Saturday, April 16, 2011

Meditation on Genre: The Adventure Game

I was trawling for writing ideas the other day, and got delivered a doozy.  Caleb Das asked, "The decline of point-and-click adventure games: Console victim or Hard to do right?"

And as it happens, I'd been chewing on this question for quite a while.  We previously began a discussion about adventure games, and now it's time to continue.

I often wonder if the reason for the decline of games labeled "adventure game" is because none of us knows quite how to define it.  Must it be absent combat?  Can your character die?  Is it straight-up puzzle solving?  Is it environmental puzzle-solving?  Is it a strictly linear narrative?  What about linear gameplay within that narrative?

The classics -- my eternally favored Monkey Island games -- were comedies at heart.  They were Pirates of the Caribbean.  (Seriously.  As Ron Gilbert himself pointed out... when I went to go see Dead Man's Chest in the theater, I thought... I've been here before.)  A comedic pirate story: great!  The gameplay, great fun though the SCUMM engine was, is almost secondary.  In Day of the Tentacle and Loom, my other classic favorites, the mode of gameplay does walk hand in hand with the story being told.  The use of switching protagonists / time eras in DoTT and the use of the staff (in all its senses) in Loom connects you to the actions taking place.

On the other hand, there's the type of adventure game like The Longest Journey.  When you're travelling the worlds with April Ryan, it's her story and you're just watching the live enaction of her telling it.  (We are indeed the audience clustered at Lady Alvane's feet in the prologue.)  You're helping along the way the way a child "helps" daddy tell the bedtime story with appropriate animal sounds, voices, and the occasional chomping jaw -- only with us, it's helping put Crow in a high place, or helping April pick up the weed that will let her breathe under water.

In the last post, commenter Line brought us down to Earth with a programmer's point of view on the matter:

 All games are pretty much made up of verbs and objects: actions the avatar can perform and things in the environment that will respond to those actions. Most types of game designs are verb-centric. Learning how to play the game means learning what your available actions are and what effect they have on broad types of objects. E.g., Mario can jump; if he jumps on a monster that monster dies; and so on. ...
The distinctive thing about adventures is that they're object-centric. The most common action in adventures is "use [object]" or "use [object] on [other object]." "Use" is an ambiguous verb. What defines the action is the object, and every object in the world has totally unique properties. You can't learn what actions your avatar is capable of, because those actions are context-dependent. The gameplay is figuring out what can be done to objects in the environment.

I think that games like this might be incompatible with sandbox gameplay because, by nature, this style takes control away from the avatar. In a game like Fallout, the ability to reach a goal by multiple paths comes for free, in a sense. Every enemy in the game can be shot, punched, set on fire, disarmed, lured into a land mine, sneaked past, pickpocketed, or avoided entirely. This works because "enemy" is a broad class of objects, and all these generic verbs always have the same effect on that class. But if you want multiple strategies for a puzzle in an adventure game, the designer has to hard-code them. Each object is unique, so each path has to be constructed from scratch. Which means solving a puzzle always means figuring out what the designer was thinking.

Of course, there's a lot of gray area ... . Lots of verb-centric games have object-centric puzzles in them. It's interesting, though, that the reverse is rarely true. Adventure games that do give some generic verbs to the avatar are almost always horrible experiences - you ever play the original Alone in the Dark? Still, it may not be impossible. The Penumbra games, with their traditional and physics-based puzzles, might point towards a way of fusing the two styles.

It's a long comment, even edited for length.  But it got me thinking.  The original LucasArts games did, in fact, give you nine verbs (plus "walk to"): give, pick up, use, open, close, look at, talk to, push, pull.  And they are widely regarded as not "horrible experiences," but at the exemplars of their time.  Many other games of the early and mid 1990s worked the same way.

And then of course there's the other type of interactive adventure, the environmental one.  In the Myst games, although what Atrus badly and repeatedly needs is an engineer or electrician, he gets you.  And over and over, you fix worlds and make things work without actually knowing a single verb, or carrying a single inventory item (with the occasional exception of a book page).

The modern heir of the classic point-and-click adventure is in many ways even more minimalist: it shows up on the Nintendo DS and on mobile gaming platforms (iOS and Droid).  This is where you have your Phoenix Wright titles or Hotel Dusk.  It's also where you find heavy play of the "standard" point-and-click adventures -- the LucasArts special editions and the new titles by Telltale.

The best elements of many genres come together these days, which is great.  The FPS (or hack-and-slash), the RPG, the platformer, the stealther, the adventure game -- many of the best elements of many of the medium's early genre definitions have met, mixed, and melded into the second wave of genre labels.  Something like an Uncharted (2) succeeds because of its mixture of elements that, 20 years ago, would have been in disparate games.

This really leads me to questioning genre overall.  We need genre, in a sense, but it also harms us.  On the one hand, genre teaches us what to expect, and it's a handy shorthand, particularly in marketing.  How does it look?  Do we see males or females?  Humans or non-humans?  Lush environments or 2D stick figures?  Even just the briefest glance of gameplay gives us something to go on.

But genre boxes us in: it teaches us NOT to expect, as well.  If our game-that-looked-like-an-adventure game has too many FPS elements, we're not happy.  If our game-that-looked-like-an-FPS doesn't have enough shooting, and has too much thinking and solving, we're not happy.

Gaming is now in the exact same bind that we already have with older media -- books, movies, and TV.  Where do you put 1984The Handmaid's TaleAmerican Gods?  You can make a plausible case for all three of those to go in sci-fi.  You can also make a plausible case for none of them to go in sci-fi.

As a culture we're starting, slowly, to move past single-label categorization.  GMail is my favorite tool ever because the e-mail is sorted by tags, not by folders.  Blog posts are sorted by tags.  And an e-store -- Amazon etc -- can sort products by tags, letting us all find our own ways.

I wish we were better about applying genre like tags.  "Dramedy" is clunky, but if your show is tagged "funny" and "drama" you can figure it out yourself.

So instead of filing a whole bunch of disparate games under genre labels that don't fit, we should let all the labels apply.  Uncharted, is, thus, platformer and gun combat and HD environments and smart ass hero and adventures in archaeology and environmental puzzler.

Me, I like solving mysteries and organic riddles (as opposed to the Professor Layton kind of riddles).  So if we could just make a tag-genre for that, I'd be happy.


  1. Bait taken! The LucasArts verbs were used well, sure. But maybe what I'm getting at is more like the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, to put it in grammar terms. Take the combat in Alone in the Dark. You can stand in the middle of an empty room and fire your shotgun anytime you want. There doesn't need to be a monster there. So "shoot" can be an intransitive verb, not necessarily requiring an object. But you can't stand Guybrush in the middle of an empty room and "open" nothing. That verb has to be transitive. And of course, there's lots of things you can try to open that will only get you a snarky message from the game engine. So verbs are only made meaningful in relation to specific objects.

    I think this is why the history of adventure games is one of gradually shedding verbs. From the original text adventures (in which the verb set was "anything in the dictionary"), to the LucasArts set, to the set used in The Longest Journey and such (look, take, use, talk), to modern adventures in which the only verb left is "click." You can go from every verb to no verbs and still have pretty similar gameplay. This wouldn't be possible unless most of the action was contained in the objects.

    As for the broader point about not building walls between genres, I totally agree. That kind of thing blocks creativity and sucks. But examining differences between genres doesn't mean you have to build a wall. And I think it's a decent way to examine how different games express themselves.

    (And yeah, I can't write anything that ain't a dang dissertation. WHOOPS.)

  2. I was going to comment on this last night, but my thoughts didn't feel fully formed, so I slept on it, and I think I've got a good idea, or at least a good framework of an idea, of how to approach this question, if I can moderately expand the scope.

    I think "adventure" is in reality more of a property of any particular game's gameplay than a type of game. Games either have a lot or a little of it. The basic idea would be a scale from 0-10 rating how much a game is an adventure in the same sense that a cross country car trip is an adventure. It has a start and an end-point, and stuff happens in between.

    The other scales, in this system my head cooked up a few hours ago, would be action (a measure of how much real-time action is involved), rpg elements (a bad label for relative complexity and importance of statistical models in gameplay), and simulation (necessary for things like Solitaire, where you're trying to replicate the results of a real-world activity, or something like Football Manager).

    So, to take some examples at semi-random from games I have at hand, and apply rankings without sufficient thought (since I don't want to spend all day writing this comment):

    Fallout: New Vegas
    Adventure: 8
    Action: 8
    RPG Elements: 8
    Simulation: 5

    Adventure: 0
    Action: 0
    RPG Elements: 0
    Simulation: 10

    Sam & Max: Season 1
    Adventure: 10
    Action: 1
    RPG Elements: 0
    Simulation: 0

    Warriors Orochi 2 (hey, mindlessly beating the hell out of millions of digital dudes is fun sometimes)
    Adventure: 2
    Action: 10
    RPG Elements: 3
    Simulation: 0

    Adventure: 5
    Action: 7
    RPG Elements: 0
    Simulation: 5

    Final Fantasy XIII
    Adventure: 8
    Action: 5
    RPG Elements: 7
    Simulation: 0

    Then on top of this you can put a "tag layer" for things like "comedy," "drama," "lolcats," etc.