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How Nintendo Wii can change adventure games

Last year, in a keynote at the Tokyo Game Show, the president of Nintendo stunned the gaming world by revealing a bold new controller design for the next Nintendo console. Promotional images showed a white console of Apple-like design next to four devices that appeared to have more in common with TV remote controls than any kind of gamepad or joystick. Had Nintendo gone mad?

The remote-style controllers turned out to be part of an intuitive new console interface designed for gamers looking for something new, or people who find gamepads too complex or intimidating. The Wii can track the physical position of the controller in the room, as well as whether and how it is tilted or where it may be pointing on the screen. This means different motions can be performed with the controller and recognized by the system. For instance, wave the controller around like a sword and you can see a sword mirror these movements on screen.


How it works

The Wii detects your movements with the controller and translates them to game interactions. Nintendo released two videos that show the different possibilities.

The Nintendo Wii has the peculiar effect of making old games seem completely fresh again. Who would have thought that 22 years after the NES classic Duck Hunt, people would line up in droves at Nintendo's E3 booth to try a Duck Hunt remake? Only this time, it wasn't just any old school action game, it was one of many demonstrations of how the Wii controller could be used. Simply point at the screen where you want to shoot and press the A-button.

Virtually all established genres, from racing games to sports games to shooters and strategy games, can benefit from the Wii's unique input device. Even a simple game of tennis, using the controller as an imaginary racket, drew applause from journalists and developers at this year's convention. It was just a simple game of air tennis, but it looked like more fun than any tennis game had ever been.

It isn't a long stretch to think that the Wii can have the same magical effect on adventure games. Sure, if you were paying attention to the Duck Hunt example, it's obvious the Wii controller works great as a point-and-click device. Just point the controller where you want to click. For the first time ever, adventure games can be played on a console without the D-pad or analog stick controls disliked by so many adventure gamers. But that is just scratching the surface of what the Wii could do for adventure games.

Let me explain.

Back in high school, when I didn't have anything better to do, I spent many lunch breaks arguing with a classmate whether adventure games have "true" gameplay. His position was that all you really did in them was click things, which to him didn't count. For true gameplay, you would need more than just using the mouse to apply different actions to different objects.

He never really saw the attraction in games like Broken Sword or Monkey Island that I enjoyed so much. I guess he was more into console RPGs and 2D fighters. His purist idea of gameplay was weird, perhaps even closed-minded, but I later realized he did at least have one valid point: the basic interactions in adventure games are rarely appealing in and of themselves. Adventure games are about stories, exploration and puzzles, not about the sheer thrill of instructing a character to pick up an inventory item, or the pleasure of maneuvering the mouse to the talk icon and gloriously clicking the left mouse button. No matter how good the puzzles or the story are, the actions in adventure games are mundane.

Is that really a problem? Clearly not for everyone, but it is still a weak point of the genre. Since there isn't much going on in adventure games besides talking and solving puzzles, it takes patience to play them. Big rewards tend to come only after completing a puzzle, but given that the solution to puzzles should never be immediately obvious, you'll always be stuck at it for at least a little while. You'll be walking around and kind of trying things, not really enjoying yourself, but knowing you will get a sense of accomplishment when you finally get that puzzle solved.

These puzzles, in game design terms, are long feedback loops. Their rewards are the carrot dangling in the player's face, keeping them invested in the game's long-term progression. But they are only truly effective in the presence of many shorter feedback loops, the ones that maintain your interest in between. In most genres, these are very easy to think of. It could be cruising around in your car, or jumping on a moving platform, or killing that annoying bear on your path through the forest. Roleplaying games are chock-full of random things to keep you busy, like taking that wolf pelt to a merchant, or recharging your health, or fine-tuning your experience points. In adventure games, such secondary gameplay elements are more difficult to implement. You can certainly put in lots of jokes and dialog and animations, something that many classics have done so well, but it's much harder to keep things interesting without some basic mechanics that already do most of it for you.


Why Wii is made for adventure games

1. It's point-and-click, on a console


Never before was it so easy to translate the mouse-driven, point-and-click interface to a home console. You can get the same experience as on the PC, without the need for a twitchy direct-control interface.
2. Never-before-seen interactivity


The spatial tracking of the Wii controller lets you interact with the game world in completely new ways, making exploration more exciting than it's ever been. At the same time, ease of use is maintained for those not accustomed to conventional console controls.
3. Nintendo is not just for kids


If you always thought Nintendo made consoles just for kids, think again. In the past year, Nintendo has been aggressively targeting a broad mainstream audience. DS games such as Nintendogs, Brain Training, Sudoku, Trauma Center and Animal Crossing were designed to appeal to all ages. Elderly people are buying Brain Training to mentally stay in shape. Heck, there's even a Bob Ross painting game coming to Wii.
4. Touch Generation and the iPod effect


Much like Apple's products, the Wii is small, bright, and gender and age neutral. In other words, it's designed for mainstream adoption. The Touch Generations brand on the DS has already successfully marketed many games, including the adventure Phoenix Wright, to non-hardcore gamers. An Agatha Christie adventure game wouldn't look out of place in the Touch Generations line-up.
5. Graphics are secondary


Adventure games are often graphically less progressive than games in other genres. But now that Nintendo has dropped out of the console arms race (the Wii is less advanced than Xbox 360 or Playstation 3), the focus has lately been on art style over technical advancement. Even Microsoft, with its focus on high definition graphics, has garnered much success with graphically simple games on Xbox Live Arcade.

By getting some of my non-gamer friends to play adventure games and watching what happens, I noticed that this lack of interesting interaction between puzzles often turns them off.

Designers of adventure games have, instinctually or purposely, tried to answer this problem. Some adventure games have had action sequences, usually to "give the player something else to do" or "mix up the pace a little", though the transition to such action sequences is rarely smooth and their presence rarely welcomed. Other games, most recently Dreamfall, have reduced the puzzles to a minimum, in an apparent effort to make the game less frustrating and more accessible to those who are not hardcore fans. Some reviews of Dreamfall even said it barely qualifies as a game, since its storytelling so greatly outweighs its gameplay. It reminded me of my high school friend, who kept accusing all adventure games of the same.

You could say adventure games lost one of their unique selling points at some point in the nineties, when many other genres began having great stories and characters. On the other hand, adventures haven't managed to successfully integrate something other genres are really good at: gameplay that is immediately rewarding. It seems whenever this is attempted by adventure games, they don't really feel like adventure games anymore.

That brings us back to the Nintendo Wii. For only a vague indication of what the Wii could be capable of, you need only to look at the Nintendo DS, the stylus-controlled double-screened handheld that saw its popularity explode in the past year. The DS adventure games Another Code (or Trace Memory) and Phoenix Wright each feature several types of puzzles that could not have been conceived on any other platform. (Skip this next line if you don't want to read a spoiler for Another Code.) For instance, one puzzle in Another Code has you mirroring an image on the top screen in the bottom screen.

However, admittedly these are novelty puzzles. They may be new and surprising now, but as more games appear on these systems their novelty value will inevitably wear off, eventually becoming part of the established puzzle vocabulary. What is more interesting is how the routine actions in these games are a lot more fun than usual. Pushing and pulling things is done by flicking the stylus up or down. If something is wedged tight, you can nudge it out by scratching the stylus on the touchscreen. Want to look at that old book? Better blow off the dust first. (The internal microphone detects the sound.) In the medical puzzle game Trauma Center: Under the Knife, grabbing a gauze dressing from a plate with your tweezers and dropping it on a patient's wound is a superfluous but very enjoyable interaction, making even that good old "pick up" verb feel sexy again.

The Wii will expand such possibilities in every possible way. Imagine a detective game on the Nintendo Wii: you knock on a door by flicking the controller forwards. You navigate inside by controlling a pointer on the screen. It's dark, so you grab your flashlight from your inventory, moving the controller as if it were the flashlight. You find a drawer and open it by drawing the controller towards you. Inside are traces of blood. You dab it for a sample to take to the lab. You explore some more and find a cabinet that appears to have a hidden compartment. You pick up a fire extinguisher from the hall and smash it onto the cabinet like a hammer, splintering the wood of the cabinet and gradually breaking it. All you are really doing in each of these examples, of course, is moving a piece of plastic up and down in the air.

Notice how in this hypothetical scene we haven't yet encountered a single puzzle (though there may be one just around the corner). All we have done so far is investigate and pick things up. Yet we are already having a good time. Of course, the success of these interactions still depends on the specific implementation of the designers.


Fahrenheit, a Wii game?

Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy), released last year for PC, Xbox and Playstation 2, would have lent itself quite nicely to the Nintendo Wii. It already succeeded in making basic interactions more interesting, without the benefit of a special input controller. By simulating certain actions with movements of the mouse or the analog stick, such as scrubbing a floor with a mop, players became more involved in the on-screen action. Just imagine Fahrenheit's innovations carried further using the Wii's intuitive motion-sensing controls.

Wii could introduce these completely new things to the genre while at the same time bringing back elements from the past. While today's adventures tend to have basically three major verbs (which are Use, Look At and Pick Up), early SCUMM and AGI games had a much broader palette of verbs. Instead of one all-purpose "Use" action, The Secret of Monkey Island had Use, Open, Close, Push, Pull, Turn On, Turn Off, Talk To and Give.

Most of these, like "turn on" and "turn off", were eventually eliminated since they were ridiculously underused. Perhaps a second reason was that many of these verbs worked exactly the same anyway. On Nintendo Wii, it suddenly makes sense to bring some of those verbs back, or invent even more for specific situations. Since players can actually act them out with controller movements, these verbs are not only distinguished by their in-game effect, but by their gameplay as well. The low-level interaction in an adventure game instantly gets a whole lot more fun.

Even though, at the time of writing, no adventure games have yet been announced for the platform, the Nintendo Wii is unquestionably an adventure developer's dream come true. It allows point-and-click controls on a home console for the first time ever. More importantly, it provides many new ways to combine fun gameplay with challenging puzzles. The Wii should be seen as a challenge to adventure game creators to conceive an adventure that "gets it all right". A game that is both traditional and modern. A game with simple, intuitive controls and mainstream appeal, yet with exciting gameplay that keeps players interested even when facing difficult challenges.

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