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...
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.”Continued on the next page...