Back to the Future: The Game (4/5)
In the early years of the 21st century it became clear that nostalgia had reached the point where its own gravity would cause its collapse, resulting in a black hole of childhood reminiscence, film reimaginings of decades old cartoons, and impeccable recreations of popular music culled from the past fifty years. It has gotten to the point where, once you reach this black hole’s event horizon, there is no possibility of escape. You are doomed to spend your remaining years looking backwards at your formative years.
I’ll admit to being more than a little anxious about the awesome power of nostalgia’s gravitational pull. But I’ll let you in on a secret. It’s not because I never want to return to my childhood. No, it’s because, like anyone living in the new millennium, I too feel a pull towards reliving old cartoons, movies, and music. In fact, sometimes I’m afraid I love nostalgia too much. As a result, my defenses go up whenever I sense that a product is carefully constructed to send me back on a recollection bender. So it’s a real compliment when I write that Telltale’s Back to the Future: The Game, with its knowing intertextuality and reverence for the original trilogy, easily disarmed me.
While Back to the Future hasn’t embedded itself in the popular culture firmament in the same way as Star Wars and Indiana Jones, there are some of us who hold this series in just as high regard. In other words, the bar was set pretty high for Telltale Games. The developers smartly decided to push up the narrative a year after Marty and Doc have returned from the Old West. So instead of our two adventurers attempting to get back to 1985, they’re trying to return to 1986. This also means that Back to the Future: The Game is likely the closest we will ever get to Back to the Future Part IV.
If the movie trilogy was mostly about saving Marty’s past, present, and future, the game revolves around young Emmet “Doc” Brown and his struggles deciding between his love of science and his father’s plans for him to go into law. The story begins in 1986. Doc has gone missing and his house is being put up for sale. You begin as Marty looking through all of Doc’s byzantine collection of gadgets, which also serves as a walk through memory lane, from a wall filled with clocks to an oversized guitar amp. Thanks to the Delorean’s retrieval system, Marty is able to, eventually, find where in time Doc has been stranded, and it happens to be prohibition era Hill Valley, 1931.
Upon making his way to 1931, Marty discovers that Doc, under the pseudonym Carl Sagan, has been framed for burning down the local speakeasy. Your job, then, is to break him out of jail before he is gunned down by the local gang (lead of course by a Tannen), but to do so you must convince young Emmett Brown to stray from his duties as his father’s law clerk so that he can invent a drill that will help Marty with his jail break. Of course, even after you save Doc and make your way back to 1986, you soon notice that the time line is out of whack. Over the course of five episodes, you pong back and forth between past and present attempting to reset Hill Valley to semi-normal.
The single shifting variable happens to be Hill Valley’s local teetotaler, Edna Strickland. While making certain that Kid Tannen (local bootlegger and father of Biff Tannen) gets nabbed by the coppers, Marty inadvertently sets up Strickland with the young Emmett Brown. The pairing of a science obsessed Emmett and a control freak Edna reverberates through the timeline and transforms Hill Valley into a police state. Your goal then becomes to dissolve Brown and Strickland’s relationship back in 1931. This may in fact be the only game where you must prevent a totalitarian police state by serving as a cock block.
The fact that, as Marty, you must break off Doc’s relationship in order to win the game only further emphasizes what is perhaps the mono-theme of major blockbusters: male bonding. I’m not suggesting that Marty and Doc are up to any funny business behind the scenes. But I am suggesting that, despite a love interest here and there, the Back to the Future movies were chiefly about homosocial relationships. Aside from Oedipal anxiety, the first film revolved mostly around the relationship between Marty and the 1955 version of his dad. In the second film, Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, is allowed to hitch a ride to the future, only to be quickly sidelined. The central dilemma of the final film is Doc’s decision to either stay with Clara in the past or to return with Marty to the future, and his final decision, to stay in the past (albeit, briefly), was arguably made by the screenwriters in order to reassert his heterosexuality.
But enough about the old trilogy. The game makers have absolutely nailed the dynamic between the odd pairing of mad scientist and slacker teen that typifies their relationship. You can hear Doc sputter out strings of technobabble and Marty drop 80s appropriate slang. Of course, it helps that they got Christopher Lloyd to reprise his role, and even though Michael J. Fox didn’t come back to voice Marty, the voice actor, A.J. Locascio, does an eerily spot on impression.
There are a number of throwbacks to the original series, but the one that will hit you straight in the medulla oblongata nostalgia center is the original music by Alan Silvestri. The moment the majestic, rising horns sound out the opening notes to the Back to the Future theme, I guarantee you every scene from all three films will come flooding back to you. In addition, there are plenty of allusions that reach back to the film, from reminiscent bits of dialogue to familiar action beats. At times, all of the loving connections to the films threaten to make the game feel like a retread, but since the movies themselves took part in these sorts of call backs, ultimately I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of Robert Zemickis’s creation. Perhaps the only drawback to the game is that, as an adventure game, it is entirely too easy. This might be bad for adventure gamers, but it likely won’t bother those who are unfamiliar with the genre.
I’ll admit that I was originally reluctant to look back at my past. I don’t want to be like one of those old hippies still going on about the time they saw The Grateful Dead back in ’72. There’s too much great art and culture released every year for me to spend too much time on things I loved when I was a child. And yet there’s still value to be found in thinking like a child and of loving something without reserve like a child. I may not want to live in the past, but it sure is a great place to visit now and then.