Editorial: How to save adventure games

Richard Cobbett

How to save Adventure Caroo

This feature originally ran in PC Gamer UK issue 225.

Adventure games suck. Sorry, but it's true. This isn't a lunk-headed action fan telling you this, nor a snotty RPG fan who wants to solve every problem with a sword. No. This is coming to you from a guy who considers beating every Sierra and LucasArts game ever made to be an amateur claim. If it exists, I've likely played it, or at least know of it. Broken Sword? Zork? The Last Express? Kingdom O'Magic? Les Manley? I've finished great adventures and rubbish adventures, and make no mistake, adventures are my favourite genre of all time. They're what got me into gaming, the genre I'm most nostalgic about, and one still bursting with incredible untapped potential even today. Even so, today, they suck.

And that's something that can change. That's why I get cross. Adventure games deserve to be great once again. The catch is, they have to earn it, and almost none of them are even trying.

Go north. Look.

Adventures have been a backward looking genre for so long, people have forgotten they used to be one of the most forward thinking. Design, technology, ambition... they had it all. The original King's Quest was a showpiece for IBM's PCjr home computer. 'Talkie' adventures, the first to bring full speech to games, were one of the main draws for CD-ROM technology back when it was an expensive upgrade to traditional floppy disks. Adventures were the first genre to make good use of 256 colour graphics, and later, high resolution. They tested the water for video, and animation, and rendered 3D, as seen in The 7th Guest and Myst. And more! If you wanted to show off, you reached for an adventure.

Only with the rise of real-time 3D did they falter. This was primarily because the primitive nature of the technology at the time wasn't up to providing the same visual fidelity and density of interaction that fans now expected. This, combined with an industry push toward more action focused games, usually resulted in action-adventures where lever pulling and hitting things with swords was about as good as it got. That was the fate of the final King's Quest game, Mask of Eternity, while the games that tried to keep the faith buckled under the weight of the technology – two examples being Simon the Sorcerer 3D, which simply stank, and the profoundly underwhelming Gabriel Knight 3, even ignoring That Puzzle.

Adventures don't actually need the latest technology, of course. As with any genre, it doesn't hurt, and such things as facial animation (as seen in Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines) and complex environments (such as those in Hitman: Blood Money, which is at least an honorary adventure, even if you are packing weapons) all help make the experience more immersive. But at heart, the best adventures were great not because of their technology but because of how they used it, and that always started with finding new ideas instead of willingly tying themselves down to What These Games Must Be. There were games that took that approach in the olden days. They were crap. Nobody cared about them. Companies like Sierra and Lucasarts were loved because they did things differently.

Starting point

Befpre we continue, let's head back to the classics, and see just how ambitious some of them were. First though, a quick primer. Adventures are a more complicated genre than you'd think, and an unusual one in many ways – not least because the reason you sign up to play one tends to be completely divorced from what the game actually offers. Play Crysis? You sign up to shoot men with guns and be impressed. That's what it delivers, and the story and reason for doing so is effectively a bonus. Play Gabriel Knight? Chances are it's because you want to poke around New Orleans investigating a cult of voodoo murderers, and hang with a fun character. The puzzles are important, but they're primarily a mechanism to facilitate that experience and make it interactive - the means, not the end. Even back in the day, bad puzzles and moon logic chafed, but they were the price we paid for getting to play in a more convincing sandbox than any other genre was even close to being able to pull off. RPGs? Oh, please...

(Note: There are of course exceptions to this rule, like Puzzle Agent and the Professor Layton games, or going back further, things like Blue Ice and Zork: Grand Inquisitor. Most story based games however treat their puzzles as roadblocks more than anything else, just stopping the action cold until you're done staring in confusion and/or have forced through. Even many of the puzzle based ones are still trying to convey a feeling rather than brainteasers though, from pretending to be a spy in Spycraft to being the world's greatest thief in Traitor's Gate, or a tourist in a boring land during Myst.)

As a result, 'adventure game' used to be more than a set genre. For the best games, it was simply a starting point, they'd take the basic ideas and spin them off in new and interesting directions that made their experiences unique and memorable. It might be something big and grand, like the real-time action of The Last Express. Or an additional element, like Quest for Glory fusing roleplaying stats and character development to the adventure core. Or something seemingly simpler, like The Secret of Monkey Island's Three Trials structure, as stolen by almost every other adventure game ever, to widen the scope of its world and offer multiple challenges at once. More on that in a moment - it's an important piece of history.

The more you dig into the genre, the more utterly brilliant, largely forgotten ideas you find. Conquests of the Longbow, for instance, was one of the first games to make morality work. Playing as Robin Hood, you had to rescue the Lady Marian, raise a ransom for King Richard, foil the Sheriff of Nottingham and more, and often there were a number of ways to deal with situations. If you needed a monk's habit to sneak into the local monastery for instance, you could buy one, or beat one out of a traveller, and the game would generally continue. Only at the end might it come back to bite you, when the king finally returns and you're put on trial to see if you're really the honourable outlaw you claim to be.

Here's another example: A Mind Forever Voyaging. This was a text adventure from Infocom with an amazing premise. One minute, you're Perry Simm, generic everyman. The next, you 'wake up' to find that your whole life has just been a simulation, and that you're really PRISM, the world's most powerful analytical computer, and that your whole life so far has been building a perfect simulation of the real world. Your job is to step forward into simulations of the future to test the viability of the seemingly-benign Plan For Renewed National Purpose. At 10 years into the future, you can see it's working... mostly. At 20 years, cracks are starting to appear. 30 years on, America is a dystopian hell. The challenge of the game is to prove that this will be the case, and discredit the Senator before he can have you deactivated. It's a game with almost no puzzles at all, simply observation, but it's still brilliant.

NEXT PAGE: Play Me A Story

Play me a story

Ultimately, what set the classics apart from the herd was design and writing – not simply the lines that the characters spoke, but the texture of the world itself, how well the puzzles suited both the characters and the situations, and how it all combined into a unique experience. The Three Trials for instance, pioneered by Monkey Island, is still the standard adventure structure today (three unrelated quests, so that you always have something to be doing if you get stuck on one puzzle). Its sequel's Four Map Pieces structure (same thing, on a larger scale) has been used in almost every BioWare RPG since Baldur's Gate 2. It's so common, it's hard to remember that it was once fresh and exciting.

Tim Schafer, who worked on many classic LucasArts adventures, including the Monkey Islands, Day of the Tentacle, and his own masterpiece, Grim Fandango, offered a fantastic example of how games could bend and warp the rules when promoting his rather tougher adventure, Full Throttle. To demonstrate the difference in puzzle style, he explained how his new character, Ben, a good hearted but tough-as-nails biker, would get through a door using only a sandwich, compared with how Bernard, the geeky hero of Day of the Tentacle, would do the same thing. Bernard, he explained, would disassemble that sandwich into pieces, slide a piece of bread under the door, poke the key out with a cocktail stick and retrieve it the old-school way. Ben on the other hand would just eat the sandwich and kick the door down.

With this more hands-on approach to puzzle solving, complete with a more filmic style and a few action sequences, Full Throttle took the adventure genre and crafted its own experience. It used what worked. It threw out what didn't. Where it needed something new, it added the systems and mechanics to make it happen, instead of trying to force them on an existing framework.

Almost all the classics did the same thing, in their own ways. Day of the Tentacle turned puzzle design into an art, with three playable characters on an adventure that wove in and out of three time periods. Police Quest was entirely designed around following authentic police procedure – which was more fun than it sounds. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis offered three completely different paths to the ending, depending on whether you wanted to win with your head, with your fists, or by teaming up.

Even LucasArts' first adventure (or at least, first big one - technically Labyrinth got in there first), Maniac Mansion, was almost impossibly advanced for the time. It had three simultaneously playable characters (chosen out of seven, each with their own skills, and yet the game was solvable with any set), a point-and-click parser, and even a few real-time events, such as the villains responding to the sound of the doorbell ringing. Incredible stuff for 1989. Never seriously ripped off to this day.

With such a lineage to build on, why are modern adventures usually so bland in comparison to the classics? The simple answer is that... really... they're not. Go back to even a classic adventure like Fate of Atlantis and if you don't have your rose-tinted glasses on, you're likely to find it very slow-paced and bland compared to modern games and to the movies. When it came out in 1992, however, such games weren't around. Adventures were the only genre that could offer an experience that cinematic, or which had the mechanics to tell an Indy-style story. It was that, or yet another platform game.

Restore, restart, quit

Since those days, our expectations have changed. We expect more of a flow these days, and for our stories to have pace. Your character standing gormlessly on the screen, while you scan a mouse cursor over every pixel in the attempt to find a single nail that can be used to pick a lock, is the equivalent of a roleplaying game expecting you to map a dungeon with a pen and paper. There's a certain old-school charm in that, perhaps, but we all know our time could be better spent having actual fun.

Adventures remain trapped in the past, not because the genre as a whole has to be, but because they've learned to restrict themselves to ancient design styles that were primarily set down due to limitations of the time, not because they were inviolate principles. Where once the great adventures would say “This is the story we want to tell. How do we make it happen?”, the current approach is to take the standard templates for puzzle design and structure, then beat the plot around them until it bends or snaps. Lots of effort goes into making these modern adventures look nice (and usually incredibly long). Very little usually goes into making them special. Illogical puzzles, such as the Runaway series making you weld a key back together with sunlight or load a Gatling gun with lipstick, aren't merely tolerated, but treated as all part of the fun, instead of – let's be honest – the stupid rubbish they most definitely are.

Whose fault is this? Ours. The fans, who let this kind of stuff pass on a regular basis. When a game as objectively bad as Limbo of the Lost can get a B+ grade on one of the most prominent adventure sites, and A Vampyre Story can get away with simply ending halfway through the story, and the bloody Runaway games are given anything other than a slap to the face, there's a problem. We should be demanding better. Instead, we act like battered housewives every time a new one comes along – cooing over a shiny bit of jewellery that shows He Still Cares and our beloved genre still isn't "dead". What happens? Most of the developers still active keep churning out the exact same crap, spending vast amounts of the budget on fancy graphics (ironically, the thing that most adventure gamers will race to tell you isn't actually important in the first place), and exactly tuppence on ambition, vision and design.

It's a mystery

But what can be done, on a budget, and without breaking the bank? Plenty. Let's look at one specific type of adventure – a murder mystery – and a few classic games with good ideas to steal.

For one of the best, let's go back to 1989, and a Sierra game called The Colonel's Bequest, which had many, many flaws, but an amazing central concept. You had to investigate a series of murders in a creepy plantation, in semi-real time (it advanced as you changed rooms). Whether you were there to see it or not, the plot would advance, to the point that you could 'finish' it by simply wandering around and ignoring the puzzles. The twist was that if you wanted to work out what was going on, you had to solve the mystery. You. Not the main character, amateur sleuth Laura Bow. You personally. If you didn't, you'd crash and burn in the finale, when asked to explain whodunit. See? In one prehistoric game, we have at least five ideas begging to be stolen. A player-solved mystery, which opens up the potential for discussion online as well as simply walkthroughs. The realtime hook, semi-or-otherwise. The observation element. A smallscale, but intricate, setting, rather than the typical 'We have 250 rooms!' non-selling point. And finally, shifting the focus from puzzles to characters (though it does have both), in the tradition of an Agatha Christie, with all the additional backstabbing and scope for red-herrings that they provide.

There. That's five things in one game, just waiting to be stolen.

Not enough? Here are a few ideas that could be added. In Philip Marlowe: Private Eye, you got to raid crime scenes, but had to be careful you didn't take anything that might make the police finger you as the murderer. In The Last Express, you could rewind time if you thought you'd made a mistake, enabling the game to pressure and misdirect you without forcing a complete replay. In Tex Murphy, you got to search rooms in full 3D, including every drawer, under the rugs, and in every nook and cranny. There are plenty of other possibilities, but you get the point. Any one of these ideas would be more interesting than implementing the old newspaper-under-the-door trick yet again. In a world where these things are even possibilities, there's simply no excuse for another sliding block puzzle.

NEXT PAGE: Reinventure

Reinventure

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.

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