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Welcome to the future.
This is the day — October 21, 2015 — that Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled to in Back to the Future Part II, and the series is still incredibly relevant to gaming. Telltale has released an updated version of its episodic adventure game based on the franchise, Lego Dimensions has a whole set themed to the movies, and you can even buy a Delorean in soccer-meets-cars game Rocket League.
GamesBeat talked with Bob Gale, who co-wrote the series along with director Robert Zemeckis. He also worked on the Telltale games. We discussed Back to the Future’s enduring legacy, how he created a futuristic 2015, and why those early Back to the Future games were so bad.
GamesBeat: One of the big features of this new version of the Telltale game is that Tom Wilson, who plays Biff Tannen, is back to do audio for it. How were you able to get him to come back? Why wasn’t he in it originally?
Gale: I know we approached him originally. Tom is — I think it depends on what day you ask him. Of course he was paid, like everybody was paid, to do this stuff. I don’t really know why he said no the first time and now he’s saying yes. I haven’t talked to him about it. Tom is very private about what he does regarding Back to the Future. He kind of turned it all off around 2002. Every once in a while, he surprises us and does something. When the guys at Telltale told me that Tom was coming back to re-record this stuff, I was as astonished as you.
GamesBeat: How do you write a game sequel to a movie like this? Is it more about creating new ideas or revisiting things from the movie?
Gale: One of the reasons Telltale was the perfect fit to do that game is that they’re really character-focused. People ask me all the time about the longevity of Back to the Future, why people still like it. One reason is that the characters are well-drawn, performed by the greatest cast you could imagine interpreting those characters. Telltale’s approach is character comes first.
I remember in the very first meeting I had with Telltale, they were presenting me with some ideas their characters came up with. They had the game starting off in the year 2011, which was the present day when the game would come out, involving Marty’s kids. I said, no, no. People want to revisit the characters they loved in the movies. That means we have to set the game in a close-enough time period to the movies where Marty McFly is still the Marty we all know and love. That piece of guidance — I started talking about some of the ideas Bob Zemeckis and I had kicked around for the sequel, one of which was to go back to the childhood of Emmet Brown. That was the big idea that resonated and made the most sense. We’ve seen the youths of Marty’s parents. Let’s see the youth of Emmet Brown. And it took off from there.
I’m no stranger to video games. I’ve played them since Pong was in the arcades. I bought an Atari 2600. I’ve been playing games since then. I was as aggravated as everyone else back in the 8-bit days at those really godawful Nintendo Back to the Future cartridges that came out. I presume you’ve seen the YouTube video of the Angry Nintendo Nerd. It’s great. Everything he says is absolutely correct. I actually publicly did some press telling people not to buy it. It was so crappy.
So the idea that Telltale was coming from the exact right place — saying, OK, we want this to feel like Back to the Future, we want this to be true to the spirit of the movies — those guys were great. They came up with a lot of great ideas. Some people complained about the game, saying it was too easy, but it’s not an intensive, Grand Theft Auto kind of game, or Call of Duty, or any of those really intense types of games. That’s not what it’s supposed to be. There’s enough gaming in it; the puzzles are challenging enough. But it still has to be Back to the Future. Telltale’s approach is to tell tales, like I say, and get involved with the characters.
GamesBeat: You have this history of being involved with these movie-to-game adaptations. It sounds like back in the day, you didn’t have much of a say in what was going on.
Gale: Back then, they came out with the first game, which was absolute godawful. That was LJN Toys. Universal owned stock in them. When I heard about it, I said, hey, I’m a gamer, I’m playing all the cartridges out here, I know my ass from a hole in the ground about this stuff. When they said LJN, I said, what are you talking about, LJN? They’ve never made a good game. We should be talking to Konami or Sega or somebody who knows how to make a video game. They said, well, no, Universal has a deal with LJN. We own part of the company. Oh, all right, that’s why we’re doing this. That’s another reason why the game was crap.
Then they did the sequel games and signed on with Acclaim. I’m thinking, OK, maybe this will be better. I said, let me talk to these people. The attitude was, you’re from Hollywood. You don’t know anything about video games. We know what we’re doing. What they ended up doing was subcontracting this game out to some company in New Zealand that had some platforming game that they hadn’t been able to figure out. They added some Back to the Future graphics to it and said this is Back to the Future. I’m looking at it and saying, this isn’t Back to the Future. Why is Marty McFly jumping up to grab cherries? What does that have to do with the movie? They had one or two time-travel ideas in it, but the game wasn’t all that much better than the first time around. I was relieved to have the Telltale guys all be big fans of the movie, and they wanted to get it right.
GamesBeat: I remember renting Back to the Future III for the Genesis. I could never get past the first level, which was Doc Brown on the horse. I just kept dying.
Gale: That game was so ridiculously hard. The history of movies-turned-into video games is a pretty tragic one, I’ve got to say. It was always more about getting the game out to time it with the release of the movie than doing a good game. I remember a guy from the game industry, years later, he told me about a saying they had in the game business. He said, a game that’s late is only late until the day it ships. A game that’s crap is crap forever.
GamesBeat: I think that might be Shigeru Miyamoto, the Mario guy, who said that.
Gale: It could be. That sounds like something he would have said.
GamesBeat: Do you think there are more opportunities for Back to the Future games with Telltale?
Gale: We’ve told them, if you guys want to do another one, let’s talk about that. But I think they’re having such great success with the Walking Dead series they’ve been doing, everyone is focused on that. Like everything else, the hard part is getting the right guys to do it. I know Dennis Leonard, who directed a couple of the episodes, he’s booked from now until probably 2018 with game assignments, because he’s so damn good at what he does. Everyone wants him. It’s important to get the right guys. It makes a huge difference.
GamesBeat: How did you decide on what kinds of special features and interviews to include with the new version of the game?
Gale: That was all Telltale’s call. They said, this is what we wanted to do. I trust those guys. OK, you want to do this, great.
GamesBeat: We’re seeing Back to the Future creeping into other games, like Lego Dimensions.
Gale: Yeah! Isn’t that cool? It’s so great, what those guys have done. So much fun, so entertaining. It doesn’t matter whether you’re any good at it or not. You’re just laughing so hard at all the gags, the fact that all these guys behind it — they’re so funny and so talented. They get it. I remember sitting down with these guys and having them show me the demo. I was just laughing my head off, how they got it right. They had all these little things that really showed they appreciated Back to the Future. They wanted to be true to our IP. They wanted to be true to everybody’s IP. Doc Brown meets Batman. Who would have thought you could do that?
GamesBeat: We also have stuff like the Delorean in Rocket League and LittleBigPlanet. Do you expect to see more of those kinds of crossovers going forward?
Gale: I hope so. I remember seeing the bootleg mod in Grand Theft Auto with the Delorean. I laughed my head off at that one.
GamesBeat: When you were originally helping create the world of 2015 for Back to the Future Part II, were you trying to create a real version of what the future might look like, or were you mainly trying to come up with good gags?
Gale: The second one. Zemeckis and I sat down and said, nobody can predict the future correctly. You know going in that you’re going to get it wrong. Knowing that we’re going to get it wrong, what does that mean? Well, let’s have fun with it. Our starting point for what we were going to do and depict in the future, of course, was the first movie. What do people want to see in a sequel? They want to see the characters and stuff from the first movie in a new way. We looked at the first movie and said, OK we have two dinner table scenes. We have to have a dinner table scene in 2015. That made us think, what’s the stuff, what’s the technology we’re going to show at the dinner table of the future? Let’s have the rehydrator, the home fruit garden. In both dinner table scenes they’re watching television at the table. So how are they gonna watch television? Let’s give them these glasses, which turn out to be a whole lot like Google Glass. We knew big-screen, flat-screen TVs were on the drawing boards. That sounded like a technology that might exist by 2015, so we did that. They’d been predicting video phones since the 1964 New York World’s Fair, so OK, let’s combine that technology with giant flat-screen TVs. That turned out to be very prescient. We got really close with that one.
We had the scenery channel, kind of a version of a screen saver. What do you get for a screen saver on your new computer system? They just put scenery stuff in there. That’s become the default screen savers, if you don’t change them. I don’t know if they got that from our movie, or if it was just something anybody would think of, but they did it. There you go. Then we talked about, well, what are the other iconic scenes? Marty wanders around the town square when he first arrives. We’ve gotta do a riff on that. He looks to see what’s playing at the movies. So we gotta do a riff on that. What’s playing? Jaws XIX Holomax. What’s Holomax? It’s 3D Imax. We got that right. We don’t have Jaws sequels up to XIX, but we’ve got Sharknado one, two, and three. People still want to see sharks eating people. That’s sorta right. We had the café scene in the first movie — “Hey, McFly” — so we know we have to do that. What’s the café going to be like? We’ll have video waiters instead of waiters. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re not going to have waiters in the next five years.
GamesBeat: I was just in San Francisco ordering at McDonald’s on a touchscreen, so we’re getting there.
Gale: Yeah, exactly. One prediction we were 99 percent sure we’d get right was that in 2015, people would be nostalgic about the 1980s. We made it into this Café 80s, so we could have good time looking at the ’80s through the prism of 30 years. If you look real closely at some of the TV shows that are playing in the Café 80s, there’s an episode of Taxi with Christopher Lloyd and an episode of Family Ties with Michael J. Fox. And, of course, the hoverboards. A new version of the skateboard chase. What would the skateboard of 30 years in the future be like? Now people are out there working on that, too.
GamesBeat: It’s like the rush to invent them comes from how cool that looked in Back to the Future II.
Gale: It’s not a new story. Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, always said that when he was a kid, he read Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. That fired up his imagination. What if you could actually send a rocket to the moon? It wasn’t a rocket exactly in what Jules Verne wrote, but that sparked his interest in rocketry.
GamesBeat: It’s always fascinating how fiction inspires science and technology through the years. Even when we’re having fun with things like Back to the Future, that can have an impact. Is that something you thought about at all when you were writing this? What are people going to think about this in 2015? Or was it so far ahead at that point that it never even entered your mind?
Gale: No, no. We always thought it would be fun, in 2015, to get together and watch the movie again and see what we got right and see how widely we missed some things. Flying cars, for example. We didn’t really think we’d have flying cars today. But we promised it in part one, so we had to deliver flying cars. I think people have enough trouble driving in two dimensions still. It’s probably a blessing that we can’t drive around in three.
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