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:



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.

Continued on the next page...

About the Author
Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Freeware Writer

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