Adventure Architect #2: Chivalry is Not Dead, Part 3

In my previous Adventure Architect installment, I mentioned interactive storytelling as my primary approach in the creation of an adventure game. I also emphasized how important a role the story plays in such a game, and how all other things must be subservient to it. This time around, however, I am going to be placing my emphasis on the word "interactive" in interactive storytelling, which is of equally paramount importance. After all, without interactivity, I wouldn't be creating a game so much as I would be creating a machinima movie.

How, then, does one make a story interactive? The most conventional model of doing so in the adventure genre, popularized by various well-loved commercial games from the eighties and nineties, is to create a set of logic puzzles splattered throughout key points in the story to serve as obstacles. Gameplay then proceeds in small chunks of "solve the puzzle, advance the plot slightly, solve another puzzle, advance the plot a bit more", and so on.

Though I've used this approach myself in earlier games of mine, in the process of learning to imitate the classics I loved and admired, I have since come to realise that there is something fundamentally frustrating about it. Don't get me wrong; I love a good logic puzzle. I've been known to spend hours and hours playing Sudoku on my Nintendo DS, for crying out loud. Still, what makes Sudoku different from a heavily story-based adventure game is that in the former case, my primary goal is to solve the puzzle in and of itself, whereas in the latter case, my primary goal is to see the story progress, and the puzzle-solving becomes a hindrance to that goal. Thus, when my desire to get on with the story outweighs my desire to spend time trying to figure out the puzzle (and trust me, this tends to happen quite often), I find myself entering the very familiar state of "getting stuck", with no choice but to either bang my head against the keyboard in agony or minimize the game window and hunt around the Internet for a walkthrough -- a practice that I, personally, find very detrimental to a game's sense of immersion.

Of course, there are many people who actually enjoy this approach to interactive storytelling; luckily for them, there already do exist plenty of games that satisfy their tastes. But what about those who, like myself, do not? One obvious solution is to make all puzzles brain-dead easy, with all the items and tools you need always right there in front of you, to the point that even a monkey randomly clicking a mouse could solve them. Unfortunately, the result is, in fact, a loss of interactivity; the majority of players will now end up feeling like they're being led by the hand throughout the entire game, with little sense of agency. Essentially, all we have left is a machinima movie that we can click through.

What I am going to attempt to do instead is implement puzzles with multiple solutions -- which I hope to frame as ethical choices rather than as brainteasers -- and have these solutions affect the remainder of the game in some way or another. Case in point: when Phlegmwad reaches the Queen of Everything's castle, he must first get past the guard at the front door. The most obvious option Phlegmwad has is to kill the guard using his dagger. Yet, if he does so, then the Queen, having been watching the whole time from her balcony, will end up reacting to him in a more guarded and hostile manner, and will be less willing to be of help to him later in the game. On the other hand, if Phlegmwad sweet-talks the guard into leaving his post instead, the Queen will end up somewhat friendlier in her demeanour. This, however, is an approach that will take a little bit more careful thinking on the part of Phlegmwad to accomplish, as the guard does not look upon him in a particularly positive manner in the first place.

I feel that this shift in focus from challenge to choice does its job of preserving interactivity, while at the same time reducing the level of frustration involved in the traditional approach to puzzle-solving and resulting in greater accessibility to players who may not be as experienced in the adventure genre as others. What this dimension of choice also does, in a very deliberate fashion, is highlight the underlying themes of moral relativism in the story in a manner more effective than a purely linear structure ever could. It is, after all, much more meaningful to show players the consequences of their actions than it is to merely lecture at them.

But that's far from all there is to it. To make the issue of morality even more complex, I plan on playing around a bit more with variations on this structure. There will, for instance, be a similar situation further in the course of the game where Phlegmwad can either act hostile or diplomatic toward a character from whom he needs a certain item to progress. This time, however, no one will be around to see him, and what he ultimately does in the end has no bearing on the rest of the story. My hope is that this will encourage the player to think about the deeper philosophical implications in his or her actions than simply those of cause and effect, i.e. is there any point in behaving in a good or just manner when it will not be of benefit to you, personally?

It's worth pointing out that one thing I've always loved about developing adventure games over other genres has been the focus on careful, cerebral thinking over quick reflexes. By creating puzzles that are arguably easier in a logical sense than those in traditional adventures, it is not my intent at all to discourage the practice of thinking; rather, I see it as enabling different kinds of thinking not often practiced in the context of a game. Of course, whether I succeed or fail in this regard still remains yet to be seen.

Be sure to stay tuned for Part 4, where I will take this discussion of interactivity even further through the creation of interactive non-player characters, whose relations with the player and amongst themselves dynamically change in response to player-influenced actions and events.

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