Tell Me a Story
Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaws. They stalk these mean streets like the angels of death, leaving pools of shadow wherever their calloused feet a-tread. Years ago I devoted my life to bringing them to justice. My crusade got me thrown off the force, but I couldn't be discouraged. The other cops said I was crazy; they said I was obsessed; they said I wasn't a real police officer and could I please stop hiding in their broom closet, but my resolve grew only deeper.
This month's Depressingly Common Adventure Game Design Flaw:
TELL ME A STORY
The human being has always been a storytelling creature. Ever since we started really getting into the evolution business the ritual of the story has existed, dating back from when Neanderthal Man needed to explain to his wife what he had been doing in Neanderthal Ted's cave with Neanderthal Ted's wife. It seems every kind of data storage medium we've invented has eventually been used for telling tales, and things didn't change with the electronic era.
Ever since games moved on from the 'joystick to move, button to fire' routine to more sophisticated pastures, they have been the newest method for stories to be told, and with no genre is that more true than adventure. Adventure games seem to go hand-in-hand with in-depth storyline. It seems that, the more adventure elements a game has, the richer the storyline is expected to be. Adventure games are probably the closest thing you can get to an interactive novel or movie, at least while still being able to describe it as a 'game'. So there's absolutely no excuse for making adventures with hackneyed plots, which makes their continued presence all the more baffling.
Hang around the messageboards for most amateur adventure game design software and you'll find a lot of new designers releasing their first games. Of these, a depressingly large amount will have a title with some variation of 'ESCAPE FROM MY HOUSE', with sprite rips from other games for characters and line drawings for backgrounds, so that the whole mess looks like Roger Wilco is taking a walk through a 2-year-old's colouring book. This phenomenon exists because of people who like the idea of designing their own adventure games but don't have a story to tell. And if you don't have a story to tell, you're not making an adventure game so much as you are blowing your nose on your computer screen.
But writing a storyline is probably more complicated than many think it is. For example, if you intend to make a game where a rugged hero is tasked with recovering a kidnapped princess from an evil galactic overlord, give yourself a smack and start again. This may have been all right for Super Mario Brothers, and it may even have been all right for King's Quest, but these days people demand more sophistication. We're more cynical and more inclined to ask why the overlord didn't just kill the princess, or commit higher income/lower risk crimes like counterfeiting or housebreaking.
Imagine going to a library and finding that 90% of the available books are science fiction and fantasy, with the remaining 10% being a few battered pulp horror and detective novels. That's the state of adventure game storylines. It's got the potential to be just as valid a medium as the novel, and we're still messing around rescuing princesses and saving generic fantasy worlds from total destruction.
A Game That Does It
It would be remiss of me not to mention King's Quest again at this point. Maybe Roberta Williams just rubs me up the wrong way, but when you make a game with a hackneyed storyline, the thing you should not then do is make six more games with equally hackneyed storylines until you've managed to rip something off from every story ever written ever. But let's move away from the obvious targets.
The game I really want to badmouth at this point is Lure of the Temptress. I've never been more put out by a storyline than in that game. It doesn't start promisingly, because it uses the old 'waking up in a cell with no idea what to do next' chestnut, an opening plot device straight out of the random fantasy story plot generator. Then it's your typical 'free the land from darkness' fantasy affair with a community of people oppressed by some evil witch queen with whom you must inevitably tussle at the end. I admit I haven't played it in a while, but from what I remember, the final encounter basically involves you marching up to the witch queen and smacking her right down with some nondescript magic artefact. I'm pretty sure fantasy novelists have been telling that particular story about six or seven times a year since Tolkien's days.
Now, Lure of the Temptress was visually fantastic, and made good use of Revolution Software's marvellous Virtual Theatre technology to create a dynamic, living environment, but without a strong storyline it was all just so much wallpaper wrapped around a limp, overboiled parsnip. This is exactly my point; they wanted to exploit their new technology to make a game, but didn’t have a story to tell, and the final product suffered. The same company earned much acclaim when they later produced Beneath A Steel Sky, using the same technology as Lure, but they just had to release that dowdy little brother first, didn't they. I've always felt that you should never release your first game. It's advice no one follows, not even me, but trust me -- you'll wish you had done a year down the line.
How To Avoid It
Much has been written on the art of crafting a storyline, so I won't labour too much on the subject when other, more qualified writers have already gone there. What I will do is go through one or two points of advice that I've found personally useful since the days when I was twelve years old and writing about time-travelling Hitler clones from the moon.
There are only two kinds of stories that don't have any conflict -- bad ones, and boring anecdotes that get told at family reunions. It's a very poorly crafted game that begins with the player learning their ultimate goal and ends with them achieving that very same goal, with no diversions on the way. Take the Lure of the Temptress example above. You are told at the beginning you have to defeat an evil demon witch queen thing, which I suppose is technically a conflict, but the game ends when you march into her palace and do just that. That's not an adventure -- that's an errand. No one would go on a roller coaster that trundles around an unsloping track for five minutes then returns. When I say 'conflict', I mean twists and turns and revelations that change your entire outlook of the game, your entire goal.
A game with a poor story gives you the entire background in a few paragraphs just before playing, with some crude objective like 'rescue Princess Dumbo', and then the game trundles on with no major events until her royal braindead majesty is recovered. A good story is told all throughout the game, not just right at the beginning. Think of Grim Fandango. That's got one of the best plots in adventure gaming history, but how much of it are you aware of at the start? Very, very little, and it's only towards the end, through conflict after conflict, that you finally realise your true objective. Treat exposition like cheesecake. Give it out in small portions and no one will get a sick tummy.
If there's one thing that will strike out an adventure game before I even get into it, it's having Jimmy Nodepth as a main character. Jimmy Nodepth has many names and many faces, but his pattern is always the same. He arrives at the beginning of a game with no particular wants or desires, no relevant backstory, and blunders into adventure by accident. He is a tragic figure, because no player cares about him in the slightest. He watches in envy as his friend Sally Wellcharacterised goes off to adventure with her new-fangled drives, motivations and mysterious past.
Jimmy Nodepth has many brothers and sisters who also populate adventure games as non-player characters. You will recognise them by the way they stand immobile at street corners and in the middle of rooms for no apparent reason, and whose conversation is generically sarcastic and motivated around handing out fetch quests. In terms of service to the game, they are interchangeable with doors that require keys.
The most obvious thing to do with NPCs is to make sure they are wherever they are for a purpose. It doesn't take THAT long to make some 'sitting down reading' sprites, or 'painting a fence' sprites. But if you want your NPCs to have a degree of depth to their personalities, then here's the best piece of advice I've ever been given in that regard: assign each character a particular personality trait, like anger or fear or the desire to please, and exaggerate it. Try to bring it across in most if not all of their dialogue lines. That's it; that's all you have to do. You might also want to consider why they are in their current situation, what devices exist to keep them in that situation, and what they hope to get out of it. No real human being would stand outside their garden fence staring at a wall hoping some canny adventurer will come along and fix their TV.
A Game That Does This Well
There are tons of amateur adventure games with good storylines, but I'd particularly like to plug Cirque de Zale by Kinoko, because of the way it consciously parodies hackneyed adventure game plots. The game opens with Alexander Zale being tasked by the king of a magical land to find his kidnapped princess, whereupon he gets completely blown off, and instead the player spends the game putting together a circus for Zale's own selfish satisfaction. It's very well done and amusing to watch, especially since you actually walk past the princess' cell at one point, are unable to open the door, and so leave her to rot.
Of course, it's still set in the usual adventure game mysterious fantasy land, even if it is taking large quantities of mickey, and that's what I really think we all need to get away from. We've got this medium we can use to tell and re-tell some of the greatest stories in the world; a medium whose interactive nature possibly adds even more artistic validity, and we're just using it to re-tread old ground and ESCAPE FROM MY HOUSE. Let's just buckle down, sit around the campfire, and tell some damn stories.