Adventure Games: The Terrible Melancholy

When you are up for adventuring, you might be leaning to think about role-playing games RPGs where you assume a role, fight monsters and reach a final boss. However, that is not what adventure games are about. Adventure games are an interactive story where you have to unlock various puzzles, talk to people, interact with objects in order to reach a goal and advance the story. Notorious companies such as Sierra, Lucas Arts, Cyan Worlds have given life to an approach quite different to RPGs where you have no combat and hence no personal development but are meant to use your intellect at every step in order to solve a problem and move forward in the game.

Adventure games have evolved along the way from what they used to be – for example, consider the classic “adventure” text-only UNIX command, into content-rich and narrative-rich games. Your only task still remains to pave through the mystery, solve whatever comes your way and complete the big picture. One great example of an adventure game is the entire series produced by Benoît Sokal with Syberia and Amerzone. You also might have heard about Myst and the sequel Riven that are also notoriously well-known albeit leaning towards puzzle solving more than problem solving. Many are to mention, including the Broken Sword series – all of them rich and gorgeous to play and sit through the story.

I personally got involved with retro gaming in order to have access to some adventure game titles that were popular at some point but I never managed to play them – either due to other commitments or they simply passed unnoticed. For example the Sierra games: Police Quest, Space Quest, Kings Quest and Leisure Suit Larry which were all extremely popular when they were published and you definitely could not have called yourself a gamer without having at least seen or attempted them.

Unfortunately, many of these retro-adventures were not really as good as they were advertised and more of a hype in the past than anything else. So, what makes a good adventure game? Here is a list of things I have compiled that I always use to evaluate an adventure game:

  • The game should not let you progress if did not pick-up an item that will be needed in the future and you will not be able to return. All of the Sierra games do not have this feature and in very many of them you find yourself at a scene, lacking an object you should have picked-up earlier and you will not be able to progress. In fact, the only way around it is to restart the entire game or, if you know what you missed, you could try restoring a game. Nevertheless, getting stuck due to an item from a bunch of scenes ago is not something that makes the adventure game good, difficult or sensible. It is just a mark of vain design where you are deluded enough to think that you are adding difficulty. You are not…
  • You should not be able to permanently die. Dying is completely pointless in an adventure game. An adventure game does not rely on combat or stats such that dying would only lead you to restore a previously saved game and then you continue. It adds no difficulty whatsoever. All the Sierra adventure games have very silly moments where you either fall off a ledge, type something silly and then explode, etc… In the end, you just restore the game (if you have remembered to save) and carry on. There is really no need for this and the only difficulty that it adds to an adventure game is the difficulty of remembering that you “should save often”.
  • The game should not over-inflate the playing time artificially by adding complex side-puzzles that only marginally pertain to the entire plot. Now this is a tricky one to explain if you have not played Legend of Kyrandia. In Legend of Kyrandia, at one point you are supposed to guess your birthstone sequence. Spread out on a bunch of different screens which are a pain (in terms of time) to get to, random stones are spawned that you have to pick up. On an altar, you have to sacrifice stones in a correct order (randomly generated every time you play the game) in order to progress with the story. As mentioned previously, this is not an intellectual challenge. In fact, it is very simple to calculate mathematically the number of permutations you have to try before you succeed (no, there are no secret clues on what the order should be – it’s all random!). Needless to say that there are excruciatingly many permutations and that you can get stuck at this point forever – given of course, that you even have figured out all the above and even know what you are supposed to do. This is a great example how a puzzle is just annoying, intellectually unchallenging and needlessly repetitive. It adds absolutely nothing to the game!
  • The interpreter should allow some leniency and be considerate of its own limitations. As an example, we can take Leisure Suit Larry 2 or Space Quest 2 – two distinct points in the adventure where if you do not type in exactly what the interpreter expects you to type, you do not move forward. In Leisure Suit Larry 2, near the ending you have to build a molotov and throw it into a volcano. Any sensible input leads to rubbish output from the interpreter. You have to type in an exact phrase or Larry just will not do it – not only will he not do it, but the interpreter will throw misleading information at you telling you that you are not supposed to do what you are trying to do – yet you are! In Space Quest 2, you find yourself in a conveyor belt – it is a very typical movie scene where, obviously, you have to jump off the conveyor belt or be thrown down a pit. Due to the very poor design, trying sensible input such as “jump off belt”, “roll off belt”, etc… Will not work. Not only that, but the interpreter will tell you that “you cannot do that now” which is misleading because getting off the conveyor belt is exactly what you are supposed to do. Guess what? You first have to type “stand” and then jump off! Because rolling off the belt seated is just not good enough…
  • Do not include time-based events. Many of the classic adventure games (notably Kings Quest, or Corruption by Magnetic Scrolls) have certain events that occur only once at some point in time and if you are not at that scene at that time, you guessed it, you will have to restart. This is just frustrating and confusing and no sensible player of yours is going to brute force their way around to check at what time in the game some scene changes – especially if you do not hint to that change well enough. Corruption by Magnetic Scrolls is almost made unplayable due to the time dependency. If you are even off by a few minutes, you die… It is a frustrating feature that should be left out. After all, “time” in computing is not measured in “seconds”…
  • Make sure that your players get enough hints to know what they are supposed to do. No matter how far your ability to create stunning graphics stretches, nobody wants to be stuck, blundering around the levels and having absolutely no clue what they are supposed to do next. It is not a difficulty, it is rather poor story-telling because your player either does not have a goal or does not see a point in your story. Myst is a terrible example thereof where you start by randomly pulling levers, punching buttons and hoping to get enough feedback so your brain makes a connection. Needless to say that we have come a far way since our days in trees eating bananas and that we really would like some sort of story (as in, why am I doing this?) instead of some sort of primate feedback-response test. I am happy I managed to complete Myst on my own with no walkthrough but even so I realise that it is a very bad puzzle game. They really could have thrown you a few story bones to keep you interested. I completely walkthrough-ed the #$*% out of Riven though… Terrible. Really terrible. Beautiful but terrible…

I think that it is very important to be conscious of what you are designing: an adventure is like a book that you not only read but also interact with. It should be challenging when you have to connect the dots, use your intellect and piece the clues together but it should not be a constant fight with the interpreter to make sure you do not fall off a ledge – you like games where the difficulty is reaction time? Cool, play some Jump and Run…

It makes one wonder how many people claiming they have finished an adventure game have actually played the game back-to-back without using a walkthrough and, at least in my view, that would be nobody. That goes for sure for most of the Sierra games, Lucas Arts, etc…

There are some very nice counter-examples – I actually managed to finish Simon the Sorcerer by myself because it was well hinted, the story was well-paced, I knew where I was and what I am supposed to do, etc… The fun was both in solving the puzzles, connecting the story line with the items I had and reaching the gorgeous ending. Most of Benoît Sokal’s work is pure art – both in graphics and in story telling. There are many more examples that have been left out but I think that for the most part I have described and argumented my selection criteria on what a “good” adventure game is like and what you should not do when you design one.

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