Editorial: How to save adventure games
Not every adventure is a murder mystery of course, but the same principle applies across the board. Very few genres would benefit as much from outright pinching from the past in the name of interesting new stories. Combine some of those original innovations with modern technology and new thinking as time permits, and things could really explode. Case in point, Heavy Rain on the PlayStation 3. It’s not a game I personally like very much – a badly plotted, hammy and frankly pretty misogynistic adventure that would struggle to be taken seriously as a straight-to-video movie – but it’s an example of a big budget adventure game that had the guts to stand behind what it wanted to be, and persuade the world to take notice. Stripped of the stigma attached to the genre, when it was presented in a new way, as a hot new experience instead of yet another old-fashioned game, people bought in. There’s no reason that can’t happen on the PC. We're even seeing it now. Look at the success of Penumbra amongst people who don't necessarily count themselves as adventure gamers, or Amnesia. Look at the success Telltale's had with the right licenses and decent writing, even with its hyper-conservative designs.
It’s not all about big cheques and high technology, either. Modern adventures simply need to start thinking a bit differently... and two areas in particular are long overdue a good shake-up. First and foremost, puzzles need to be largely retired in favour of problems. What’s the difference? With a puzzle, the challenge is working out how the designer wants you to solve it. A problem is something that you solve on your own. A problem can have consequences, and ones that are all the more effective because they were your solution.
A basic example might be that you’re in a crime scene, and there’s a locked door. You can either find the key and unlock it, or kick the door down like Ben, and risk getting into trouble for it later. A puzzle might be to find the five clues scattered around the room before your partner lets you leave. The problem equivalent might be triggering an alarm, and having to decide when to cut your losses, possibly risking drawing the wrong conclusion. Or finding a place to hide from the cops when they show up to investigate. Even if a game later sets you right, the simple illusion of player choice is an incredibly powerful thing. Ask Deus Ex. On a simpler level, ask Hitman: Blood Money, with its one-act play approach to level design.
Face to face off
The second key factor? Characters. Adventure games are the genre of story and narrative, and story is invariably about people. Play Alpha Protocol. The action may be weak, but the complex interweaving of characters and subplots, constant callbacks to what you’ve done, and scope for unlocking information, should be stolen at once – or sooner – and repeatedly. Adventures can use that level of branching, that level of flow, that level of player choice and callbacks, and use them in incredible ways – from the classic ‘watch the face to see if a character is lying’, to maintaining pace in a conversation instead of suffering the usual stop-start timing of dialogue trees. It's how conversation should be done.
On a wider level, it’s characters who really give consequence to player actions, who build a connection to the game world, and who make saving the day feel worth it. They’re the heart of adventures, and what sticks with us long after the puzzles are solved. Why not steal some ideas from RPGs? They’ve stolen plenty from adventure games, and it’s only made them stronger.
Most importantly, adventures are in a position to steal the RPG’s greatest trick of all – to be reborn, and again take their place as a genre full of possibilities that excites fans and new players alike. It’s do-able. It’s within reach. It doesn’t even have to be too hard – at least, not compared to many genres where goals like ‘build a fully functional city’ have to be put on the To-Do list.
For years, adventures were the genre where the most interesting stuff happened. It’s long past time that they stopped sitting pretty in our memories, set out to live up to their own potential, and finally... actively... decided not to suck. The new puzzle is figuring out how to make the genre cool and innovative again... and sadly that's one solution nobody's going to just find over on GameFAQs.