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Twelve Days of Adventure Games

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Merry Christmas, everyone!

Last year I embarked on a 12 Days of Christmas adventure game binge, playing one adventure game a day.  My selection criteria was simple: find games that needed their screenshot galleries started/bolstered on AdventureGamers.com.

Now that my own Christmas adventure is out (check my website www.sealeftstudios.com), I’m back again for another 12 Days of Christmas binge with the same selection criteria.  In addition to snagging screenshots for AG.com, I thought I’d also do some mini design reviews for each game I play.  I’m intrigued by game design and this is a good chance to examine the design choices made by others.  To be clear, my mini reviews won’t be touching on story and character unless that’s important to the mechanics of how the game works.

On the first day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Mean Streets
The first game in the Tex Murphy series predates the FMV games for which the series is better known.  Design wise the game has four distinct “modes” or game play types within it.  Let’s see how they fared.

When the game play proper starts, you begin in Tex’s speeder, a sort of semi-futuristic hovercar.  The hovercar is presented as a fully realized, vector graphics based flight simulator.  During the game you can either manually fly from one location to another or you can set the flight simulator to autopilot.  In either case, you have to observe the entire flight and I mean observe.  A flight consists of a vertical take off, a turn to be pointed in the direction of your next location, a straight line flight to that location, and a vertical landing.  Flights (even short ones) range between 30 seconds and several minutes.  It’s best if you have a novel or a crossword puzzle on hand because with over fifty destinations in the game, some of which you visit multiple times, you are going to have a LOT of down time while waiting for the speeder to go from one place to another.

Once you reach a location you will usually meet a suspect in the case.  This places you into interrogation mode with that suspect.  Except for when you have to bribe or threaten a suspect, interrogations are conducted by typing in the names of other suspects.  The manual admonishes you several times to make sure you spell names correctly.  Here again is another game mode that can really kill the pace of the game as by the end of the game you’ll have amassed over fifty names to ask about.  You either have to keep really good notes on paper as to which characters are connected or else you’re faced with typing in all fifty names; a daunting task given that most suspects you meet are either dead ends or only give you one or two new leads to follow.

In some cases when you reach a location you are put into investigation mode instead of interrogating a suspect.  At first glance, these look like traditional graphic adventure rooms where you have a character walking around to find hotspots.  However, when investigating, the game provides two sub modes.  The first is walking.  You walk your character, with the arrow keys, to a part of the room that may have something to investigate.  You then explicitly switch to investigation mode.  In this mode you can no longer walk.  Instead a verb bar appears at the bottom of the screen that you move across with the left and right arrow keys.  Immediately above this bar will be a vertical list of the areas of interest that your character is close enough to to interact with.  You navigate this list with the up and down keys.  The idea is you pick something from the area of interest list, then you pick something from the verb list, then you hit enter.  For example you might pick desk, look, and press enter to get a description of the desk.  When you look at many of the areas of interest they provide sub areas (looking at the desk might list a drawer, a fax machine, and a coffee mug, for instance).  These are strung out left to right next to the main area of interest but you still use the up and down keys to move between them (which is a mental discontinuity that I never adjusted to).  To return from the list of sub areas you have to choose a Back verb from the verb bar.  The whole organization is very cumbersome and it renders the visual part of the scene pretty useless and space wasting as your game play is happening all in text at the bottom of the screen and the room is only there to move around in.

The final mode you will encounter in the game is for the gun fights.  Here you start on the left side of the screen and have to move Tex to the right side of the screen action side-scroller style.  At all times, two enemies will come out from the right side of the screen to shoot machine guns at you.  You have to duck their bullets and try to advance between their shots.  You have a simple pistol that lets you fire back, but its usefulness is debatable because as soon as you kill one enemy another one will appear to take his place. The gun fights play out exactly the same each time.  Once you have the timing down there’s no real challenge left so they just become another impediment to following the story.

I hadn’t played Mean Streets in a looong time and only had vague memories of it.  I did remember the flight simulator being slow.  As such, I did this replay with my nose buried in a walkthrough.  Even then, it still took 6 hours and 8 minutes to complete.  I have no accurate way to judge how much of that was spent just flying from one place to another but I would guess it was probably at least half of the “play” time.  So a slow, cumbersome, and bumpy start for Tex Murphy (which probably explains why Mean Streets’ picture gallery was almost empty while the other Tex games are bursting at the seams with screenshots).

     

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On the second day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Alone in the Dark

The original Alone in the Dark was a proto survival horror game, but definitely more adventure game than pure survival horror.  It’s an interesting game to have played as a follow up to Mean Streets as both games do things to slow gameplay down, but where in Mean Streets that serves to just create down time, in Alone in the Dark it helps the tension and, in a weird way, the playability.

Alone in the Dark is an early example of placing real time 3D characters and objects in a pre-rendered environment.  You have direct control over your character via tank controls where the right and left buttons spin you clockwise and counterclockwise and up and down move you forward or backward along whichever direction you’re facing.  Your character turns and walks relatively slowly, but in the tight confines of the hallways and rooms of the mansion in which you’re trapped this is actually beneficial.  Clearly the developers spent time determining a good moving speed to make it feel “right” when walking through the halls.  For the most part I had no difficulty navigating the mansion, although there is a jumping sequence towards the end of the game where the odd camera angles make it more difficult than it should be.

Speaking of jumping, about two thirds of the way through the game your character, who can previously, fight, search, push, and open things is suddenly granted the ability to jump.  However, the game doesn’t do anything to highlight this.  You have to notice it on your own.  That brings me to the different actions that you can perform in the game. 

While playing you can toggle between the rooms you’re walking through and an inventory screen, which takes up the full screen and suspends the action going on in the room until you return.  In addition to being able to examine your inventory (which, oddly, gives you a limit on how much you can carry) you also choose the “action” or mode that your character is in.  For example, you might choose the “search” mode.  When you return to the room, you can navigate as normal and when you get to an area you want to search you then hold down the space button to conduct that search.  If a monster shows up, you then need to switch to the inventory again to pick the fight mode for your character.  It’s an odd way of setting up the interface, especially since the inventory screen only lists five items at a time despite being fullscreen, and puts more mental burden on the player as you have to remember or write down your inventory if you want to easily refer to it while exploring the house.

On the subject of fighting, almost all of the monsters in the game can either be avoided altogether or can be defeated by solving more traditional adventure game puzzles.  However, there are a few monsters that have to be fought and here again it seems the developers spent time figuring out how to make this work.  Accounting for the slowness of your own character, the monsters also move in a rather lazy manner.  This gives you some time to position your character for hand-to-hand combat or else to aim one of the ranged weapons you can find in the game.

Overall the design of the game works well, with the different technical elements complimenting one another for the most part.  That said, the game lacks in discoverability.  A new player is unlikely to stumble across how the interface works - having to switch to the inventory screen, choosing the mode for your character, switching back to the room screen, and holding the space bar to apply the chosen mode.  This is definitely a game that falls into the Read The Friendly Manual category.

     

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On the third day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Alone in the Dark 2

The second game in the Alone in the Dark trilogy uses the same interface as the first game with a few minor tweaks.  The inventory limit is gone now and when you consume something, such as a health flask, it is removed from your inventory (in the first game the empty flask would be left in your inventory taking up valuable space unless you remembered to drop it).  As well, the number of action “modes” for your main character is now reduced to just Fight and Push.  To open or search things you just have to walk into them.

The first game in the series was, as I called it, a proto survival horror game.  The second game is less so.  Gone is the creepy atmosphere that made the slow pace of the game play of the first game work well.  In its stead you now have to fight you’re way through a host of undead pirate gangsters, with your journey being accompanied by a selection of less-than-creepy jaunty sea shanties.

Overall, the puzzle design has suffered in this game.  In the first game you had to deal with a fair number of supernatural entities that were trying to kill you.  For the most part you could either block them, find some clever puzzle solution that would defeat them, or else simply avoid them altogether.  In the second game, instead of solving clever puzzles to defeat enemies or being able to avoid them, most of them you now have to beat into submission.  There are still some enemies that you can defeat in adventure puzzle solution ways but they’re fewer and farther between.

The increased emphasis on combat in this game reveals the weakness of how combat works.  Your character is a rather clumsy combatant and, when not using guns, has a fast-weak attack, a medium-moderate damage attack, and a slow-heavy damage attack.  In practice the fast attack works best as it slows down enemies from attacking you so that they might not actually be able to hit you.  The best method I found of dispatching most enemies was to hide next to a door that the enemies had to come through and stand there and swing whatever close combat weapon I had to keep knocking them back through the door.  It was more than a little tedious and not exactly heroic but it worked.  In some areas you do have guns; however, the fire rate felt too slow.  The sword-in-the-doorway trick seemed much more effective.

Some mention should be made of the segments of the game where you play as the young child Grace.  In reviewing the first game, I complimented the developers on finding a movement speed for your character that allowed you to negotiate the tight confines of the mansion you were locked in.  When you switch to the Grace character in the second game, your movement speed goes from mildly-slow-but-just-right down to a torpid crawl.  This becomes especially tedious in several wide open locations that you have to have Grace trudge across.

In Alone in the Dark 2, most of the fundamental mechanics work the same way as in the first game.  However, they don’t integrate as well with the specific scenarios you face so the game feels clumsier and more cumbersome.

     

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On the fourth day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Alone in the Dark 3.

If Alone in the Dark 1 was about overcoming dark forces by brains and Alone in the Dark 2 was about overcoming gangster pirates by brawn then Alone in the Dark 3 is about overcoming…environmental challenges.  Most of the puzzles in this game center around figuring out how to move from one area to another.  This can be trickier than it needs to be as the painted-then-scanned 320x200 backgrounds sometimes result in a problem common to such backgrounds in other adventure games: it can occasionally be difficult to tell exactly what you’re looking at and consequently harder to determine what to do with it.

The game still features a healthy dose of combat, although this time around you can adjust the combat difficulty in the game’s options, making yourself stronger, your opponents weaker, etc.  I played through the game with all the combat settings at the default “average”.  Combat here is more similar to Alone in the Dark 2 than 1 in that most enemies you fight you just have to beat into submission rather than finding some clever way to circumvent them.  However, on the average settings I was using, the combat was much easier and less risky than in 2.  Where in 2 I had to hide behind doorways, here the best approach was to just run as close to the enemies as possible, stand in one spot, and punch them until they fell over.  Most of the enemies have very wide attacks, meaning that if you get in close they can’t actually hit you.  Perhaps it’s different with harder combat settings, but the overall effect on average was that the combat was just a nuisance delaying the progression through the environmental challenges.

One interesting thing to note is that in this game the developers restored the Open/Search mode from the first game that they had removed in the second game.  In some cases this can give a little on screen textual help with some of those areas where the background images aren’t quite clear enough to make out what you’re interacting with.  This does mean that to pick up items on tables and counters you have to use the open/search mode instead of just bumping into the tables as you could do in the second game.

All three games in the series have had places where the game can be quite finicky about the positioning of your character when interacting with hotspots.  There seem to be a greater number of these areas in the third game, where you need to be standing in just the right spot to make things happen.  In some places the game actually detects what you’re trying to do and will display a text line indicating that you’re not standing in the right place.  In other cases you get no feedback leaving you wondering if you’re doing the wrong thing altogether or the right thing but just standing in the wrong spot.

Overall, I’d have to say that all the elements of the Alone in the Dark trilogy work best in the first game, which feels like an adventure game with some action elements.  The second game feels more like a cumbersome fighting game.  Finally, the third game probably feels the most like a traditional adventure with the combat elements, for the most part, just being a temporary nuisance to the flow of the rest of the game.

     

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On the fifth day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity.

After having played Mean Streets and the Alone in the Dark trilogy, both of which incorporate combat into the adventuring to varying degrees,  I thought I’d follow that up with another combat-centric game with Mask of Eternity.  The game provides two main modes of play: combat and interaction. 

In combat mode, your character, Connor, can carry both a melee weapon and a ranged weapon although you can only use one at a time.  You choose between the two by clicking the appropriate icon in the interface bar shown at the bottom of the screen.  This bar also shows the strength of your armor, how much health you have, your progress towards leveling up, and an assortment of eight types of potions for restoring health, temporarily improving defense or offense, or seeing or becoming invisible.  While in combat mode, clicking on anything will make you use your active weapon on that target, typically some monster you need to dispatch.

In interaction mode the mouse pointer becomes more like a traditional adventure game cursor where clicking on something may cause you to pick it up if it’s a potion or one of the few inventory items in the game, or you may talk to a person, or you may trigger some mechanical device or door.  While in this mode you can also move the pointer to the top of the screen to display your inventory and use items from it on hotspots in the environment.

The game is intended to be more combat than interaction as the combat bar is always visible, even when in interaction mode.  As well, while in combat mode you can hold down a keyboard key to temporarily switch to interaction mode without having to sheath your weapon.  It seems clear the developers intended for you to only temporarily switch into interaction mode as needed.

While talking about keyboard keys it should be noted that most actions in this game, except for actual movement, can be driven by the mouse.  The mouse can choose items out of the inventory and the combat interface and it is used to control the 3D camera that is pointed towards your character.  However, even though the mouse can do all these things you will need to use the keyboard to survive.  When you get into combat you will need to make frequent use of the potions in the combat interface.  It’s not advisable to move the mouse to the bottom of the screen to select a potion and stop fighting while in combat.  Instead it’s much better to use the keyboard hot keys to access the potions.  Speaking of the keyboard, the default keyboard layout is not very ergonomic if you’re a righty, cramming movement onto the arrow keys, and quick-key selection for potions onto the numpad so your hands are squished together on the right hand side of the keyboard.  Fortunately, the game does allow you to edit the key bindings to make a layout that works for you.

Returning to the camera, the camera isn’t just fixed over the shoulder of Connor like many third person 3D games of the time, instead you can rotate it around him to whatever direction you like.  Oddly, moving the mouse up and down doesn’t tilt the camera up and down as one would expect form other 3D games, but instead moves it closer to or farther from Connor.  Tilting the camera can be achieved by using a special toggle button on the keyboard, although when tilting is done, the camera tilts where it is, rather than orbiting about Connor.  For the most part the camera works well enough; however, there are a couple of levels, most notably the Underground Realm of the Gnomes and the Temple of the Sun, where the corridors are really cramped and it can be hard to swing the camera into a reasonable place to see what’s going on as the camera can get stopped by walls and corners if Connor isn’t standing far enough away.

Most of the game is spent either in combat or running from one place to another.  This is somewhat detrimental on the interaction front as challenges are widely spaced out so if you have one of those “ah-hah” moments where you think of an idea to try on one of the sporadic puzzles in the game, you may have a bit of a trek to get to that point.  Additionally, with the inventory out of sight for most of the time and with the distraction of the combat it can be easy to forget what you’re carrying, which can sometimes make it difficult to make connections between what you have in your inventory and what you might be able to use those items on in the environment.  Other than that, the “smart” cursor of interaction mode and the interaction inventory do get the job done in a fairly straightforward way.

     

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On the sixth day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Peasant’s Quest.

Having last played a game bearing the King’s Quest name, it seemed appropriate to move onto a game clearly inspired by the earlier entries in the King’s Quest series, namely Peasant’s Quest.  This game goes back to the days of Sierra’s parser based, 160x200 16 color resolution adventure games.

Before the term “direct control” was even coined it existed in the early adventures that this game spoofs.  As such it also exists here.  The arrow keys on the keyboard are used to move your character through rooms in the direction that they indicate, with one exception.  One puzzle late in the game sees your character temporarily blinded.  Here the arrow keys remap so that pressing down moves your character left, for example.  It’s a clever subversion of the control scheme without being so disorienting as to make the game unplayable.

The game also uses a text parser that understands simple commands such as look, get chicken feed, and throw baby (I’m not making that last one up).  The parser here is fairly limited even by normal parser standards.  The phrase “give chicken feed to man” doesn’t work but the phrase “give chicken feed” does at one point.  That said, the critical path through the game doesn’t involve any commands outside of the obvious.  There are a few optional puzzles in the game where you do have to get a bit more creative with the commands, but by keeping the core path free of these it means that the game is actually more playable than the majority of Sierra’s games that used this system.

The game also incorporates a mapping system, which was used in some Sierra games.  Peasant’s Quest fudges the resolution restrictions a bit, using more than 16 colors and 320x240 pixels.  This obviously provides more detail on all the screens, which helps with recognizing what objects are, but it’s particularly useful on the mapping screen where the increased level of detail allows the map to better illustrate what’s in each room discovered so far.

One other aspect of this game that deserves to be highlighted is the handling of death and, more importantly, walking dead situations.  It IS possible to die in this game, in fact you can type the command “die” to do yourself in.  However, any situation that could kill you is very apparent.  And if you do die it’s not the end of the world as the game keeps a progressive auto save going that you can quickly reload.  No need for the old mantra of save early, save often here.  As for walking dead situations, as far as I can tell it’s not possible to put the game into an un-winnable state by missing an inventory item or failing to do something early on in the game.

Overall, Peasant’s Quest takes the mechanics used by the early Sierra adventure games and sands off a few of the rougher edges.  In many respects, it makes for a much more playable game than those early pioneering efforts.

     

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Merry Christmas, everyone!

On the seventh day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble.

Sticking to the Sierra and Sierra-esque the next game up is The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble.  Although, technically Sierra only published this as it was developed by Coktel Vision instead.

Interface-wise the game has a fairly modern sensibility despite being released in 1995.  Left-clicking on items and hotspots will perform whatever context-sensitive interaction is needed.  Right-clicking will display your inventory as a series of icons.  Inventory items can be used on hotspots in the room but can’t be combined with each other.  There’s no need to combine inventory items though as the game gives you so many that at various points it provides sub-inventories, little cardboard box symbols in the main inventory that, when moused over, will display additional inventory.  These sub inventories group similar types of items together although the first couple of times you open your inventory to see a cardboard box instead of the item you actually picked up it can be a little disorienting.

Woodruff and the Schnibble is famous (some would say infamous) for being extremely hard.  Strictly speaking, this is not due to any inherrent difficulty in its puzzles as they’re almost all inventory item puzzles.  The difficulty comes from the fact that the game (a) provides only minimal direction on what to do and (b) provides even less feedback on your attempts to do those things.

Direction is important, not just in games, but in all software.  Being virtual, software doesn’t have to abide by “real world” rules.  It’s therefore critical that a designer build cues in to help direct people’s attention to what they should be doing to use that software.  It’s equally important for software to provide feedback.  When a person attempts something in a piece of software there should be some sort of response to help the person along.  Woodruff and the Schnibble doesn’t really succeed on either of these fronts as it presents a very wide open world with a lot of inventory items and very few cues as to where they might be useful.  As well, trying reasonable, but incorrect, combinations of inventory and hotspots will result in Woodruff getting frustrated and running a short animation that amounts to “that didn’t work” but nothing more than that.  The sheer number of inventory items, hotspots, and locations is also detrimental to using the brute force method of trying everything on everything.

The size of the game world also works against Woodruff and the Schnibble.  Early on you are confined to a few screens but this number fairly rapidly increases and never decreases.  Old rooms continue to remain available.  Not only do they remain available but most of them have hotspots that aren’t useful when first encountered, only becoming relevant later on.  You accumulate so many locations that about halfway through the game you’re given a teleportation device that brings up a menu of all the locations so you can fast travel from one to another.  This is fortunate as walking between distant locations is quite time consuming and tedious, not because Woodruff is a slow walker - he’s actually quite quick - but because many of the rooms are very twisty requiring a fair amount of backtracking for the character.

To its credit, Woodruff and the Schnibble does try to keep most backgrounds “alive” by having little animations run every now and then.  This includes having Woodruff run the occasional idle animation.  His idle animations can be entertaining the first few times, although they tend to wear out their welcome as while one is running your mouse pointer is taken away.  So if you’re scanning a room for hotspots and Woodruff goes idle you have to wait until his animation completes before you can resume your scanning.  It’s a rough edge on what would otherwise be a nice addition to the game.

While my intention with these design reviews is to not get into the specifics of individual puzzles or sequences there is one design choice made that I absolutely have to call on the carpet because it breaks trust with the player.  At one point Woodruff finds himself in a factory.  The player has to guide Woodruff through a multiple step puzzle, which involves random elements, in the quality assurance process of hats being manufactured by the factory.  The problem is a meta one, involving the ability to save while you’re in the factory room.  To put it simply: you can’t.  The game does not allow you to save your progress during this QA sequence.  BUT the interface allows you to access and seemingly use the save feature.  It gives every indication that you can save, letting you choose the save option and fill in a name for your save game, but the save is not in fact created.  As far as I can tell, it’s the only place in the game where you’re not allowed to save and it would be frustrating enough if the save option was disabled during this sequence but the fact that you can use it and it just does nothing?  Inconsistency in software is a big design no-no and for such a critical function as saving it is a major problem.

Strictly from a design standpoint (i.e. not taking the actual content of the game into consideration) Woodruff and the Schnibble is less than a success, violating far too many basic software design tenets.  For all of that, if you’re interested in software design it is a fascinating piece to look at to see where these design principles fall down.

     

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On the eighth day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Jack Orlando, Director’s Cut.

I hadn’t planned it this way, but as a follow up to Woodruff and the Schnibble the Jack Orlando game is interesting to look at as it has similar design issues.  Both games give only minimal direction on what a player should be doing and both games provide a vast array of inventory items, further clouding the waters.  Jack Orlando is particularly interesting on the inventory front as there are many random items that you can pick up through the adventure and the majority of those items seem to be red herrings, serving no purpose whatsoever other than to clutter the inventory.

One area in which Jack Orlando differs from Woodruff and the Schnibble is in its interface.  Jack Orlando provides a verb coin (technically a verb bullet) which provides options for picking items up, examining hotspots, punching, shooting, and an option for, well, everything else.  The default mode of the game is a context sensitive mode where clicking on a door will cause Jack to open it, clicking on a button will cause him to press it, clicking on a ladder will cause him to climb it, clicking on a person will cause him to talk to that person, etc.  The pick up function could have easily been incorporated into that context sensitive mode and the punch and shoot options are used so infrequently that they could have been moved to the inventory screen.  This would have left only the examine option, which could have simply been been triggered with a right-click of the mouse.

Speaking of right-clicks, the verb coin is opened by a right-click.  However, once the coin is open in order to close it either a mode must be left-clicked on or the escape key on the keyboard must be pressed.  The right-click cannot be used a second time to close the coin without making a choice.  This is significant because of the game’s inventory.  The inventory isn’t ordinarily displayed on screen and it’s not accessible through the verb coin.  Instead the F1 key on the keyboard must be pressed to open the inventory.  Once on the inventory screen, which is a completely separate screen from the main game, an item can be clicked to select it.  At that point it can either be used on another inventory item or the mouse can be right-clicked to close the inventory and use the item in the room Jack’s currently in.

Inconsistency in how software behaves is always a bad thing because inconsistencies lead to users making errors.  In this case, the game has one interface that is opened with a right-click and closed with a keyboard button and another interface that is opened with a keyboard button and closed with a right-click.  This inconsistency led to me accidentally opening the verb coin numerous times when I was trying to get to the inventory and vice versa.  It’s also a physically uncomfortable arrangement where almost the entirety of the game is driven from the mouse but you must keep one hand on the keyboard to toggle the inventory whenever you need to access it.

Over on the puzzle front Jack Orlando is a curiously backward game to look at.  For the most part the puzzle solutions in the game do make sense.  However, a good number of them only make sense in hindsight, meaning you’ll be doing a lot of seemingly random stuff to build up to a puzzle solution and only once the puzzle is solved will all the steps you took make sense.  As I said, a curiously backward game.

     

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This is quite an ambitious undertaking, Sabacc, and I’m finding your analysis of the game mechanics very interesting.  I didn’t start playing computer games until 1998, but if I had had access to those early games when they came out, especially those similar to Mean Streets and the Alone in the Dark series, I probably would have been discouraged from continuing to play adventure games.  I am glad that you are pursuing and helping to preserve this part of the history of the genre.  Thumbs Up

     

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Thanks Lady Kestrel.  It’s interesting to me to look at some of these older games and see the design choices of the times and to figure out not just what works and what doesn’t but why.  They say to be a writer you have to be a reader.  By that logic to be a game designer I think you have to be a student of game design.  At any rate…

On the ninth day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Tony Tough and the Night of Roasted Moths.

After playing a serious, drunk, tough guy P.I. in Jack Orlando I thought I’d follow that up with a trip to the lighter more comedic side of private investigation with Tony Tough and the Night of Roasted Moths.  Aside from a somewhat similar fashion sense - both detectives wear trench coats - Jack Orlando and Tony Tough also both make use of a verb coin interface.  However, Tony Tough’s interface is somewhat more refined than that of Jack Orlando.

In Tony Tough the verb coin appears when you hold the right-mouse button down over a hotspot or inventory item.  It disappears if the right-mouse button is released off of the coin.  Tony has verbs for examine, use, talk, and take.  Late in the game he gets an additional verb - reveal himself - which I didn’t find a use for but assume must exist, otherwise why add it.  With no inconsistent keyboard keys to deal with, Tony’s interface works much more smoothly.

The inventory is also more easily accessible than in Jack Orlando.  By default the inventory slides up when the mouse is moved to the bottom of the screen.  Interestingly, the game allows for this to be customized in the game’s options.  It can alternately be placed at the top of the screen and can be made to stay persistent in either position.  It’s a small detail, but getting the small details right can turn mediocre software into good software and good software into great software.

The inventory isn’t the only thing that can slide out from the bottom in this game.  When talking to another character a panel slides out from the bottom with all the dialog options available.  Tony is a very loquacious character and the dialog options that are presented are not abbreviated in any way.  This means that when the dialog panel displays it can cover up almost the entirety of the screen.  This is a little jarring but otherwise the dialog selection works fine and in typical fashion.

Overall, Tony Tough is fairly typical of traditional point-n-click adventure games, although the presence of game options to allow for the customization of placement and functionality of interface elements is a nice touch that few games implement even to this day.

     

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I haven’t played or even considered any of these games, so it’s an interesting read.
I might give Mean streets a try to, assuming I can find it somewhere online. GOG might have it, come to think of it.

Thanks for the extensive write-ups. Hope it doesn’t give you any adventure game fatigue after these many days Laughing

     
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Thanks for reading my extensive write-ups, subbi!  Smile  No worries about adventure game fatigue as I’m still going strong.  And you can get Mean Streets and the second Tex game, Martian Memorandum, as one purchase on GOG.

On the tenth day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…The Journeyman Project 2: Buried in Time.

Journeyman Project 2 is an odd technological stepping stone between the first and third games in the Journeyman Project trilogy.  If you’re unfamiliar with the games, the first game is very Myst-esque providing slideshow screenshots that you click around to move from one “node,” or stopping point in the game world, to another.  The third game also has you move from node to node, but instead of being static screenshots you can think of each node as an orb that you can freely turn around in and look up and down at any angle in real time.  I mention these other two games because it makes it easier to describe the second game.

In Journeyman Project 2 you still move node to node as in the other games.  However, at each node you can turn in ninety degree increments.  You can also look 45 degrees up and 45 degrees down.  And turn in 90 degree increments while looking up and while looking down.  So each node in the game consists of twelve static images that you can rotate through slideshow-style.  It’s in between the simpler, fewer image first game and the orb-image third game.  In trying to provide the freedom of rotation of the third game but with the first game’s slideshow-presentation it ends up being more than a little cumbersome.  It can also trip players up as there are several items (I’m thinking of a coil of rope in particular in one area of the game) where the item can only be seen when you’re turned exactly the right way and facing up or down as appropriate.  In order to not miss any potential items it then becomes important at every node in the game to search all twelve images on the off chance that one of those images has something important.

Moving from node to node is also different in this game.  In other node based games you typically click somewhere within the current node to move to the next node.  Here a compass of sorts is presented on one side of the screen with arrows for moving forward, left, right, up, and down.  Only the arrows for those directions that are valid for the current node are enabled.  This makes it easier to tell which directions are available than in many other node based games and the compactness of the compass means less moving across the screen when a familiar path is to be trod again with no need to scan each node for hotspots.

Journeyman Project 2 runs at 640x480 resolution, which was considered relatively hi-res at the time it was released.  Despite that, it does not do a good job of utilizing all those pixels.  A lot of the screen is dead space, begin taken up by the background for the interface.  One place that definitely could have made use of the wasted space is the inventory, especially the biochips.  In the game you have a time traveling suit that you can install different biochips.  Among the biochips are ones for logging evidence, for translating languages, for jumping to other time periods, for accessing the games options (yes, this is an inventory item, not something that you can access by going to the top of the screen or hitting escape), and one for the AI companion you receive in game.  The problem you run into is that you can only have one of these chips active at a time.  You’ll constantly be going to the inventory to switch between biochip “modes” and regular inventory items.  The reason I mention the screen real estate is that the game only lists five inventory items at a time.  You can then press the up and down arrows, which move the inventory up or down one item at a time, or you can double your speed by picking the top or bottom inventory item, which will move that item to the middle of the displayed list, effectively scrolling the list in either direction two items at a time instead of one.

My review of this game wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t single out one particularly tiresome (literally) part of the game.  The game opens with a very interesting premise (always a good thing); however, once it gives control to the player the developers felt it was a good idea to drop almost an hour and a half of backstory in one go.  This is done via a series of news reports and articles that you watch and read respectively.  This core dump of information bogs down the game before it even has a chance to really start and I found myself nodding off at several points as the info isn’t particularly interestingly presented but does contain a number of critical hints that prevent you from dying later on.  What makes this info dump even worse is that near the end of the game you’re confronted with it all again except that in a single one of the news stories there is one extra bit of information that is critical to completing the game.  On this replay, I remembered that critical bit was there but I didn’t want to go through another hour and a half of repeat back story trying to find it, so off to a walkthrough I went.  Games, being interactive, have the ability to put in optional stuff that players can skip over (as opposed to “fixed format” things like books or movies).  However, this optional stuff needs to be clearly signposted and in this case, while the majority of the info dump is optional, there are enough critical nuggets in it that it becomes a chore to trudge through.

     

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Hi Sabbac. Very interesting thread you make here!
I tried Mean Streets many years ago but the shooting etc put me off. I don’t even remember finishing it. If you haven’t already you should try the next one: Martian Memorandum. It’s one of the best Tex Muphy games, including the 3D ones, in my opinion.

     
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Hey, tsa!  I’m a big fan of the Tex Murphy series and got really excited to hear that another Tex game is in the works after Poisoned Pawn that’s set to cap off the series.  I did enjoy Martian Memorandum.  It’s much more in the Sierra vein, I felt, but with some fun stuff all its own.  But before I get sidetracked with that I should move on to today’s game.  :-)

On the eleventh day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Beneath a Steel Sky.

Beneath a Steel Sky is a fairly streamlined point-n-click adventure game.  The left mouse button is used to move around the world, to look at hotspots, and to talk to characters.  The right right mouse button is used to interact with hotspots.  It’s an interesting choice to make “look” the primary action and “use” a secondary action but it works well here.  The game uses 320x200 256 color graphics and you’re frequently interacting with very tiny hotspots that are reduced to a handful of pixels in size.  Even with the tooltips that display when you mouse over these hotspots it can be hard to tell what you might be interacting with.  Having the look tool be the primary tool helps alleviate this issue.

The game also provides and inventory bar, which is hidden at the top of the screen.  Pushing the mouse to the top edge displays the inventory, which operates in typical fashion, selecting one item and then using it on another or on a hotspot in the current room.  Special mention should be made of the Linc-space inventory though.

At several points in the game your character is able to enter a virtual world called Linc-space.  At this time your normal inventory items vanish and are replaced with items appropriate to a virtual world such as passwords, file decrypters, etc.  Visually, Linc-space goes more abstract and metaphorical in its presentation both in the inventory and the rooms themselves.  For example, one door in Linc-space is guarded by a knight.  The difficulty with using these abstract visual representations is the difficulty with all icon-based software (games, operating systems, whatever).  What may be an obvious visual metaphor to a designer is not so obvious to a user.  For example, an icon somewhat resembling a red and green Yin-Yang symbol is used to represent a password.  To compensate for the abstractness, looking at a symbol in the Linc-space inventory will provide something similar to a “man” (manual) page from Unix, providing a brief text description of what the tool is.  The man page feel fits nicely with the virtual world theme although it is a bit surprising when first encountered as almost all of the rest of the game is voiced but the man pages aren’t.

Beneath a Steel Sky was developed using the Virtual Theater engine.  The idea behind this was to give some smarts to the NPCs of the game so that they can wander around the game world and add more life to the background.  For the most part this works well and achieves its goal.  Characters move about in areas that make sense for them and it makes the rooms more interesting than just having characters be static waiting for the player to interact with them.  There are a couple of rough edges to the system, however.

The player character and the NPCs all take up space in the game world.  This means that if one character is standing in front of another character then that other character can’t move until the first one gets out of the way.  If YOU are the other character then you’ve either got to walk away or else wait for the blocking NPC to move.  That tends to be more of a minor annoyance than anything.

The larger problem with the Virtual Theater system is that sometimes you need to interact with a specific character to advance in the game and that character is not easily found.  Or else you do something or give something to a character and you then need to wait for that character to move to a specific spot in the gameworld before what you did takes effect.  At best it slows the game down at worst it makes you wonder if you took the right action because there can sometimes be a noticeable lag between you doing something and you seeing the result of that something simply because you’re waiting for an affected NPC to arrive.

On the whole Beneath a Steel Sky works well and is quite streamlined.  It just has a few rough edges here and there that are easy enough to look past.

     

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Wow, how is day twelve here already?  Crazy.  Crazy fun.  Smile

On the twelfth day of Christmas, adventure games gave to me…Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.

For this review I looked at the original Broken Sword as opposed to the updated Director’s Cut.  This first game in the Broken Sword series was the next game after Beneath a Steel Sky to be released by Revolution.  It’s interesting then to see the changes made in the technical design.

For the most part, interactions in Broken Sword are carried out through the use of a multi cursor.  This time around the left mouse button runs almost everything from moving, talking to characters, picking up items, opening, doors, and examining hotspots.  However, the examination of hotspots is interesting in this game.  If a hotspot can only be looked at then left-clicking on that hotspot WILL look at it.  However, if that hotspot can also be interacted with in some way then it must be RIGHT-clicked to examine it.  This leads to a couple of “meta” puzzles at various points in the game where your character has to examine an interactive hotspot to gain knowledge of it to use elsewhere.  I put a similar meta puzzle in my first Sleuthhounds game and I’ve regretted it ever since as it’s not really about having players figure out something in the game world so much as it’s about having them figure out the interface.

On the topic of hotspots it’s interesting to note that Broken Sword ditched the helpful mouse-over tooltips that Beneath a Steel Sky has.  While it’s true that Broken Sword has over 4 times the resolution, running at 640x480 instead of 320x200, a number of hotspots still remain quite small and difficult to discern leading to more careful pixel hunting than was needed in Beneaeth a Steel Sky.

While Broken Sword has a fair number of inventory puzzles the focus of the game is on conversations with other characters.  This is where most of the play time will be spent.  Broken Sword uses an icon based system for conversations.  Instead of seeing specific lines of text or even keywords for what your character will say, small pictures are presented in a bar at the bottom of the screen to choose from.  Simultaneously during a conversation the inventory is displayed at the top of the screen and inventory items can also be chosen as topics of conversation.  This means there are a LOT of topics to ask characters about, especially as many of the conversation items must be used multiple times to hear everything a character has to say on a subject.

While all these conversation options provide a lot of background and nuance to the story and characters it does mean that the vast majority of things you can talk about don’t actually help to advance you through the game itself.  Broken Sword falls into the same trap as many adventure games that rely heavily on dialog trees.  The dialogs tend to become little more than extended, rather static cutscenes that need to be periodically unpaused (because you have to pick the next conversation option).

On the exploration front, Broken Sword does provide one nice touch that I think I’ll, er, borrow for my own games in the future.  Broken Sword has a quite a number of rooms that are wider than the display of the monitor, meaning that they scroll as you move across them.  In most games that have such rooms the player has to repeatedly click as the room scrolls to keep their character walking.  Not so in Broken Sword.  Here, once the character starts he’ll keep walking until he reaches the edge of the room or the player clicks somewhere specific to interrupt the walk.  It’s a helpful thing to do as it allows players to scan the room for hotspots while the character is walking rather than having to micromanage the walk itself.

And with that my twelve days of Christmas comes to an end.  It’s been fascinating to look at all these different games and different takes on how adventure games are pieced together.  Who knows?  I may pop up again with the odd design review or two throughout the year.  After all, if you want to make games, it really helps to play games.  Happy New Year, everyone!

     

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Herculean effort, Sabacc! My head would have exploded long before twelve adventure games in twelve days. Heck, it started smoking just reading through all these great reports! Tongue Interesting reads, though, all of them.

Many, many thanks (in fact, 360 of them, if I’m counting correctly) for all the great screenshots you took during your playthroughs as well. Smile

And a Happy New Year right back atcha, my friend!

     

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