The Future of Adventure Games

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.

Continued on the next page...


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