While story, exploration, and puzzles are (and will always be) the central pillars of adventure games, more and more narrative-driven games – if they can even be called "games" at all – are opting to forsake traditional adventuring in favour of more straightforward, streamlined interactive fiction. Led by the likes of Telltale Games, this growing sub-genre focuses on storytelling at the expense of all else, with varying degrees of player agency affecting the plot through the choices they make. Two recent examples are The Maker's Eden and 80 Days, which demonstrate just how diverse such experiences can be.
The Maker's Eden - Act 1
Developing a visual novel and calling it a game may be a bit of a gamble. Whether or not a particular title mixes story with enough interactivity for it to actually be considered a “game” is frequently discussed, with supporters making arguments on both sides of the debate. Of course, different titles fall on varying places of the spectrum.
In the case of the debut episode of The Maker’s Eden, the level of interactivity is quite low, resulting in something more like a digital comic book – albeit an interesting one – in which the player’s main role is to “turn the pages” by clicking on the screen and reading the dialog and narration as they’re presented.
The story premise is not exactly unfamiliar, as science fiction fans will recognize the influence of films like Blade Runner reflected in The Maker’s Eden. It is set in a dystopian future in which mankind has created androids, a brand new species designed to perform undesirable labor. Though created as a means to an end in bringing a new level of comfort to humans, androids have gained some level of consciousness. Discriminated against and forced into servile positions as a lower class of being, androids now strive for equality among species, creating a bubbling cauldron of Civil Rights-esque classism and paranoia.
The game centers around 905, an android awakened from his sleep-like stasis in a derelict apartment building. Named after the number of his stasis pod for lack of a proper name, he finds he has no memory of who he is or why he is there. However, he soon finds a hidden message warning him not to trust Didymus Industries (the people who’ve awoken him only moments earlier) even as they attempt to bring him to their headquarters. After a daring escape, 905 finds himself on the run from the authorities (who are deep in Didymus’s pockets, of course) and must gain the trust of an underground android resistance movement to uncover his identity and learn why the evil corporate entity will go to great lengths to get their hands on him.
In keeping with the graphic novel theme, the game’s dialog and exposition occur via a mix of traditional descriptive text that appears when clicking on objects in the environment, and close-up panels of other characters when conversing with them. The entire game is shown from a first-person perspective, with individual screens that are 95% static images (with a few environmental or weather effects to liven them up) along with a neat quasi-3D effect that separates the foreground from the background when panning the camera a bit to the left or right. While they don’t quite steal the show, the hand-drawn graphics acceptably serve the atmosphere, showing just enough run-down detail to lend the game a sense of gloomy depression.
Events take place on a rainy night, and you’ll split your time between wet streets and dingy indoor locations, derelict and mottled-looking. Predictably, the color palette on display runs the muted gamut of all shades of browns, grays, and dark blues. This neatly coincides with the nocturnal setting and general squalor of the city, but even in locations that should have been more luxurious, such as the flat of a well-off family or an executive office suite, the surroundings are uniformly haggard and ugly, all displaying the same threadbare decorative style. It doesn’t help much that the graphics are somewhat smudged and lacking focus, as if a low-res photo had been enlarged and used as background art.
Initially, I was pleased by the game’s low-key jazz soundtrack. At least, until I realized that every screen throughout the game simply repeats the same track over and over. Apart from distinct tunes for the menu screen and a brief moment near the game’s end, this makes for a score that’s very light on variety, which would have been a much bigger concern if the game were long enough to draw attention to this shortcoming. As it stands, with a play time of just over an hour, chances are you’ll likely never even notice that the music stays pretty constant throughout. It’s not bad – in fact, the song sounds rather good and very noir-ish – but it’s all you’ll get.
What will doubtless be a much bigger concern for players is the fact that this interactive novel really skimps on the “interactive” part. Often you’ll function merely as a tool to advance through the dialog by clicking and (sometimes) selecting from two or three different responses during conversations. This lends a false sense of “choose your own adventure”, as all dialog choices veer off into different directions for a moment only, and then immediately converge back onto the same path to keep the conversation flowing along. I was unable to find any response choices that actually had an effect on the outcome of a conversation or the game as a whole. The dialog options are really more akin to standard adventure game conversation topics – they lead to some new dialog, but once that’s out of the way, you’re led back to the main conversation.
Inventory puzzles – heck, puzzles in general – don’t fare much better. While 905 does pick up an item or two during the adventure, they can’t be manipulated or even selected at will. Instead, progress operates more on the principle of “you’ll only get past the door if you’ve already picked up the key” – everything happens automatically. You never actually see your inventory or have a choice of how and where to use it; progressing simply requires finding the right order of clicking on objects and interacting with characters. Outside of this, there are really only two other puzzles to solve, one requiring turning dials in a certain pattern, the other to line up tiles to create a path.
I don’t mean to go overboard with the negatives about The Maker’s Eden: Act 1 – fans of visual novels will find several things to like here. It’s a science-noir-styled tale that holds some interest, and a difficulty curve that is accessible to even the most reluctant gamer. Indie developers Screwy Lightbulb are even filling in the gap between this and the next of the three planned installments through short graphic vignettes, accessible from the main menu and releasing via free download at regular intervals. Centering on various individuals 905 meets in the game, these vignettes are intended to flesh out the supporting cast a bit more and simultaneously add some content to the game’s noticeably short runtime.
If you value exploration and puzzles over story in your adventures, be forewarned that The Maker’s Eden (available through Steam) doesn’t pretend to straddle the fence, instead sitting quite comfortably on the “novel” side of “interactive novel”. Despite being light on actual gameplay, however, fans of this developing sub-genre just might find it to be worth a look.Continued on the next page...