Adventure Gamers Awards
Adventure games tend to be solitary pursuits, so it’s always interesting then when a developer comes along to tackle the difficult challenge of creating a multiplayer adventure. Such is the case with Other Tales Interactive’s two-player cooperative experiment Tick Tock: A Tale for Two. The end result is a bit short and skimpy, but this slideshow-style first-person puzzler features a rather novel approach that’s fun while it lasts.
While most multiplayer games drop players into the same shared space, Tick Tock handles things a different way. It’s not a traditional multiplayer game where people connect across a local network or the internet. Nor is it couch play, where participants use one device and have their own sets of controls. Instead, think of it as two distinct single player games where information needed to progress in Player 1’s game is presented in Player 2’s, and vice versa. This means that both of you must own the game, but in a nice touch, you can each play on the platform of your choice.
With the lack of any network connection there is no built-in text messaging, VOIP, or other online chat system. Thusly, the first hurdle players must overcome is figuring out how to communicate. This can be as simple as both people sitting in the same room and talking back and forth directly. Or, as in my case with a friend, it may involve operating out of different locations and using headsets and third party internet software such as Skype or Discord to talk to one another. It’s an interesting way of handling the co-op aspect, by its very nature forcing players to work together, as neither person ever has the full picture of what’s going on otherwise.
What’s going on is actually a story about two sisters, Lærke and Amalie, and their experiments with harvesting and prolonging time. You (the player) and your partner travel back in time from the present to 1927, 1932, and 1937 to play not as the two women but as yourselves following in their footsteps. A sinister mystery unfolds across these periods, and it will take putting pieces together from both sides of the game to understand the full goings-on with the siblings’ dabbling in time. (To delve any further into the story would be to enter spoiler territory.)
Unfortunately, the plot suffers partly due to the split in perspectives and partly due to the game’s primary focus on puzzle solving. Storytelling can be rather disjointed when one player is uncovering and describing stuff about Lærke and the other is discovering and relating stuff about Amalie. This is exacerbated by the fact that important clues are always mixed in with the narrative bits, such that the tendency is to look for hints that will move the game forward puzzle-wise rather than fully engage with the story in its own right.
Playing Tick Tock reminded me of escaping a real life Locked Room challenge. Such scenarios always have some sort of backstory, but then present a series of more or less arbitrary puzzles to solve in order to break out. The room’s theme may apply to these obstacles to varying degrees, but there’s no disguising the fact that they’re puzzles for puzzles’ sake. It’s similar with this game: when you and your friend travel to each of the different time zones as part of the progressing narrative, you will be dropped into the centre of a small town. Both partners arrive at the same point at the same time in a predetermined sequence, and yet oddly, one can’t see the other and certain elements have been changed in each, almost as if you’re in nearly identical but slightly altered dimensions.
From this starting spot you can turn left or right four times to complete a full circle. At each of the four turning points is some manner of building or other area, and clicking these grants you access to one or two scenes within each. It is these locations that hold the bulk of the challenges, usually with one puzzle per location. While both players can explore their own buildings independently, most of the problems to be solved have their hints and other elements in the matching buildings within their counterpart’s game, so you’ll end up working on the same puzzles together soon enough.
For example, early on you will both find a machine in a small train station with arrow buttons and a grid with a train engine on it. Fiddling with the buttons shows you can move the engine around the grid. With the help of some notes, it quickly becomes apparent that you need to determine the precise movements in order to summon a real train to the station. (In this particular instance, both players see the same puzzle on their screens, although most challenges are different.) In any event, this immediate focus on puzzles pushes all else to the background to such an extent that my friend was uncertain what the actual story was about when we completed Tick Tock. A little more emphasis on the narrative would not have gone amiss here.
With the old maxim that “two heads are better than one,” I was expecting the difficulty to ramp up considerably over the course of the game. This was not the case, however, as most of the puzzles remain quite simple. The main challenge comes from each player describing what they see on their respective screens. At one point I had to arrange four different coloured marbles in a specific order. Meanwhile, my friend had a book which I did not, describing rules for marble placement along the lines of one having to be to the left of another, or one not being adjacent to a certain colour. The actual pattern to match was quite simple once we sorted out the directions between us.
All told the game took us just over two hours to complete, and for such a short experience it was disappointing not to have a greater variety of puzzles. There isn’t really any inventory to speak of, although occasionally you get a small item like a key that you need simply to access another location. Many of the tasks here boil down to simple pattern matching: echo out a series of Morse code dots and dashes, move a train according to two halves of a picture that are divided between the two games, arrange compass points in one game that are shown in the other, that sort of thing.
The lack of diversity becomes even more apparent when several puzzles are repeated in a short time period. For instance, both players have to get into the Ravn’s Clocks building no less than three times, each involving the exact same puzzle. On another occasion I had to open a mailbox in the town’s post office with a specific combination, and then later in the game my friend was presented with the same challenge but with a different combination. Then there are the old fashioned radios that, when tuned to a particular station, deliver half a radio broadcast to one player and half to the other, which is again repeated a couple of times throughout. Granted, as both sides can be thought of as independent games, the developers had to double the implementation effort of a single player experience, but even so a greater selection and more challenging obstacles would have been appreciated.
One puzzle in particular does deserve a call out. At one point both players are presented with a machine that has an array of nine buttons with pictographs on them, along with a sort of television display. When the “On” buttons are pressed, one player’s machine displays a visual hint for one of the pictograph buttons while the other player’s does not. When the player with the hint figures out which button to press, they must relay that to the other partner. Both players press the correct button and then the second player is presented with a new visual hint. Sounds simple enough, except that the puzzle is timed. If the pattern of alternating hints and buttons isn’t deciphered fast enough then both machines shut off and the whole sequence has to be started again. My friend and I didn’t have much trouble and really enjoyed this particular challenge. However, the time limit allotted is not generous and those who struggle with timed scenarios may well face difficulties here. On the plus side, the button pattern does not change each time the machines are turned on, so with some effort it would certainly be possible to write down the necessary sequence so that both players can anticipate them in advance.
Tick Tock’s visuals have a semi-realistic hand-painted look. Generally speaking, background elements like the walls inside houses and even the forest encircling the little town don’t have a huge amount of detail. Conversely, any items that are parts of puzzles tend to be more detailed, which helps make it more apparent what you should focus on. Aside from the outdoor hub, most scenes are interiors and tend to be close-up views of puzzle equipment, such as the various mechanisms or pages of notes that can be found.
As with the puzzles, the range of locations could be better. This is a time traveling game and part of the thrill is seeing how places change across the different time periods. The town’s well from early on becomes the post office later, while the train depot becomes more rundown. Even so, you are limited to the same four locations in each time zone, although the contents of the interiors you visit are different depending on whether you’re Player 1 or Player 2. Here again the lack of different locales is perhaps understandable from a development perspective, but the repetition causes the novelty to quickly wear off.
Audio in Tick Tock is kept to a minimum. There’s no music to speak of and only a few sound effects when using the various mechanical contraptions or opening and closing doors. Even though there are radios to be tuned and old phone systems to be listened to, there are no voices in the game. Anything that might be voiced is instead presented as text that bubbles and floats up onto the screen. This lack of sound is actually quite wise. As you and your friend will be spending the entire game talking back and forth to describe what you’re seeing, not having extraneous background noise is a blessing.
Control-wise the game is basic point-and-click for the most part. However, a few buildings present scenes that are larger than can be fit on one screen, such as when finding ladders leading up or down in various places. In these cases you will have to drag the scene around to see everything available. Usually the layouts of these locations are enough to hint that there’s more than is presently displayed, and you do have your partner to help spot these areas as well.
All told, Tick Tock: A Tale for Two is an interesting experiment in dual player adventure gaming. There’s a lot of promise in the underlying idea of having both players see different things and having to communicate in order to progress. This idea is the game’s greatest strength and it definitely made for an enjoyable two hours with my friend as we worked through the scenarios presented. But at the end, both of us walked away with a sense that it just fell short of its potential: puzzles are a little too simplistic and lacking in variety, the story doesn’t quite come together in a compelling way, and the repetitiveness of locales is a little too apparent. As a first try, then, it’s a limited success but with excellent lessons to be learned that could surely take the format to the next level in future. For now, this is best appreciated by those who are good communicators and looking to try something a little bit different from the norm, so long as you have a friend willing to share in the experience.