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.
· 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.
(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.Continued on the next page...