Gray Matter Optional for Dummies
"You can't overestimate the stupidity of the mass market."
Leave it to Jane Jensen to blow the lid off the "dumbing down" can of worms in such a succinct and refreshingly blunt way. This particular observation comes from a recent interview in The Escapist, in which Jensen describes her experience of playtesting puzzles for Oberon Media's casual games. Scoff if you will, claiming casual games can't hold a candle to full-fledged adventures and the one has no bearing on the other, but think again. The acclaimed designer of the Gabriel Knight series goes on to say, "Anything that's going to be popular will have to be really simple and really entertaining, and I'll strive for that in the future."
Braaaaaiiiins… There may be a lot of brains in Gray Matter, but will it require any to play?
It's been no secret that Gray Matter will present less challenge than Jensen's Sierra classics, as noted in our recent preview. But her comments in the interview should cause even deeper ripples of panic in those already fearing the worst. After all, Gray Matter is neither the first game, nor will it be the last, to reflect the shift in developer thinking away from puzzles that would bring sobbing Mensa members to their knees to more accessible gameplay that even the casual fan can grasp intuitively. From Funcom's where's-the-gameplay? Dreamfall to Quantic Dream's interactive Simon Says movie Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit, we're seeing more and more attempts to reach beyond the self-serving niche adventure market.
Of course, those games were both cross-platform titles, both containing various degrees of action, and so are often written off as inferior or even illegitimate examples by genre elitists. But appealing to a wider audience does not necessarily mean action. There is no shortage of traditional examples, either. "Short and easy" was a common refrain all throughout Sam & Max: Season One, and while people could have been talking just about Max, I think they were referring to the episodes themselves. And going back to Benoît Sokal's [game=110]Syberia[/game], we see evidence of the philosophy described by White Birds' Michel Bams, who says the goal was to avoid two longstanding adventure staples: "Firstly, the kind of wacky puzzles that were the hallmark of many LucasArts games. Secondly, esoteric Myst-style puzzles involving astral conjunctions and runes. Our idea at the time was that, if your car is out of gas, you get a can, find somewhere to fill it with gas, get back to your car and start driving."
The likes of Safecracker may make your head hurt, but they're fewer and farther between these days.
Admittedly, Myst is still around, albeit only in its [game=842]online iteration now[/game], and puzzle fans can still bang their craniums against the likes of Safecracker and The Sacred Rings from time to time. But if those games are not yet on the endangered adventure species list, surely they're under a protective watch by now, while games catering to that mass market stupidity are proliferating like rabbits.
So… what to make of this new direction? I've gone repeatedly on record as being opposed to words like 'smart' and 'dumb' to describe games or the gamers that play them, except to say that people who agree with me are smart, and those who don't are dumb. Okay, not really, but my point is that intelligence is anything but a determining factor in who likes and who plays what, and even which games may or may not succeed. But that's a big topic for another day. For now, it suffices to say that experienced adventure gamers are indeed likely to find new adventures continuing the movement towards easier, more accessible games. If the likes of even Jane Jensen are embracing the trend, it's here to stay, at least for a while.
Personally, I like it. Like many people, time is my most precious resource these days, and I simply no longer have the energy or the patience to humour developers who don't know the difference between challenging and punishing. I'll be right there cheering on any developer who knowingly commits to the puzzle-intensive, brain-straining school of design, as I know there's a market for those as well. But I'm not sure it's a big one, and if not for my professional interest in such games, it wouldn't include me. So I'm all for the general (not exclusive) movement towards accessibility and convenience, even ease. I'll talk later about making puzzles more clever instead of harder, so I'm not promoting watered down OR dumbed down gameplay. But if there has to be a compromise, count me on board the fun-over-frustration bandwagon. I don't overestimate the stupidity of the mass market. Heck, I'm part of the mass market, and no one knows my own stupidity better than me.
Love the new trend? Hate it? Worried it's the first sign of the impending apocalypse? I'd love to hear your thoughts as well, so by all means, use our new Comments feature at the bottom of the page to tell us what you think!
This article originally appeared in Adventure Gamers' now-defunct blog.