Your Critic and her spouse are at an impasse. For the first time since early 2007, we have no idea what our next "us" game should be.
We've played through a huge historical archive together, as he caught up on all the PC games he missed in his Mac-based youth, and as I found myself, for the first time, living in the same household as a PlayStation. But last night, after completing the BBC Doctor Who adventure series from 2010, we sat on the couch and said... "Now what?"
Well, the truth is, I do know what I want. But I'm pretty sure it doesn't exist. I want an adventure game for grown-ups, for 2011. I want a non-combat, thoroughly realized, full-world game, and not a cartoon. I do love me some cartoon games (the entire Ace Attorney series, everything Telltale's put out in the last 3 years) but I want to be in a world that's fully explorable, with an open map, WASD-friendly... thinking and solving.
I suspect The Longest Journey is what gave me this bug, really. It's a brilliant and wonderfully-realized world, just hampered by its decade-old technology. I wish it could give me more. I hated how the Doctor Who games pandered to brainlessness (family-friendly: good, could be solved by a 3-year-old without help: bad) and although I'm really loving how Telltale is handling Back to the Future, as a 30-year-old gamer I'm getting tired of feeling like I'm playing through puzzles and stories that I could have handled in 3rd grade. (If full-color monitors and 3D graphics had, y'know, been a thing when I was in 3rd grade.)
I'm a particular fan of non-linear games with worlds to explore and smart writing. Fallout New Vegas (and 3), Divinity I and II -- those are games where you're rewarded for opening every barrel and looking under every rock. Not with things that necessarily advance your character or help with the storyline, but with things that are fun and that you feel clever for having discovered.
The problem is: adventure game worlds are almost always linear. Even when they're not strictly linear, there's still a modular linearity -- as in the Myst titles. You might have many Ages to explore and solve in the order you see fit, but that's still just rearranging the middle of the flowchart in a way that doesn't much seem to matter. Whereas when I'm running around Broken Valley in Divinity II, I can do pretty much everything there however I like, while working on the story or not, until such time as that area is forced to become unavailable to me. The same applies to the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, or the Mojave Wasteland in Fallout: New Vegas.
I've been unsatisfied with many of the latest Telltale offerings and with the BBC Doctor Who game, feeling that these games aren't relying on my intelligence or abilities. I don't feel a genuine sense of suspense -- I'm not asking for timed events, but I long for a concept of urgency, for a real threat, for an unknown survival element. I'm asking for puzzles with multiple avenues of solution. I'm asking for the illusion of agency, rather than to feel like I'd be better off watching a TV show because at least then I wouldn't know what happened next before I got there.
I feel that the innate drama of the courtroom (even a wacky, WTF courtroom) in Phoenix Wright helps create necessary narrative tension. The Longest Journey had necessary narrative tension due to sharp writing, and you learned to trust that early on. Dreamfall is an entirely problematic game (omgwtf Kian, he had epic character development and apparently some Big Revelations... all off camera? Show, don't tell!) but even it created a great deal of narrative tension -- although it also relied on the sort of artificial puzzle placement and combat moments that games we don't think of as adventure games use.
This post was going to be 2500 words long, so I'll break it up. Coming next: a meditation on genre. But in the meantime... why doesn't this game I need to play exist? And can someone make it for me?