Tuesday, February 8, 2011


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?


  1.  mod Minecraft with some smart writing (is that possible?)!

  2. You're looking for what they call a "sandbox" game, right? where the environment is open-ended (but where there are contacts and mission objectives for those who want to play a linear narrative). But more than just an objective-based game, a game that would allow you to go off and do your own thing that would be of interest to just yourself (or other players in an MMO team-up).

    Sigh. Open the window and look out. There's a wonderful game called "Real Life" It's expensive ($30 per gas refill, $10 per meal, variable on room rental), but if you achieve a solid objective (a job that pays well) you should be able to play this about 30 more years before you tire of it and try a new game called "Spending Our Grandkids' College Funds on Expensive Euro Cruises".


  3. I got the job, and I got the apartment, and I even got the spouse. Sometimes I even have social events with real people and real alcohol. And real cookies. But there are some things you just can't do in real life, man. ;)

  4. I'm not sure what you're asking for is possible within the adventure genre. There's a big difference between adventures and other types of games. 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. Over the course of the game you learn exceptions to these rules (if the monster is spiky, Mario gets hurt), and adjust your tactics accordingly. But the gameplay is basically figuring out what your verbs can do.

    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 between the two categories I set up here. 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. But I've already gone on way too long.

    edit: haha, ok, disqus does weird stuff to angle brackets.

  5. Some of the "this probably isn't possible" is in part 2. ;) I realize there are definite technical limitations on my "ideal" game. I'm not getting a holodeck anytime soon, either. But I do think there could be some better integrations of the nebulous "adventure game" with some other genres. And many games are trying. Guess I'd better get cracking on the next post, eh?

    And while I appreciate that a true sandbox world is probably impossible, or at least so highly resource-intensive as to be practically impossible... the other half of my complaint is really more of a writing issue, which I think nearly anyone could solve if they really wanted to. But that then gets into issues of, "Who is the target audience here, anyway?" which, yes, is more Part II stuff, but also I think a question that nobody is quite sure how to answer at the moment.