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.Continued on the next page...