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Ernest Adams interview

Ernest Adams is a widely known commentator on game design. He co-founded the International Game Developers Association, writes his Designer's Notebook column for Gamasutra, gives workshops and lectures, writes books on game design, and wears a hat. He is also a great character, as anyone who has met him would tell you. I sat down with Ernest Adams at the DiGRA Level Up game conference in Holland in November to collect his musings on the current state and future of adventure games.

You wrote a column for Gamasutra in 1999 in which you said that adventure games should come back. I obviously agree with you. I'm curious what you think on how adventure games should come back. Should they come back in the same style as the traditional Sierra or LucasArts games?

I think there's a place for those kind of games, yes. But I think that we also need to explore other kinds of non-competitive entertainment. Those [traditional] adventure games concentrated on puzzle solving and trying to achieve a particular long-term goal. I think it's possible to examine other kinds of goals, objectives or narrative structures, besides just trying to find someone to sleep with as in Leisure Suit Larry -- or something like that. I was fond of The Longest Journey. It wasn't entirely clear what you were trying to figure out. It sort of unfolded as you went on, rather than giving you a very specific goal.

Adventure games did not die. What happened is that the market for all games continued to grow and the market for adventure games did not grow with it. I think part of that may have been that the people who used to play adventure games...they were a bigger market back when action games were pretty limited and poor. Now that action games have gotten to be so good and so interesting, it grew faster and the people that wanted slow-paced games got left behind.

Could it also be that adventure games are in a sort of identity crisis because the things that made them unique, such as puzzles and great storytelling, have been taken over by other genres?

Certainly I think the rise of the action-adventure has taken away a certain number of adventure game players. I think that to some extent even the rise of MMORPGs has taken away a certain number of adventure game players -- people that want that feeling of wandering around and talking to people and so on. Now they can wander around and talk to people who are live.

So what happened is that other genres have stolen some of the best things about adventure games. Right now we have this mountain ... that it's very difficult to sell games to niche markets. I think adventure gamers are a niche market. I'm hoping that something will come along and make it possible to sell to that market again. And that's electronic distribution.

I often hear about adventure games being a niche market, and I often hear about them having the potential to appeal to a really broad audience because they can be like a novel or a play. Do you think it's true that you can sell them to a broad audience of people who perhaps aren't necessarily gamers?

Not the classic sort of LucasArts game. I think we're going to have to do some more experimentation with the form before we can reach a really broad audience. The LucasArts type of game required a lot of lateral thinking and it was not something you could just put on and play for ten minutes and go away again. There are some people -- Chris Crawford for example, a very famous game designer -- he says that he cannot play adventure games. He's a simulation guy. He thinks algorithmically. The kind of mind that it takes to solve those puzzles is just completely incapable. A lot of the public are really like that (laughs).

These puzzles are basically lock-and-key puzzles. They're all about guessing. "Let's try this...no. Let's try this...no. Let's try this...yes." Do you think that could somehow be opened up with more dynamic gameplay?

I do. For one thing, I think right now the lock-and-key process is extremely simple. "This is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong, this is right." It's not governed by an underlying model of the world that allows for invention. You either find the correct solution or you don't. I think with three-dimensional deformable environments -- where you can, you know, make a ladder by putting a chair on top of a table and that kind of thing -- that kind of freedom will allow us to create challenges that can be solved by the player in a large number of different ways. That will be more interesting than the pure lock-and-key puzzles.

There's actually been a lot of opposition in the adventure community against 3D. Many people, I guess, are afraid that it turns adventure games into action games. But you're saying there's potential in the sort of physics-based puzzles?

Yeah, I think there is. I think to rule out 3D just on general principles is sort of short-sighted. I'm sure there's a group of adventure players who still very much like the beautiful painted backdrops of LucasArts, the Sierra days and things like The Longest Journey. And they were very nice. But I don't feel that 3D means that you have to run through the world as fast as you can. Right now most games that have 3D encourage you to run through it because when you stop you'll be killed.

Now, we still don't have enough polygons to generate a really rich detailed environment. But when the day comes that we can produce 3D environments that are as beautiful as the old painted backdrops, and we can decide how fast the player can move (chuckles), I think it will be possible to create places that will be enjoyable to be in. Which for me is a big part of the appeal of an adventure game. I want to be in a landscape that I can admire.

How close do you think that is, technically speaking?

(ponders) It's going to be very close in the next generation of consoles. And we will definitely have it in the generation after that. I'd say they're going to be pretty good in two years. And I think we're going to be definitely there in seven years.

So if you want to do a 3D adventure, now would be the time to start thinking about that?


I think it's also a bit what they're trying to do with The Longest Journey 2.

Ooh—I didn't know there was going to be one.

Oh yes. It was announced at E3. They haven't shown anything yet, but the idea is to make it 3D and...more what you've discussed, basically.

Right. And also, 3D does not mean a free-roaming camera. Another part of the adventure game appeal -- of course it was painted backgrounds, but nevertheless the point of view was chosen for dramatic impact. We're used to a totally free-roaming camera in 3D games but you don't have to do that. Games like Resident Evil had a context-sensitive camera.

What did you think of the camera in Gabriel Knight 3? It puts you more in the role of puppet master.

Yeah. I didn't see Gabriel Knight 3 enough to be able to say. If a game doesn't put you in immediate danger of death then I don't feel it is that important to have a really free roaming camera. But I do think it's nice to be able as a player to look around and admire the surroundings. “Ooh look, those incredible yellow trees over there,” that kind of thing.

I think there's an aspect that has been missing in many recent adventure games such as Syberia. I'm not sure if you've played it, but it is very limited in terms of interacting with the environment. Only things that are needed to solve puzzles can be looked at. Sometimes the character will say “I can't go there” or “I can't do that,” without offering any explanation. Do you think those lines are a necessity or is it bad design?

No, I think that's going to be a necessity because adventure worlds are always going to be bounded somehow. When you try to go across the boundaries you're gonna have that.

But we have a more fundamental design problem in adventure games that we need to solve. In the old ones, even going back to the text days, we had a clear distinction between objects that you could touch and objects that you cannot touch. If there was an object that you could touch then you'd better pick it up and take it with you. So this led to this situation where you're taking everything with you, all the time. Soon we're going to have technology where you can touch everything and so you have to decide what you take with you.

Obviously you can't take everything and that's going to mean that there's going to have to be clues -- or, we're going to have to abandon inventory-based challenges and create other kinds of challenges. Because in the real world, we know what is important to us based on context. You know this is my briefcase. I have to take this with me when I go. (points at computer that's part of the conference expo) That is not my computer. I'm allowed to sit there but I'm not allowed to take it. In an adventure game you don't know what belongs to who. (laughs)

It doesn't even matter. You're going around like a kleptomaniac.

Right. I think that adventure games disrupt our psychology of understanding what objects in the world are for. And we need to somehow find a way of creating a smooth gradation between my briefcase and this carpet. Rather than what we used to have, which was really "sharp."

If we're not going to use inventory-based puzzles, what kind of alternatives are there? Because inventory puzzles are currently closely linked to adventure games. What could you say that sort of sparks the imagination of the readers?

Well, there's still of course exploration puzzles, which we'll still have. There will be puzzles involving talking to people -- trying to persuade to tell us something or trying to persuade them to do something. We have some of that now but it's crudely implemented. Most of them are conversation trees. You steer the conversation in the correct direction and either you get there or else you'll just try every possibility exhaustively.

I think our biggest opportunity lies in what I would call conceptual challenges, which is to understand something new. We've already done this in adventure games. In detective stories, for example. You don't carry a thing around. What you do is you talk to people and understand a sequence of events by putting together the clues.

I remember a puzzle from Escape From Monkey Island which I found really refreshing. You had two parrots, one was lying and one wasn't. You had to figure out which one was which.

Right! (laughs)

That's something that happens more in your mind.

Yeah, that's a conceptual sort of puzzle.

How significant will AI be for making those dialog-based puzzles more advanced?

We're a long way from that. I think AI will be significant from the standpoint of trying to simulate NPCs who have emotions and react to you, and the situation, in a meaningful way. Even more than the static NPCs who are always in one place, [I see potential in] having a sidekick character who goes with you. As we've seen in games going all the way back to Planetfall or other kinds of games today where you have a person who goes with you and offers advice.

Obviously generating natural language is a bigger problem. Understanding natural language is even worse. But I think there's a lot of opportunity for having characters whose emotions, reactions and behavior you can come to understand -- and I'm sorry to say manipulate (laughs) -- in order to achieve the results you want to achieve.

Could AI be used to act out something instead of telling the player what it is? Instead of exposing the story through text, you might actually show some of that through the behaviors.

Yeah. The behavior of people can be used to illustrate particular things. There are some people who simply don't want to help you and you have to find out what is necessary to get their attention. Nowadays that's still a lock-and-key thing. You know, “tell me about this” and then all of a sudden they open up and start telling everything. It's not subtle. It's actually binary -- just zero or one. You have the right key or you don't. I think more subtle interactions with artificial characters holds a lot of potential.

In the lecture before this interview you made a comment about how in Sonic it appears that the player is Sonic, but after some inactivity the avatar on the screen will actually wave at the player. I thought that was really interesting because it really applies to adventure games. There is a character on the screen who sometimes has his own will, you as a player are there, and some games also have a narrator voice. Sometimes you can even hear the designer speak through the character, when it says “I can't go there yet”.

I observed this peculiar relationship between the character and the avatar a long time ago because there was a transition at the very beginning. Games like the original adventure Colossal Cave and Deadline, and some of those early Infocom games, assumed that it was really you and you had no personality. Also in Myst, you know, if you looked in the mirror there was nothing to see because it didn't know anything about you. The difficulty with that is that the world does not know how to react to you because it doesn't know who you are. Once you start getting an avatar to represent you then that person has a character, an appearance, an age and sex, and all kinds of other things. And so the world reacts to them in a way we recognize. That introduces a sort of peculiar ambiguity of are you “them” or are you “with them”.

It is a very conflicting thing. It goes from one perspective to another.

But it doesn't disturb the player, I think. Players have learned to deal with this convention.

Like suspension of disbelief in a movie -- they lock it out?

Yeah. In the same way that they understand that if you are shot in an action game, you don't slow down. Injuries hurt you but they don't actually slow you down. That's just a convention that we accept because it's needed to make the game balanced. I think this odd relationship between the player and the avatar is again something that we have come to accept. In a way we're moving even farther towards the idea that the avatar is simply a separate person who generally takes your advice. (laughs) The girl in The Longest Journey is not me. She really is her, and I'm a separate individual who's kind of interested in what she's doing and what she has to say. When I say: “go over here and pick this up” she's willing to do it unless it's impossible or it will kill her or something like that. Then she says “no, I won't do that” and I'm happy with that.

There was an article on Gamasutra published last week by Randy Littlejohn about drama and games. Do you think that's a direction adventure games should pursue?

I think someone should investigate it. I don't feel as if at this point we should close off any avenue and say “no, don't do that.” I think what we should do is explore all of our new options. Some of them will fail, but that's okay. It's important to find out what doesn't work by trying it, as opposed to saying we're not going to try that.

I guess my last question would be: do you see adventure games as a core genre that is still significant in the industry, or do you think action-adventures have taken up that place? I see a lot of examples from adventure games at this conference. I also just leafed through your new book and you dedicate a whole chapter on adventure games (like many other game design books have). So it's still significant here, but will it be in the industry?

It's not very financially significant right now. I think they will come back but they may not be in the form that we're used to. I think that whatever they do come back as, it may not be Monkey Island or Indiana Jones. Indiana Jones changed from being a story adventure to an action-adventure really, once it went over to 3D. But yeah, I think they will be back in some form.

I personally happen to think that adventure games are the only truly new computer-generated form of entertainment. Before there were computer flying simulators there were mechanical flight simulators, and mechanical racing games. I remember mechanical soccer and sports games. Before RPGs there was Dungeons & Dragons on paper and pencil. Adventure games are one of the very few truly new forms of interactive entertainment. I think they're very, very important.


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