Now that I’m among people who love and make games all the time, a question that has surrounded me for years keeps presenting itself in ever-varying ways: why do we even have adventure games? How did they ever get popular? Why are so many people trying to bring them back?
Surely, adventure games aren’t really games, are they? There’s usually one possible outcome. You follow a story that you don’t even get to influence, unlike role-playing games, where the players actually get to make the story in many ways. Sure, there are a few puzzles to solve, but really you might as well watch a movie or TV series and you can get pretty much the same thing and not have to click for hours to get it.
Actually, there is something to that last point: adventure games are in many ways closer to TV series than to many other games. And their purpose is much closer to television than to, say, a fighting game.
A few days ago, I was watching an episode of the TV series Once Upon a Time with my roommate. That episode ended with a revelation about how a character in the “A” plot matched a character in the “B” plot. This a very common technique in Once Upon a Time. About two-thirds through the episode, my roommate exclaimed, “I just figured out who he is!” There was an implicit tone of contest: I had not figured it out. I actually had not even figured out that there was a new connection made in this episode. After that point, I started thinking about it and I figured it out too. When the episode ended, our assumption was confirmed: we had gotten it right.
In many stories, though, the fun actually comes from getting it wrong and being surprised by that failure. In his game design class at Carnegie Mellon, Jess Schell refutes the claim that some entertainment, like television, is passive, and some, like games, is active. He claims — and makes a very good case for it — that all entertainment is active. The way my roommate and I put active effort into figure out that part of Once Upon a Time is a clear illustration of that.
Note that here was no explicit challenge presented to us. Nor was there an explicit mystery in the show, unlike, for example, in a murder mystery where the identity of the killer is presented as an explicit challenge. The implicit nature of the mystery did not make it in any way less compelling.
Now, one could argue that the challenge was, still mechanical and that it comes from one of the series main, for the lack of a better word, “mechanics.” But this sort of engagement is present throughout fiction. Let’s take Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as an example. Jane Austen was certainly not writing a television series nor a video game. In it, two characters make a claim directly related to each other’s moral and social status: Mr Darcy claims that Mr Wickham is an immoral man who should not be trusted and who, if one allows oneself to give him any credit, will use his influence to perform harmful actions. Mr Wickham, on the other hand, claims that Mr Darcy is cold ad unfeeling and that he takes pleasure in belittling others in order to increase his own sense of heightened self-esteem. The reader is asked to take sides, just as implicitly and just as actively as in Once Upon a Time. And the challenge is just as balanced as any video game is balanced. On the one hand, the central character, the though who we actually view the story, is very much inclined to side with Mr Wickham. She presents evidence against Mr Darcy that is reinforced by the fact that it is the point-of-view character that’s presenting it. On the other hand, we also know that Mr Darcy is one of the main characters and we know that the title of the work is “Pride and Prejudice, or First Impressions” which strongly indicates that false perception will be a important component of the story.
A more explicit way of seeing this is when a story is told in person. One should always make the most of their medium in all circumstances. I have another blog post precisely about that. When telling a story in person, it’s usually a good idea to tell it in such a way that the person (or people) you’re telling it to can interrupt. Actually, scripted stories in which a story is told very ofter use that technique. If someone who’s telling a story in person in a way that could allow interruptions outright rejections them, for example by saying something like, “Please, don’t interrupt me. I‘m telling the story”, they are simply neglecting their mediam.
Adventure games reverse the order in which that participation occurs in the story. Instead of leaving places where to say, “guess what happens now?”, they are constantly saying, “Guess what happens now?”
Unlike games like the Professor Leyton series, an excellent series of games, but not adventure games, in actual adventure games, the story is not present to frame the puzzles, but the puzzles are present to enhance interaction with the story. Tim Schafer’s Day of the Tentacle provide an excellent example of puzzles that work to enhance storytelling-focused gameplay. While action games give players the opportunity to direct fighting parts, or the navigating part of stories in an interactive format, adventure games let players play with the “Guess what’s next?” part. There’s more to it of course, but this is the main spirit that drives them.
So, in short, adventure games are a digital medium that is centered on the part of storytelling that makes us feel like saying, “Let me see if I can guess what happens next.”