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The Future of Adventure Games

Adventure games “as we know it” are dead. What does that mean? Does that mean “text” adventure games with text input; story, puzzles, no art, no animation, no music, no sound, no spoken dialog? Does that mean “picture book” adventure games with more advanced text input; story, puzzles, no animation, no music, no sound, no spoken dialog? Does that mean “2D worlds with cut screen shots” with icon bar input; story, puzzles, limited animation, limited music, limited sound, no spoken dialog? Does that mean “2D worlds with cut screen shots and limited short ‘cartoons’ or ‘movies’ with icon bar input; story, puzzles, better animation, better music, better sound, limited spoken dialog?” Does that mean “2D worlds with lots more cut screen shots and more short ‘cartoons/movies’ with ‘point and click’ input; better story, easier puzzles, great animation, great music, great sound, lots of spoken dialog?” Do you see a trend here in all of this? Roberta Williams, 1997.

The future of adventure games?

Rest assured, VR is not on the agenda for this article.

The death of adventure games is a topic that's been… well, done to death. Fingers have been pointed at action-adventures and Myst for causing the genre's decline in popularity. Allegedly idiotic action gamers have been blamed for not understanding the sheer intellectual greatness of adventure games. Similar rhetoric has been spewed at members of the general gaming press. Adventure evangelists have crusaded for the genre, initiated petitions, lashed out at publishers that had “abandoned” adventure games and coerced developers into making favorable statements for the genre.

I've seen all of this happen in the last five years that I've been running this website. It's a crazy whodunnit story with Myst, action-adventures, evil journalists and 3D graphics as its principal characters. It's become rather tiresome. Sure, there might be some truth buried inside these antagonizing claims, but most of it cuts very little ice. We can restlessly theorize about the genre's supposed 'death' forever, but it won't really get us anywhere. Instead, we need to take a closer look at the stuff (adventure) games are made of.

When asked in 2001 about how the adventure game market had dried up, Jordan Mechner (Prince of Persia, The Last Express) said in an interview with Inside Mac Games “I think adventure game makers need to stop asking, ‘Where did the market go?’ I think the question is, ‘Why do people no longer find these games fun to play?’ Maybe it’s something about the games themselves.” I think Mechner hit the nail on the head.

The adventure genre is currently ridden by staleness and bland conventionalism. The genre creatively locked itself into a room that it could not get out of. This archived column at Old Man Murray got pretty close to saying what's caused the adventure genre to grow out of favor -- it may indeed have committed suicide. Although there are some hints of a comeback, most notably thanks to Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon, In Memoriam and perhaps Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, too many releases still suffer from severe copycat mentality. More adventure releases have come out this year than any of the past five years, yet most of it is uninspired derivative material. We, adventure gamers, might have gotten too comfortable playing games that aren't innovative or original. I decided to write this article to refocus our ideas on the future of adventure games, and to look at the genre's larger potential.

But first, there are a couple of things I need to get out of the way. I'm inevitably going to reference a few games outside the adventure genre. I think we need to look at technological and stylistic advances made in the industry as a whole if we're to talk about the advancement of adventure games specifically. But if you think I'm going to advocate the bastardization of adventure games through the inclusion of action elements, you are wrong. I want adventure games to focus on what they do best. I want puzzles, and I want a great story. Those are its raisons d'être. I sometimes don't mind a slight pinch of action in the form of mini-games, but pure action is absolutely not something adventure games should focus on. There are enough action-adventures already, and as a fan of adventure games it makes no sense at for me to want even more of them. The graphical representation of adventures is another topic I'm going to cover along the way, but nowhere in this article will you find any suggestion to completely abandon 2D point & click adventures. I love those games and they shouldn't (and won't) go away.

In the adventure community, the desire for change is sadly often misinterpreted as “wanting more action.” Such misconceptions need to be put aside if we're going to have any meaningful discussion about the position of adventure games in the general gaming macrocosm. Although the debate about the future of adventure games has been gradually heating up during the past year or so, it's been held back by endless non-sequiturs and foregone conclusions. Hopefully this article will help encourage a more substantial discussion.

Finally, all the opinions expressed in this article are my own. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of the individual writers of Adventure Gamers.

I'm sorry for the long disclaimer. Let's get on with it.

Monkey see, monkey do

I think there are roughly two groups within the adventure community. There are the recent arrivals, most of whom were introduced to adventure games thanks to the admirable publishing efforts of Got Game, Tri-Synergy and most importantly The Adventure Company. I know this is a bit of a generalization, but I'd say that on the whole these adventure gamers are pretty content with what the genre has to offer. On the other hand, there's a large group of people, mostly young adults, who still associate adventure games with Sierra, LucasArts, Infocom, and so on. Most of those people have already left for greener pastures (read: other more prolific genres). Those who are still around are looking for that same 'spark' of the golden days, but have not been terribly successful in finding it today. I'm part of that latter group.

Mind you, this is not a matter of nostalgia. In fact, I think developers have been looking at the classics in all the wrong ways. What made Day of the Tentacle or Gabriel Knight or King's Quest or any of the other classics so good was how they were offbeat, pushing boundaries or at least based upon a self-contained artistic vision. Although some rare gems have been released in recent years, it seems that most adventure games want to be “just like Monkey Island” or “just like Myst”. Which leads me to wonder what games like, say, Tony Tough or The Cameron Files expect to bring to the table. They're nice games, but could they be relying too much on the tried-and-true? Sure, not every game can be a masterpiece, but it often looks like adventure games are too busy chasing their own tail. With increasingly more adventure games coming out, and at least three US publishers willing to support these games, you'd think developers would take more risks and push the genre into new and exciting directions.

If I look at the leaps in progress that have been made in other genres and compare them with the complete creative and technological inactivity in adventure games, I have to say I'm disappointed. The adventure genre has sadly lost most of its freshness. I think the genre can be much more prolific and innovational, but a lot needs to happen. Some of that has already been set in motion, and I'll be looking at Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon at the end of this article, but we're still far from where the genre should be. Now seems an ideal time for a comprehensive debate about the future of adventure games.

What is an adventure game, anyway?

First, we need to lay some groundwork and decide on some kind of definition of adventure games. Only when we know what we're dealing with, can we decide for ourselves which potential future developments are desirable and which are not. The term adventure game once meant to say “a game like Adventure” (the original text adventure). It's lost a lot of its meaning since then. Gamers in general seem to apply the tag to various games that merely have an adventurous theme or setting, such as Grand Theft Auto, Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb and Zelda: The Wind Waker.

Syberia or Jak & Dexter -- ask anyone on the forums which one is the adventure game and everyone will reply the former. It's a no-brainer. However, things get difficult when you try to define exactly why Syberia is the adventure game. If you've ever tried explaining to a friend what a pure adventure game is, you probably know what I mean.

Many have tried to put a finger on what makes adventure games what they are (see: adventure game – time for a new definition?) but it's hard, if not impossible, to find the ultimate answer. The intellect vs. twitchy finger argument is too easy to disprove. The scope of such a definition is too wide and would include puzzle games such as The Infinite Machine and Sokoban or just about any strategy game. Stories aren't a defining element of adventure games either. They may once have been, in the days of Space War and Adventure, but the majority of current computer game releases have some form of narrative. There are even first person shooters with a substancial amount of storytelling, such as Max Payne or Medal of Honor. Stories don't set adventure games apart.

Perhaps we should look at the reasons why people play adventure games, and go from there. The most visible characteristic of adventure games is that they offer a departure from action-and-reaction gameplay and manual dexterity. It's true that mental challenge plays some role in why we play adventures, but I think it's only a role of secondary importance. For example, when we experimented with reviewing pure puzzle games on this site in 1999, it was met with much resistance. The majority of our readers protested against the inclusion of games like Jewels of the Oracle, Pandora's Box and Safecracker, which offer pure brain teasers without any significant amount of narrative. A subsequent poll revealed that only a minor percentage of our readers played pure puzzle games on a regular basis.

I believe puzzles are merely a manifestation of another property that attracts most of us to the genre. The appeal of puzzles lies in the slow pace in which they can be completed, not in the pure mental challenge they offer -- which isn't so much. Solving adventure game puzzles doesn't necessarily require more intelligence than most other genres. Sure, a dazzling intellect may help some gamers complete puzzles quicker, but this is no different from, say, a skilled strategy gamer using his intellect to better conquer another nation in Sid Meier's Civilization. Being good at playing adventure games is mostly a matter of understanding the genre conventions and having more than the usual amount of patience. Anyone who has already completed twenty hours of LucasArts adventuring is going to be significantly better at five hours of a brand new LucasArts game than someone without those twenty hours of previous experience with LucasArts' graphic adventure vocabulary -- even if they have twice the IQ. Most puzzles can be solved by a process of trial-and-error, so they can generally be overcome by those who have patience and willpower, and not just those who are the smartest. I think we can rule out puzzles as our primary motivation for playing adventures instead of other games -- for the majority of us, anyway.

Instead, I would nail it down to exploration -- in the broadest sense of the word. Not just spatial exploration, but also exploration as a psychological process. Compared to other genres, adventure games are more about revealing outcomes rather than determining them. We're driven by the desire of learning the shape of the game world, as well as unraveling the story it has to tell. We want to be transported to a different world and believe that we are lost on a surreal island or that we are uncovering a sinister murder. We're constantly curious about what might be around the next corner.

Of course, this is an extremely broad statement that also applies to other game genres. It has to be narrowed down. Firstly, adventure games have a designer-created, player-controlled protagonist. This distinguishes adventures from RPGs, where player-defined character properties play a central role. We can also say that adventure games are non-competitive. The player is neither competing against another player towards a certain victory condition, nor is the player competing with a computer opponent. (Although some adventures used to feature scores, these were designed as progress bars and weren't indicative of the players' skill.) Thirdly, the idea of not having any game-over scenarios, as pioneered by LucasArts, has now become an accepted genre convention. The gameplay of adventures is non-threatening, in that all possibilities can be exhausted without any danger of dying. The highest penalty the player ever receives is having to re-start a particular scene.

The infamous 'Sierra death message', as parodied in The Secret of Monkey Island

When merged into one neat definition, we can say that adventure games are built upon narrative exploration, set in a non-threatening and non-competitive context, featuring a designer-created, player-controlled protagonist. I do have to apologize for the little hyphen-fest that's going on there.

Of course, there are a number of problems with my definition. For one, it doesn't include games where it was possible to die. Most notably in this category are of course Sierra's popular 'Quest series. Secondly, the term narrative is problematic as it is very open to debate. (Some theorists would even argue that gameplay itself is narrative, though let's not go there.) This definition shouldn't be taken as a final take on the subject. However, it does a pretty good job of excluding other genres, and I think it works for the purposes of this article.

In the next couple of pages I'm going to identify some areas in which adventure games could further improve. As you will see, most of these areas relate to exploration.

The expressive value of cinematography

Let's start with the most obvious item on the list: we need more 3D adventure games. Please continue reading if you disagree.

It's become somewhat clichéd to compare games with movies, but let me do that anyway. Way back at the start of the 20th century, movies started out as being essentially recordings of stage plays. That's what people knew and understood. Eventually some directors started thinking outside the box and came up with what's now known as cinematography. They discovered that you can actually put the viewer inside the play by putting the camera onto the stage and moving it around. This new form required some getting used to from the audience, but eventually it caught on.

The Great Train Robbery (1903) is one of the early movies, and it looks uncannily like a graphic adventure. There's only one close-up (at the end), there's hardly any moving frames and there are hard cuts between different shots. (You can download this silent movie in its entirety at the Library of Congress archives.) Third person adventure games look too much like The Great Train Robbery -- they're like little theater plays with clunky movement, no dramatic camera angles and a distanced view that makes it impossible to see any facial expressions. Adventure games are destined to be so much more. I'm through with watching an animated character walking around a flat pane. Just like modern movies look absolutely nothing like The Great Train Robbery (thankfully!), I think it's time that we let the camera onto the stage in adventure games. There's a potential of movie-like intensity that most developers have yet to fully exploit.

There's a lot to be learned from movies, and I'm not talking about cutscenes that disrupt the gameplay. For instance, instead of observing an interactive conversation from a distance and seeing only ten pixels of mouth move up and down, I want to be taken closer to the action. I want to see the look on a character's face. I want to be able to see a face in all its expressive detail: wrinkles, eye movement, hairs flowing in the wind. I want to have a frog's eye shot of a villain and a crane shot of that one dramatic moment when the protagonist has abandoned all hopes of finding what he's looking for. I want a new scene to be introduced with a pan or dolly shot. I want to view the game world from the best possible angle at any time.

The dramatic potential is endless. Yet, I'm still looking at puppet theater.

The same argument holds true for first person adventure games. Many first person games limit the player to a still picture. Why can't I look around and explore my surroundings in whatever way I please? It's ironic that first person shooters -- which do not rely on storytelling per se -- do a much better job at immersing the player into the game world and presenting a believable framework for the narrative.

Controversial as it still may be among some adventure gamers, 3D engines are key to visualizing a more satisfying game world. We need proper, stylistic use of 3D for getting the genre where it needs to be. Gabriel Knight 3 or Tex Murphy may not have looked so good, but 3D has come a long way since. A quick look at the range of styles between Psychonauts, XIII, Beyond Good and Evil or Broken Sword 3 shows that 3D is expressive and capable of rendering the amount of detail necessary for a slow-paced game like an adventure. In a couple of years, 3D will be even more detailed and convincing. It can eventually look as detailed and stylish as a hand-painted background.

If anyone from outside the adventure community happened to surf on in, I apologize for having said the glaringly obvious in so many words.

Non-linearity, multiple solutions and interactive dialog

A widely discussed problem with adventure games is that they're pretty restrictive in the number of paths that can be taken through a story, or towards solving a certain puzzle. A lot of adventure games are just about taking object A to location B, which gives access to location C and object D, ad infinitum. Such linearity has the player conform to a set path -- making puzzles all the more unnatural and frustrating.

Adventure games need to loosen up and drop the tunnel-vision narrative. It may be hard for a game designer to keep a good overview of the gameplay flow of a highly non-linear game, but that problem isn't unsurmountable. Non-linearity isn't like some holy grail that only exists in the fantasies of game designers. It's actually been properly done before and some new games need to do it again.

Choosing one of three ways to get into this building will lock the story in one of its three

paths. Fate of Atlantis is a good example of multi-linearity, but not of non-linearity.

The Last Express and Discworld Noir are perfect examples. For instance, Discworld Noir gives a large amount of freedom to investigate whatever you want, whenever you want and in which order. Discworld Noir is one of those games that flows very naturally. When you compare your playing experience with that of others you discover how different they can be. I've even heard of players who never got to use the third CD because of a specific path they took through the game. In games such as Discworld Noir that often offer different solutions to puzzles, players are less likely to get stuck, and more likely to enjoy the story.

On the other hand, I don't think Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis or Blade Runner are particularly good examples, despite how often they're referenced in discussions about non-linearity. Fate of Atlantis is merely multi-linear. There are three paths through the game that run parallel to each other. Once you follow one of these paths, you are locked into it until the game's conclusion, where the three paths converge. The design of Fate of Atlantis was remarkable at the time, and it had a very strong replay value, but it's not the kind of non-linearity that I find interesting. In the case of Blade Runner, one of its selling points was its wide array of different endings, but this too isn't very exciting. Who cares about seven different endings if the middle part of the game seems the same every time?

If we take a closer look at non-linearity, we can say that it can be achieved in roughly four ways.

Storytelling: A story that's structured in such a way that the player can make meaningful decisions along the way, and influence where the story is going.

Multiple solutions: Not every player will approach an obstacle in the same way. If the player figures out a perfectly reasonable solution to a puzzle, and it doesn't work, it will ruin the suspension of disbelief. Therefore it's beneficial to the gameplay flow to allow alternate solutions whenever they make sense.

Order: Giving the player the choice in which order to complete a certain group of challenges. This will allow the player to focus away from difficult areas, and come back to it later with a fresh perspective. For example, most of the missions in Grand Theft Auto can be finished in any possible order.

Selection: Not all actions in the game have to be necessary to complete it. A game like Morrowind has a multitude of side quests that you can ignore your first time through.

Most adventure games are either completely linear, or they provide a limited amount of freedom through what Roberta Williams used to call the “string of pearls” model. Players can move around freely inside the pearl, until the story converges back to its main path, leading to the next pearl, and so on. However, the linear narrative and the string of pearls model are not the only viable options.

Grand Theft Auto 3 offers a lot

of freedom in choosing the

order of the missions.

Pictured here is the original

concept wall for the project.

The stick-it notes represent

the different missions.

In this article on the IGDA site, Discworld Noir developer Chris Bateman discusses some alternative narrative structures that greatly enhance the possibilities for “order” and “selection”. To dive into game design theory would be beyond the scope of this article, so I'll quickly summarize the gist of it here. However, if you're really interested in this topic, I encourage following the link and reading the full article.

Discworld Noir used what Bateman calls a “threaded model”. Unlike most games, the course of the plot does not follow a single path. Instead the story is made up out of different threads that develop largely independently. Bateman writes that “this parallels the methods that quality novels and films employ to develop the plot, with multiple narrative threads being woven together to produce a satisfying story.”

After the initial introduction is out of the way, Discworld Noir has the player investigating a number of different cases. These are all different threads that can be explored in any random order. Some threads, however, have to be concluded before the player can proceed to the next act. For example, the player has to wrap up his initial investigation in one of two ways, after which he can pursue one of two (seemingly unrelated) cases. Some threads can be sidestepped; some can be ignored for a while and gotten back to later, while others aren't possible to conclude until the player has advanced to a certain phase in the story. This model gives a greater freedom of movement within the story and is vastly different from linear narrative.

Bateman also suggests a new theoretical narrative model which he believes will be the future of interactive plots. What he proposes is using an object-oriented approach, in which scenes are grouped together along any desired model (linear, branching, parallel or threaded). These collections of scenes, or episodes, are then in turn linked to other episodes to form a web. In order to realize such a complex object-oriented structure, Bateman suggests the re-use of set pieces and other assets in a way similar to TV shows. The player may see a location only once or twice, but there could actually be a multitude of scenarios for what may happen on that location.

This model has not yet been used in practice, but the point in telling this is that there are enough ways to make a game non-linear. (Bateman and his colleagues have put their theories into an engine called FreeSpeak, but it has not been used in a game thus far.)

Just to cut back to a previous topic for a moment: 3D engines, while not essential, can definitely be employed to make a game less linear. Real-time 3D allows the designer to rely less on pre-rendered cut-scenes, and instead design cut-scenes that change dynamically based on the chosen path. This puts less of a strain on the story to conform to whatever is set in stone in the cut-scenes. For instance, Post Mortem had three different pre-rendered versions for all the major events in the game. Had those cut-scenes been rendered in real-time, it would have been easier to create more different scenarios with more different outcomes. Similarly, conveying the story through in-game text (signs, letters, notes), scripted sequences, dialog and NPC behaviors will make the script easier to adapt in more subtle ways.

Besides the game's overall narrative structure, interactive dialogs are another area where a game can be made to feel less linear. Innovation in this field is much desired. Instead of the usual completely pre-defined conversations, it's possible to add AI to a character that will respond to the choices of the player. Bateman's FreeSpeak engine has a so-called affinity system, which does exactly that. The affinity system uses a set of variables that can be affected by the choices of the player. For example, by saying all the wrong things a character's fear variable might increase. For every threatening sentence the player selects, the fear value would be increased by a certain amount. If the variable exceeds a certain number, say five, the character becomes uncooperative and the player will be forced to take another path through the narrative. If the fear variable stays below a certain number, for example two, the character might be more helpful and give the player an object that would have otherwise taken much longer to find. In other words, many things can subtly affect the variable, but by writing different scopes for the possible outcomes the conversation will not get trapped in a dead-end. Dialogs should be more part of the gameplay itself, and offer interesting choices that have noticeable effects. Usually I just exhaust all the dialog options on the screen without putting any thought into it, as none of my choices really matter.

Another point I should make though, is that not only should games actually be less linear, they should also feel less linear. Quality writing can to some extent mask the shortcomings of linearity. The Longest Journey is both an example of how to do that, and how not to do that. The first few chapters of the game seem to flow pretty naturally, as we play out parts of April Ryan's daily life. Eventually we're given the choice to have April spend the evening in one of two different ways. This choice does not affect the story, but it does give the illusion of being in control. In the middle part of the game, April Ryan has to recover four different artifacts. This is a rather trite story device, as found in many RPGs (e.g. collect the five magic stones, the three pendulums, the four swords, whatever). Once this quest is introduced, the dramatic tension that was built up to that point subsides. The real story of The Longest Journey is pretty much put on hold, in favor of this elaborate subquest. The player turns into an errand boy, going through various awkward and at times contrived obstacles to acquire these artifacts in four long chapters. The player already senses that what he's doing is just designed to further him on the on-track narrative. When April finally gets to use the four artifacts, the cutscene plays out exactly how the player expected. Not only is this payoff unsatisfying, the way the story was set up made players feel like they were constrained in what they could do.

Getting the map pieces in Monkey

Island II felt less frustrating.

Monkey Island II: LeChuck's Revenge used a similar plot device, but it was set up in a much better way. In the middle part of that game, the player is going around looking for four different map pieces, giving each of the parts to a cartographer as they're recovered. However, dropping off one of the map pieces sets off some unexpected events pertaining the cartographer, which sends off the plot into a new direction. This is something the player did not anticipate. By hijacking the narrative right in the middle of the puzzle, the game catches the player off-guard and sort of gets him to think the story is not linear. Another thing that makes this part of Monkey Island II very non-frustrating is that any of the four quests can be pursued at any given time. In other words, quality writing can make the experience of the story feel more like a “roller coaster ride” that goes to all different directions, whereas predictable stories tend to amplify a game’s linearity.

Finally, puzzle design plays a major role as well. Bad puzzles can make a game feel more linear than it already is, e.g. by offering only one solution or by being too present as an artificial obstacle. In a way, puzzles are the doors that open to different parts of the story. A lot of adventure games don't seem to be overly concerned in providing a varied mix of different types of puzzles. Ironically, it is often Doom that is mocked for its lock-and-key puzzles, but graphic adventures are not much better off, except instead of key cards there are rubber duckies, plucks of cat hair, cogwheels or magical stones.

Developing good puzzles is arguably the hardest aspect of adventure game design. It's tempting for any designer to just cut down on the puzzles. Tim Schafer removed a lot of them from the final version of Full Throttle, presumably out of frustration with having to add puzzles just to increase the playing time. However, this resulted in many players completing Full Throttle in one sitting. On the other hand, games that have too many puzzles will often have players reaching for a walkthrough, which makes the gameplay self-defeating. I believe games should monitor the player's progress and provide more hints when it's apparent that he or she is stuck. This already exists in action games. For instance, Max Payne adjusted the game's difficulty according to the skill shown by the player. Secondly, the “take X and use on Y” style inventory puzzle is very hard to do right and should probably be kept to a minimum. They're an open invitation for using the try-everything-on-everything strategy. It seems the latest trend is to use only inventory puzzles, which makes adventure games all the more predictable. I felt that Runaway, despite its success, might have been guilty of this.

In Half-Life 2 players will be able to

use the physical properties of

objects to their advantage.

I'd like to see a lot more sound puzzles, dialog-tree puzzles, behavior-based puzzles, physics puzzles, riddles and mini-games. Escape From Monkey Island, despite not being the best in the series, had a good puzzle involving two parrots. Only one of them spoke the truth, and through some clever dialog the player had to figure out which one was the liar. That's an excellent example of a well-crafted dialog-based puzzle. It makes you pay attention and think about it (Imagine such a puzzle based on character AI). As for physics puzzles, anyone who's seen the thirty-minute Half-Life 2 demonstration has seen what is possible with in-game physics today, and it's well feasible to build that into an adventure game. A puzzle could involve the jamming of a machine using various objects with different physics properties. Or, instead of using your lockpicking skills to open a door, you could try to roll some stones down a hill and crush it down. Anticipating the stone's trajectory would be the puzzle component. There are many, many more examples of great puzzles that aren't just inventory-based.

To summarize, I believe that through the use of non-linear narrative, and clever stories and puzzles that are designed to not feel constraining, adventure games can be made a lot more free flowing and fun to play.

Dynamic and responsive game worlds

In games such as Grand Theft Auto 3 and Morrowind, players get the feeling as if they have ultimate freedom. Both games actually have a lot of visible constraints, but they're designed in such a way that they don't feel as such. Free-roaming gameplay is very much en vogue right now, but I think there's merit in merging some of that into an adventure game. Specifically, the things that aren't necessary to advance the plot but enrich the game world and make it more believable. I want adventure games to make us feel like we're directly involved, instead of having to continuously face unnatural-feeling barriers.

Imagine Grand Theft Auto: Vice

City was a graphic adventure...

Despite its enchanting melancholic atmosphere, Syberia has been criticized for not being interactive enough -- and rightly so. The only objects that can be interacted with are the ones that are essential for completing the game. You're not allowed to try anything else. Even worse, when the player selects to go somewhere that Kate Walker can't go, the game at times doesn't bother giving an excuse. Kate will just say, “I can't go there”, without any apparent reason why. Syberia isn't the only game guilty of that.

It's just lazy design to not script any specific interactions with the environment besides the bare essentials. I want a game to actually reward me for exploring the environment, even when I'm not making any progress. What I liked a lot about classical graphic adventures is that I could often go off and try different things and get a response, a joke, or a little animation. Adding a lot of (seemingly useless) interactions to a game makes solving puzzles much less of a chore and more of a natural extension of exploring the locations. Not only that, the protagonists’ brief responses often gives a unique window to their personalities. Sadly, this is a feature that's become more and more neglected. Ironically, the most interactive adventure game environments I've seen in recent years are in Shenmue, an adventure/fighting game where virtually anything can be examined.

I've never caught Tommy Vercetti saying, “I can't go there” in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. That's because he actually can go anywhere in Vice City -- to whatever extent the physical limitations will let him, of course. Continuous 3D worlds really are a beautiful thing. There's no more invisible walls or other imposed boundaries. The player is truly free to explore the game world.

But there are more bones to pick. For example, why does it seem like characters in adventure games are more like set pieces than virtual actors? Admittedly, it does make sense for some characters to be doing the same all the time. For instance, when I go to a store I expect the storeowner to be at his place behind the counter. That's his job. But why is the old lady sweeping the pavement in front of her little house all day, quite likely for all eternity? Why are so many NPCs locked in a single looped animation? Don't they ever eat, drink or sleep? Shouldn't they be socializing with anyone, or working their own agenda? Characters shouldn't be there just to give you that one vital piece of information, or to give you that one item you need for a puzzle. They have the important task of bringing the game to life.

Game Design: Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse offers a very good illustration of how character behavior can assist storytelling, which I'm going to reprint here. It refers to RPGs, but it's perfectly applicable to adventure games: “... a player may travel to a certain town which is home to a number of fearful residents who dread the arrival of outsiders. If the player only observes these people, they can be seen to be navigating the town, going to the stores, restaurants, and factories just as people in a real town would. This sets the scene for the town and makes it seem real to the player. But whenever the player approaches these people, they turn away, fleeing to safe areas to avoid interacting with the player. Why is this? What does it say about the town and the people who live there? Why are they frightened? The player wants to know why, and will start exploring the game's story as a result. English teachers are notorious for telling their students that it is better to show than to tell. This is especially true in a visual medium such as computer games. Instead of just seeing that the town's inhabitants are frightened of strangers in a cut-scene, a properly designed AI can actually show the player this interesting information.”

It seems like this feature was lost in time. I remember Revolution tried to innovate with their (primitive) Virtual Theatre system. I remember The Last Express, in which characters more or less lived a life of their own. There's even the much-forgotten Kingdom O'Magic. From what I recall, it wasn't an excellent game per se, but its game world was alive with lots of characters randomly moving about. Where has that gone? Why do other genres do succeed in putting some AI-based or cleverly scripted elements in the game?

Once again, 3D comes peeking around the corner. AI becomes very powerful when combined with 3D, as it makes it easier to animate characters than with traditional frame-by-frame animation. You can actually design a flock of birds to fly around according to some basic routines and not have them locked in a looped pattern. And that's not just eye candy for the techno-savvy. Ambient AI agents can be used to inhabit the game world with believable creatures, resulting in a living world and an additional subtle layer of interaction.

In The Last Express time moves forward regardless of player progression,

and characters act according to their own schedules.

The setting is undeniably an important part of any type of story. Why not make it more interesting for the player to explore? I think Jordan Mechner had the right ideas when he was working on The Last Express. “I consciously wanted to get away from the adventure game feel,” he once said in an interview. “I don’t personally like most adventure games. I wanted to have a sense of immediacy as you’re moving through the train, and have people and life surging around you, as opposed to the usual adventure game feeling where you walk into an empty space which is just waiting there for you to do something.”

Character performance

So far, I have been talking about game mechanics (non-linearity, AI) and basic design decisions (such as using real-time 3D). But we should not forget that first and foremost, game design is a delicate craft. Whether I consider a game “classic” depends for a large part on all its little details; subtle characterizations, nuances in the pacing of the plot, the balance and cleverness of the dialog, the design of the characters and its overall artistic merit. In this chapter I'm going to briefly zoom in on a few issues that relate to storytelling and characterization.

Let's start by taking a look at how characters are designed in adventure games. In the image below I've juxtaposed April Ryan (The Longest Journey), Kate Walker (Syberia), the nameless heroine from Atlantis III (known as Beyond Atlantis II in North America), Ariane (Journey to the Center of the Earth) and finally Ren Silver (Legacy: Dark Shadows). A mere glance should already tell you what I'm getting at.

There's nothing against this 'Euro brunette girl' look, but I can't say that the character design has been particularly inspired either. What we see here is a blatant cliché perpetuating through the genre. Same hairstyle, same hair color, same clothes. Certainly, some of these characters were created earlier than others, and I doubt the similarities were intended. Still, it's amazing how much these characters are alike.

A somewhat more successful variation on this type of character is seen in Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon. Nico Collard has her hair dyed blue, has slightly exaggerated facial features that make her eyes stand out more, and has a wardrobe with different clothes than those worn by the characters above. This gives her just a little more of a unique edge. Still, she's by far not the perfect example of character design. If I'll just stick to female characters (why not?), we have some great examples to be found in other games, like Maureen from Full Throttle, Mercedes Colomar from Grim Fandango or Grace Nakimura from Gabriel Knight. Each of them has one or two traits that make them interesting. Maureen is a tough bike mechanic wearing a jumpsuit. Grace, an intellectual, who was made easily recognizable by her glasses and asian appearance. Mechie, who is ... well, a skeleton. But she was also given a distinctive hat and purse that tell us something about who she is.

Of course, the visual representation of these characters is only one small part of the multi-faceted issue of character design. However, one should realize that the appearance of a character is not just of aesthetic value. If done right, the design gives us a window into the personality of the character. This is especially important for the protagonist, as he or she is more or less your travel companion for the game. Would you want to go on a globe trotting adventure with someone who is just like everyone else?

Dialog is another vital aspect of characterization. For illustrative purposes, I'm going to put two snippets of dialog next to each other. The first is from the opening scene of Post Mortem, where a woman named Sophia Blake tries to recruit a former detective named MacPhearson. The second dialog is from Full Throttle, in which biker Ben regains consciousness after an accident on the road and meets the girl who saved him. I'm aware that by putting these games side by side, I'm comparing the material of one of the best writers in the industry with the writing from a relatively low-profile game that was translated from French. But hey, if I'm going to make a point I might as well do it loudly.

Post Mortem

· Are we going to keep staring at each other or are you going to invite me in?

· But ... uh ... someone sent you. What's their name?

· May I come in Mr. MacPhearson? What I have to say will appeal to the detective in you.

· I mean... I no longer do detective work. But do come in if you want to.

· Sorry. I didn't introduce myself. Blake. Sophia Blake. Mr MacPhearson, I need you to investigate a case that is dear to my heart. Just name your price.

(The two characters agree on an “interesting sum” that isn't specified until later.)

· You relieve me Mr. MacPhearson. This case is strange. It's a crime. A double murder.

· I don't get it. I've never worked for you before. Not here nor in New York. Yet you come to me and ask to find your sister's murderer. Why me, Ms. Blake?

· Your reputation Mr. MacPhearson. I find your nickname “Spooky” to be charming.

Full Throttle

(Ben sees blurry shape, tries to focus.) What are you?

· I'm a mechanic. And apparently a pretty good doctor as well. My name is Maureen.

· My name's Ben. Why did you hit me over the head, Maureen?

· You were in an accident. A reporter found you and brought you and your bike here.

· My bike? What have you done with my bike?

· Brought it back from the dead. Sorta like what I did with you. I need a little help getting it finished though.

· Where'd you learn bikes?

· I grew up working on 'em with my dad. One time we did nothing but restore this old hard tail together. I mean we scrubbed every bolt until it shined. But ... he took off one day and he never came back. So I switched to toasters.

· You live in this town?

· Nah, Melonweed isn't much of a town. What's left of it is sinking about a foot a year. People either learn to adjust, or they leave. Which is fine with me.

· Not a people person?

· I'm just better with toasters.

It doesn't take a scientist to figure out the qualitative differences between these two examples. The flow of the conversation in Post Mortem is rough at best; most of the replies don't follow logically from the previous sentence. As a result of the clumsiness of the dialog, it's hard to take the line about MacPhearson's nickname “Spooky” seriously. Not to mention Blake's shocking revelation that “it's a crime”, which must be epitome of stating the obvious. Post Mortem also has dialog that some screenwriters call “on-the-nose”. That is to say, characters that are talking about issues in a very direct and unrealistic way, instead of letting these issues be implied indirectly. Instead of having the character say “this case is strange”, good dialog will actually attempt to describe why the case is strange, and let the viewer arrive to the conclusion himself. Full Throttle does this well. Instead of having Ben state that his concussion has him really disoriented, he asks “What are you?” when Maureen's shape emerges.

However, what bothers me so much is not primarily the differences in quality between the two games. Some games are better in some areas than others -- that's just how it is. What amazes me are the reviews I've read that applauded Post Mortem's “interesting dialogue”, claiming it had a “lifelike feel” (true quotes). These reviewers must have forgotten what good dialog is. Maybe it's due to the sad fact that there haven't been any adventures with truly great dialog between Grim Fandango and Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon.

In terms of the larger storyline, most adventure games do a pretty good job at creating conflict in the form of a protagonist and antagonist. A form of drama that occurs less often is the inner conflict. In the classical three-act narrative, there's a period of status quo and character exposé, followed by the introduction of a conflict, culminating into a certain resolution. The more interesting stories are those which show some kind of development in the character that makes him or her different at the end from when the story started. For example, The Longest Journey has a character arc where April comes to terms with the childhood relation with her parents. In Syberia, Kate Walker changes from a business-like lawyer to an investigative traveler full of wonder. Kate's journey creates a conflict between two sides of her personality, one of which is buried inside. When a character changes over time, the viewer tends to care more about the resolution of the story. To give a counterexample, a character such as Brian Basco (Runaway) is a more flat character, in that his adventure doesn't change him so much psychologically. Usually, conflict in adventure games is presented as a conflict in the literal sense: will the villain or the good guy win? More abstract conflicts can, in many cases, enhance the depth of a story.

The character arc of Kate Walker makes the ending of Syberia poignant.

Since I've briefly touched on the classical film narrative, I should mention something that has really struck me about adventure games: almost none of them feature subplots. Nearly all adventures feature one main plot that pretty much barges on towards the end goal in a more or less straight line. What you don't often see is that a main plot that is interspaced with a secondary plot. Subplots can be used to amplify the main plot, mirror it or contrast against it. The player will automatically attempt to logically connect the two plots, which can have powerful results. This is a widely used structure in films, and I think it would be particularly useful in adventure games. If the story is exposed along two parallel lines, the outcomes are harder to predict. I particularly like adventure games that switch between a primary and secondary protagonist -- given that the two plotlines interact in meaningful ways, that is. A game like Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is strikingly more succesful in this than The Watchmaker. Similarly, dream sequences, illusions and flashbacks are also very rare in adventure games, even though their powers have been harnessed in quite a number of first person shooters and action-adventures. I don't think a highly intermittent plot like Memento's is possible to do in a game, as such a structure would obscure the game's goals, but brief, isolated jumps in time have already been used to great effect in games (Max Payne, certain scenes in Final Fantasy, etc.).

If I had to summarize my disappointment with the storytelling in adventure games, I guess I'd say it comes mostly from the 'oh, how convenient' factor. In games that aren't as well written, everything in the game is employed to service the game's end goal in not-so-obscure ways. For example, the only role of the secondary characters might be to give you an object, or an item, and their personal back-stories or goals are non-existent or irrelevant. Or, the game thrusts you into a heroic quest without taking the time to introduce the status quo, or to set up a psychological process for the main character. Few adventure games actually set up a believable self-contained story world where characters with different motivations interact with each other in interesting ways.

In Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, every day starts in St. George's Book Store.

As pointed out in this forum topic, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers and Grim Fandango are two games that really got this right. In the original Gabriel Knight, each chapter starts as “just another day”, with Gabriel waking up in the St. George's Book Store. The game establishes a daily routine of Gabriel chatting with the store owner Grace Nakimura, checking for new messages or getting some coffee. Trivial as this may seem, it actually does a great job of making the story believable. It makes it plausible that Gabriel really is in New Orleans to research a book.

For those who have not played Grim Fandango (shame on you), the game is set in a world between earth and the afterlife. Most souls embark on a four year travel through the Land of The Dead in hopes of reaching the Ninth Underworld. However, some have no way to get there, and reluctantly choose a lowly life in the city of El Marrow, or the port town of Rubacava. In Grim Fandango every character seems to have its own motivations. Characters that are introduced in the beginning of the game reappear later in the game -- they'll have made some kind of progress since the last encounter. Some characters eventually 'switch sides', some die, some are content with their lives and some are not. All of the clever characterizations combined give the game a lot of dramatic realism. As mentioned in the forum topic, you could easily imagine what each of these characters do in their off time in the game world.

In many smaller development studios, the story is often written by one of the programmers or artists. That's a real shame. Developing a story isn't just about writing a one-page treatment, and then churning out the dialog. It's a much more involving process that requires someone with expertise in the area of storytelling. Some of the best stories have come from game designers who also have a background in writing. For example, Tim Schafer majored in computer science, but also got into creative writing before he landed a job at LucasFilm. Jane Jensen has not only made games, but also published a number of novels. Benoît Sokal was a comic strip author before working on Amerzone and Syberia.

Of course, what I've covered here is only a small tip of the storytelling iceberg. Although there is a lot more to say, I've chosen to include the foregoing bullets to make a point about the importance of a high-quality narrative. Interestingly, storytelling is an area where games with lower production values can compete. We can only hope that particularly the smaller, independent studios will make stories their games' prime selling point.

So what about Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon?

To bring this beast of an editorial to a close, I thought it would be a good idea to take a quick point-by-point look at Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon in relation to everything I've said. The reason for this being, of course, that Broken Sword pretty much started the debate about the future of adventure games. What follows is not a review in any way, shape or form. I will ignore many qualitative aspects that are covered in Evan Dickens' review of the game. I will merely reflect Broken Sword upon the things I've said in this article, as a way to put its hype into perspective. (Don't worry if you haven't played Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon –- the following paragraphs are spoiler-free.)

I do not believe that Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is some kind of genre savior. Gabriel Knight 3, Grim Fandango, The Longest Journey and Syberia were all anticipated as “genre saviors” to some degree. None of them had any miraculous effects. Either they contributed incrementally to certain changes, or they didn't change anything at all. In any case, no game can just single-handedly change anything overnight. I don't believe Broken Sword will necessarily set a new paradigm, but perhaps it will sort of nudge the genre in a new direction.

I started this article by talking about cinematography. To me, Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon proves once and for all the expressive value of a scripted camera. Instead of having a static camera, or a player-controlled one, each camera movement in Broken Sword is carefully plotted by the game's designers in order to enhance the drama. Dialogues are enhanced through close-up shots of the characters, blurring the line between cut-scene and gameplay. Exploring the environment is made more interesting by beautiful camera sweeps that add a true cinematic quality to the game. If you want any proof that 3D has its own advantages, here you have it.

Broken Sword before and after lighting was added. Note that the textures are identical in both pictures, but appear to be of higher quality under atmospheric light.

Looking at Broken Sword's 3D graphics on purely aesthetic terms, I'd say it was almost successful. Although some locations have more than the usual amount of props (such as bedrooms and living areas), most of the environments lack the detail you'd get from a 2D game. From what I understand, a lot of this relates to budgetary constraints. Since each object has to be separately modeled and textured by an artist, and the 3D worlds tend to be larger, there is a sort of trade-off in the detail. The rawness of some of the environments is easy to forgive however, thanks to the game's beautiful lighting. Just to give you an idea, the images above show what Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon looked like before and after lightning was added. Whereas most worlds in adventure games are lit with dull fluorescent lighting, Broken Sword can almost make you feel the morning sun radiating into the room. I cannot stress enough how important lighting is. The plastic-y 3D renderings in games like Riddle of the Sphinx II: The Omega Stone, Rhem or Forever Worlds have given these games a very uniform character. Sharp contrasts and moody tones suggest more drama than a bright, evenly distributed lighting. Proper lighting is already half-way towards making 3D graphics that have that same warm, comfortable feeling of the 2D games of old.

Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon is a very linear game. Its narrative structure is nothing like non-linear games I discussed previously, such as The Last Express or Discworld Noir. However, for a linear game it does quite well, since the story of Broken Sword is set up in clever ways. Many events come as a surprise and steer the plot in a slightly different direction. The game is also very smart about where and when it shows certain characters. The supporting characters show up at different places throughout the game, creating a sense that they are working their own agenda. You also get to return to many places you visited before, except they'll be slightly different, creating a sense of continuity. In many ways, the pacing of the story makes you forget about the underlying linearity. Not only that, the game also switches regularly between the two protagonists, and features a light romantic subplot that's good for a lot of the central character development.

In the middle part of this article, I dreamed about more responsive and dynamic worlds. Worlds that are lively, where time passes and where NPCs go about their own business. Worlds that are more believable. Maybe there's commercial aspect in this that I've ignored. Perhaps we're just not there yet. However, speaking from my convenient consumer point of view, I have to say that Broken Sword's game world is not always convincing. Although the streets of Paris feature some cars that pass by, the area feels very empty and lonely. It's explained by one of the characters that it's an “early Sunday morning”, but that seems overly convenient. The supporting characters on the streets of Paris are looped in a standard pattern, as are some other characters you meet later on.

The last topic I talked about was the design of interesting characters. By the third game the characters of George and Nico have been firmly established. I'm glad to say that Broken Sword has got the best written dialog we've seen in a very long time. The dialog is snappy, interesting and really makes for most of the game's immediate entertainment value. The game has also given each character its own motives and traits. Broken Sword 3 definitely has a degree of dramatic consistency that I explained in the previous chapter.

I think Broken Sword is a wonderful game. It's definitely a new standard-bearer for adventure games (the last one was probably Grim Fandango). However, the game is far from perfect, and it's certainly not revolutionary. I'm a little disappointed that Revolution only made the conversion from a 2D game to a 3D game without actually exploiting the fact that it's 3D. Broken Sword will probably do a good job at making people more comfortable with 3D adventure games, but it hasn't fully harnessed the possibilities presented by this type of engine. The game is in fact more “classic” than I expected.

Too much of the game is based upon pre-defined trigger areas and hardcoded cause-and-effect. Sure, Broken Sword sure has a lot of good puzzles that work on that basis, but they're the type of puzzles we've come to expect for the past twenty years. The only puzzles in Broken Sword 3 that are somewhat new to the genre -- speaking from a purely design perspective -- are the stealth puzzles. The guards are actually programmed with line-of-sight and sound-based behaviors. Despite this attempt at dynamic gameplay, however, the results are always the same. As long as you stay within one tile of the walls, and no one is looking in your direction, you can just run through the place and nothing will happen. Th


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