.

Some of my initial objections are probably unavoidable in the transference from comic to game. Many times I complained, "They're just standing there!" There's plenty of talking in the comic, but the characters are usually doing something interesting while they're at it. In the game, they, well, they just stand there, though the designers wisely gave each of the characters a signature gesture. Phoney likes to smack his fist into his palm, and there's a halfhearted attempt at depicting Thorn's oral fixation: her hand moves to her mouth a number of times but never does anything when it gets there. There's an error here, however, and artistically it's a serious one: one of Thorn's signature gestures is to cross her arms. This shuts her off from the other characters and from the player; instead of instantly connecting with Bone as she does in the comic, Thorn in the video game appears to barely tolerate him.

The Great Cow Race is infinitely better. The puzzles are smarter, the dialogue funnier, and the plot bigger. Especially nice, the player has freedom to switch back and forth between the three Bones at will, so if he's stuck, he can simply go do another puzzle elsewhere. Sometimes this produces weird results, however; when I played, I got through a number of puzzles with Phoney and then Fone Bone walked into the bar and complained that Thorn was hanging out with some other guy. I exclaimed, "She is?!?" As I played it, Thorn's snubbing Bone for Tom didn't take place until much later.

Some of The Great Cow Race's puzzles are clever and original. In particular, you have to walk around and find imagery to help Fone Bone write Thorn a love poem. You can mix and match the images, and then Ted the Bug will give a comment on the poem. I particularly liked, "Your teeth are as white as Moby-Dick...." When it comes, the actual Cow Race is brilliant; it's fast-paced and makes a satisfying climax for the game.

Some of the dialogue expands on comments from the comic. In the comic book, Fone Bone says sarcastically to Phoney, "I wouldn't trust you to hold an ice cream cone!" In the video game, you can elaborate that by having Phoney exclaim, "I only ate your ice cream that one time!" to which Fone Bone replies, "I was little, and it was my birthday!" The writers for the game also poke gentle fun at some of Bone's absurdities; for example, Fone Bone wonders aloud why anyone is interested in the Cow Race at all when Gran'ma wins every year.

But the greatest part about this game is Moby-Dick. Fone Bone has his trusty copy of his favorite novel in his knapsack, and you can make him pull it out and read relevant passages to the different characters. I don't envy the poor intern who must have combed the novel to find a passage for each character. Moby-Dick's great and all, but once was enough for me.

It would be too much to ask, but I hope that in the future games they do a better job of capturing the relationship between Bone and Thorn. In the games so far, most of the hugging and hand-holding have been replaced with standing opposite each other and talking (while crossing arms). Thorn comes across as uninterested and uninteresting, and in The Great Cow Race she is remarkably moody; she sits and broods by herself for however long it takes to get Fone Bone to walk around the fair and think of dumb ways to impress her (an hour, in my case). I spent much of that time muttering, "You can find a better girlfriend than that, Fone Bone...." On the plus side (a little spoiler warning), if you play a frustrating carnival game something like three dozen times, you get an extra ten-second video in which Bone gives Thorn a stuffed animal and she kisses him on the nose. This, of course, shocked me no end. Kissing??? In Bone???? Hugging, yes. Group nude bathing, yes. Phallic symbols, yes. But no kissing; that's yucky.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Bone Episodes 1 and 2:

Myth Level: Medium (hard to say yet, but the new intro is quite mythic)

Quality: Medium (some good stuff, but falls prey to the problems with adventure games)

Ethics/Religion: Medium/High (same as the comic; no objection to anything but the balancing-good-and-evil part)
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