Tag Archives: adventure games

Three adventure games

I played stuff

Related imageRelatively recently, I played three adventure games that were fairly compelling and impressive, but only one really blew me away. Two of these adventure games were by, arguably, the greatest designers of the genre: Ron Gilbert and Tim Shafer, in their great return to adventure game design. One was by a rather meek newcomer: Swedish independent Natalia Figueroa. This post is about how Ms. Figueroa blew me away.

Now one could argue that my expectations were very high for Schafer and Gilbert and very low for Figueroa, and that would be true. But that’s not where their games differed. Ms. Figueroa’s game shone in a very different and much simpler way.

The three games are the following: Tim Schafer reignited the flame of adventure games and probably strongly contributed in making Kickstarter a valid platform by using it to fund the adventure game that would eventually become Broken Age. Ron Gilbert followed suit with Thimbleweed Park. Natalia Figueroa also funded her game through crowdfunding, though in her case it was through Indiegogo. She made Fran Bow. Fran Bow was released shortly after the second part of Broken Age, a year and a half before Thimbleweed Park.

Broken Age

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Broken Age is meticulously designed, masterfully executed, innovative, charming and probably does not contain anything seriously wrong.

First, as one should expect from Tim Schafer, the art of Broken Age is executed in an extremely thorough way. The backgrounds are superb. The animation is simple, expressive and memorable. The voice acting is fantastic and some of the voice talent in Broken Age is performed by famous Hollywood and TV actors.

The basic premise is that, as the title indicates, the player is offered to play as either Vella, who seems to live in a idyllic fairytale-like world or Shay, who lives in a science fiction-like world. Neither world is fully coherent and both have details that just look wrong, or sometimes just elements that just don’t belong. Still, neither Vella nor Shay’s story seems to clearly connect to the other. The game is clearly divided in two parts and the implicit purpose of the first part is to figure out the connection between the two main player characters and their respective worlds. This is in addition to the general goal of the adventure game which is always to move the story forward.

This is a compelling premise. Shay and Vella seem to be separated in every conceivable way: one travels through space, one is stuck in a small area of land. One seems to live centuries after the other. Although, conceivably, Vella could be living on one of the planets Shay visits. Still, both characters are kept a distance that’s just effective enough to keep the player digging and seeking.

Shafer is no stranger to multicharacter adventure games. He’s mostly famous for Full Throttle and Grim Fandango, but I would still argue that his masterpiece is Day of the Tentacle, where the player had control of three extremely expressive characters, Bernard, Hoagie and Laverne, each separated by two hundred years in time.  The time puzzle of Day of Tentacle, which are at the core of the multicharacter aspect of the game, are one of its more memorable parts.

That is, if it works. And while the mystery of the connection between Shay and Vella does work, without a doubt in Broken Age, it’s not enough to keep the two parts connected. Not even in the second part of the game when they are connected not just through the continuous deepening mystery of how they are linked, but through specific puzzles and therefore through gameplay.

The problem with Broken Age

Image result for broken age wolf

And this is one of many ways in which Broken Age fails. For all of its meticulous attention to detail. For all of its exquisite art, delightful details, charming mood, stunning reversals and surprises, it feels unfinished, empty, hollow.

Not just that: it feels unfinished because it is too detailed. I know that sounds strange. Let me explain. It feels as if if more resources had been assigned into content and less into art, the game might have felt fuller, more meaty.

But it does not. Shay’s ship feels pretty small and empty. Shay, for reason that eventually become clear, never actually leaves his ship in part one of Broken Age. Vella does get to explore her land, but not very far. And she does not get to know that many people. And the people she does get to know are interesting, but she never seems to be able to interact with them that much.

Guybrush Threepwood from Monkey Island games, the three characters from Day of the Tentacle or April Ryan and Zoë Castillo from the Longest Journey games all seemed to be able to enter and touch much deeper, more complicated, more tangible, messier at times, fuller worlds. In comparison, the worlds of Broken Age feels like a empty template of what it could have been. It feels short. Like a thin slice of a wonderful, but overly decorated cake.

After I played it, I thought that Ron Gilbert, were he to make an adventure game, would focus less on voice and graphics and more on content. He’d give us a big, complex, deep, mysterious story with meaningful interaction. And that’s still what I expected when Thimbleweed Park was finally announced.

Thimbleweed Park

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When I saw the opening screen of Broken Age, I knew nothing about the game. I didn’t even know I’d have to begin by picking between two characters. I wanted to start playing as a complete blank slate. But when I came to Thimbleweed Park, I wanted to keep on top of things. I followed the blog. I even contributed. I made up a title for the bookstore and I wrote three books for the library.

Thimbleweed Park is also a multicharacter adventure game. It starts as a murder mystery. A body has been found in the eponymous Thimbleweed Park in 1987, an decaying city. The player controls five characters, including two FBI agents, a young game designer, her father, and a clown. The game is full of references to old games designed by Ron Gilbert, Gary Winnick and their colleagues and seems to target, at least in part, their long-time fans.

Just like I had hoped, Thimbleweed Park did not look too polished. Ron Gilbert seemed to be focused more on content than on presentation. Again, I do not and would never deny the importance of presentation, but I am curious about a game where most of the effort is focused on creating deep, meaningful content. Ron Gilbert’s blog entries talked a lot about storylines and about puzzles. There were a lot of posts about art too, but the art seemed to be kept efficient, and manageable.

When I remember Ron Gilbert’s main games, the Monkey Island games as well as Maniac Mansion, they were not just interactive stories, but they were worlds with strong storylines that the player could fully explore in a narrative way. Not in an RPG way. There were no monsters to kill, but you could make any joke available to any character without fear of consequence, just to see how they would react. That’s a narrative form of exploration. At the same time, the secrets of these worlds would slowly be unveiled to you. I was hoping the new game would be like that.

The problem with Thimbleweed Park

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But to me, Thimbleweed Park was not like that. That world, while intriguing, seriously lacked tension. The mysteries felt flat. The jokes were interesting references, but were not funny. I found one character truly compelling: Delores. Franklin, her father also came off as sympathetic, but mostly again because of the way he related to her. Delores was a fully-realized character. He story was interesting; he dialog was funny; her goals were easy to identify with; the mystery around her was truly puzzling. And the gameplay that came out of that was truly fun. But it also underlined how flat the other characters’ storylines felt in compasion.

Still, overall, my main objection with Thimbleweed Park was how arty it felt. Usually, I approve of artistic ambition in games, but in this case, it came at a very costly price. The game starts with an actually intriguing murder mystery. However, as the game progresses, it slips into a completely meta reflection on itself. This is daring and I’m not sure that the game pulls it off. As banal as is sounds, if we had explored the connection between each citizen of Thimbleweed Park and the murder victim, I think it might have made for a more interesting game.

I would also like to point out that I’ve played the game shortly after its release. At the time, the characters could not talk to each other and there was no hint system. Also, there arcade was closed. I have not played the game since, mostly because I did not enjoy that much the first time. But this inability, now fixed, for the characters to communicate felt terribly wrong. It made the whole world of Thimbleweed Park feel hollow.

Fran Bow

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Fran Bow follows an episode in the life of its title character, a young girl called Fran Bow, who lives in New England in the US in the fifties. In a very long intro scene, we learn has no friends, except for a pet cat. One night, a horrifying creature kills her whole family but she and her cat escape. She ends up in a mental asylum. She is certain that her cat is still alive in the forest. There, she is treated with an experimental medication that gives her terrifying visions. Realizing that, her doctor immediately stops her treatment. But Fran thinks that these pills can help her find her cat.

The game has a very simple interface. Fran can walk, look at things, use things, use dialog trees (always with two options), and swallow a pill. Under the influence of a pill, she can close the pill bottle, with will stop the pill from being effective. While the pills are in effect, she has visions. And, of course, her visions are real. But the player is quickly challenged to questioned what “real” means.

The dialog seems to be written by someone whose native language is not English. There’s an overuse of the phrase, “It’s fine.” The graphics are a bit clumsy. At first, the puzzles are fascinating, but towards the end, I’d accuse the game of puzzle-stuffing. By that, I mean that Natalia Figueroa seemed to want to tell a story but was making a game so she interrupted her story with puzzles that didn’t really need to be there. There are all details. Trifles. Overall, I would argue, that Fran Bow is a true masterpiece. More so than either Thimbleweed Park or Broken Age.

What works with Fran Bow

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Fran Bow perfectly mixes a deep, complex story with compelling gameplay. It’s hard to talk about without giving too much away but there’s one thing that I can say with confidence about Fran Bow: at every step of the way, I thought, “Oh, I know exactly where this is going” and at every step I was wrong. The game was several step away from me. This was true of both the story and the gameplay and in both cases, they were really the same thing.

This also happened for Thimbleweed Park, but not in the same direction. I’d think, “Oh, I think I know where this is going…” but it went in a different direction but I wish it had gone in the direction I had wanted. That’s less good.

Fran Bow plays with its own rules constantly, but never ignores them. For example, you think you know how the pills work, but you don’t. Even though the rules of how the pills work are as given to you, they never change. You just don’t have all the element yet to understand what those rules mean.

Also, Fran Bow is long. Every time, I thought I was near the end, I realized I was nowhere near it. And every time I thought the tone of the game had changed completely, I realized that it really had not. I was just fooled into mistaking a temporary alcove for a whole new structure.

Image result for fran bow

Fran visits deep, complex worlds. She interacts with strange, complex people. She herself is worth getting to know. Her world is fascinating and full. Fran Bow also shows strong authorship. One can clearly tell is is the work of a dedicated author with a vision. It has flaws, but its flaws make it better. It allows to hang onto it, unlike a completely smooth surface that a player or other art appreciator would just slip off of.

I have no idea what Natalia Figueroa will do next. I’d say there’s no way she’ll do something as good as this next time, but, honestly, there was almost no way she’d do something nearly as good as Fran Bow the first time, so, in all fairness, all best are off.

Final note about Thimbleweed Park

One thing about Thimbleweed Park that is probably worth noting is its engine. Based on the game’s development blog, it looks like the engine for Thimbleweed Park could be an amazing tool to make new adventure games. Ron Gilbert, who was, after all, the lead developer of the legendary SCUMM engine, put a huge amount of effort into making it. He did say he would consider releasing the engine but made no promises.

It is not unheard of that when a game splits its effort between its content and its engine, it cannot deliver as much of its content as one might hope. I’d argue that’s why the first Assassin’s Creed had much more repetitive content than the second one. For the first game, the whole rules of how the game was played, the mechanics and most likely the engine had to be built. The second game only had to build on that.

I know a lot of people loved Thimbleweed Park. I have high hopes for its engine.

Why no dialog trees in Go, Jill!

My current side project is a text adventure tentatively called Go, Jill!. I want it to be a mostly-free roaming world with a main linear story where the player character, the titular Jill, will be able to talk about a lot of things to a lot of people. But one thing I don’t want is dialog trees.

Interactive story and branching

Dialog trees are very similar to the concept of branching stories. Usually, when people hear the term “interactive story” they think of branching story. It seems to make sense, right? How else is a story going to be interactive? In fact, there are many arguments that can be made both in favor of and against branching in interactive stories. Most of them were masterfully presented in the book Interactive Storytelling for Video Games.

In general, branching gives a better sense of agency, and that’s a good thing. But, as counterbalance to that, branching carries many downsides, some of which are:

  • It’s hard to write one good story, let alone several good ones.
  • Similarly, in a scripted story (as opposed to an improvised one), a good plot is usually made by planting narrative seeds that will bear fruit later. This is further complicated if the story branches.
  • A story should generally be surprising. If it branches, people will either be progressing at random or not be surprised.
  • Generally, the end of a story either presents a conclusion or a clearly purposeful sense of non-conclusiveness (like The Sopranos). If the story branches, one may always have the impression that the conclusion they saw is only one of many and that often feels wrong.

An ending being only one of many if fine if the game one plays is really set to make people construct their own narrative. Several role-playing games are made precisely to allow that. However, while they are clearly set in a narrative-like world, they don’t have an actual narrative in the generally accepted sense of the term. The ending the players arrive at simply did not exist before they played. It is not one of many pre-existing ones.

Dialog trees

Dialog trees are mostly a form of branching. Even if great care is placed in making sure that they never have negative consequences (like Ron Gilbert did) every time a choice is made it usually prevents another one. In a game of strategy that’s good, but in a narrative context, that’s bad. Furthermore, most dialog trees don’t take the care Ron Gilbert did and actively use dialog trees to alter the course of the story and branch it out.

And here, we have many problems. The first one is that characters usually know more about their own world than the player does. That’s something that very visible in David Cage’s work. A character can open a drawer and find a photo than makes him sad. The player had no way of knowing that the photo would be there, but the character did. At the end, such choices are just random to the player.

Dialog trees are just like that only more so. When we talk to someone in life, we usually have a good idea of what will offend them and what will make them happy. In games, it’s mostly luck. It’s actually worse than luck because the narration of the games forces it to be surprising, on an innocent-sounding phrase is unpredictably likely to turn out to be offensive to a character for the sake of drama. If it weren’t, the story would be boring.

Also, some of the choices offered in dialog trees might be a lot less subtle than what the player has in mind. Let’s say a character asks the player “Should I go talk to my friend about her husband being unfaithful?” and the possible choices are “Yes,” “No,” and “I don’t know, maybe.” And answer like “Yes” can lead to

  • “You totally should. You’d be a horrible friend if you didn’t.”
  • Or “Yeah. I think so. If you don’t and she found out you knew, she’s going to blame you for it.”
  • Or “If you want. I mean, it’s your decision.”
  • Or “Sure. I’ll go with you. I can’t wait to see the bitch go down!”
  • Or “Yes. Let’s go to the café that just opened downtown.”

Even if the whole first line is given, the conversation might end up having the player character say things that the player never expected.

This is randomness, and randomness and storytelling don’t go well together. This is one of the areas where it is particularly tough for story and gameplay to merge. As Jesse Schell is very found of teaching, randomness is generally good for games. He also likes to say that story is often good for games as well. For my part, I’ll add that randomness is usually terrible for stories.

My alternative

Let’s be sensible: for point-and-click games, dialog trees are still the best solution. But Go, Jill! is going to be a text adventure. For that medium, dialog trees can easily be a bad decision. It’s very important to use one’s medium as much as possible. And I have a blog post about just that topic. For a text adventure, I always found dialog trees to be clunky. A sort of haphazard interface inside of the main interface. Text adventures do not have a perfect interface, obviously, but throwing a dialog tree in the middle of it takes away their main attribute: free exploration or at least the illusion of it. If I’m playing a text adventure, I like to feel like I can type anything. I know that only a few words will actually work, but if I play along and the game is well made, that feeling can still hold.

Some people often like to say that text adventures are misleading because they claim the user can type anything in the input field but only very few of these commands will work. First of all, a list of suggested commands were usually distributed with games at the time. Second, all games restrict actions. Try and have Mario walk in front of a pipe in the 2D games! Get Nathan Drake to talk the people who are shooting at him into changing sides! Take a saw and try dividing up those Tetris tiles! Go ahead, do it! Games are restrictive by nature. Text adventures, like all games, try to use their limitations to be better from them, as opposed to artificially build clutter and pretend that those limitations do not exist.

What I intend to do with Go, Jill! is to encourage the players to have Jill ask about and tell about as many things as possible to the non-player characters, with a specific focus on relations between people. It’ll be a lot of content, but I’ll try to make it work. Again, this will mostly be about exploration. The main consequence to most of that content will be the way the player explores and understands the story. With some exceptions, the actual gameplay will be unaffected. So, for example, Jill will be able to ask character A what he thinks of his romantic partner’s relationship with his mother. This will not be a suggested topic, just not I’ll throw in there. If the player tries it, there will be a response.

The idea is that from one same mass of text, each player will be able to explore the parts of the story that they want at will. Progress will depend on them following the main story path, but it will truly be an interactive experience in the way most of the backstory and underlying relationships will only emerge if the player seeks them out.

There is no negative consequence to picking the wrong option because there is no option to pick. There is no frustration for getting to the wrong ending because there is only one ending. But if a player is not interested in an aspect of the backstory or a character’s opinion, they simply won’t have to pursue it. If, on the other hand they want to learn all they can about what most of the characters think about things, that will be available to them with no in-game downside.

This will definitely not be a game one plays to win but one that one plays to explore.

Tex Murphy: Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

Box cover from Mean Streets

I played the first game in the Tex Murphy series today, Mean Streets. I didn’t expect much and that’s just what I got. I played the third and fifth of the five games way back when and I loved them. The second one had something of a good reputation, but not the first. Now, I understand why.

Many good ideas, but…

There’s actually a lot of good stuff in Mean Streets. A lot of good stuff. And that’s part of the problem. Many of the ideas are good but:

  • aren’t finished,
  • don’t work well together,
  • don’t belong in this game and
  • while not bad get in the way of gameplay rather than improve it

Still, many of these good ideas are very typical of the early days of video game design, particularly of narrative-based video game design: too much freedom was given to the player, which requires more meaningful content that can or even should be produced.

Let’s look at this in more detail.

Mean Streets had a fully-explorable 3D world in 1989

That, in itself, is impressive. It’s similar to L.A. Noire in concept: the player gets to move at will throughout a city. At specific areas, there are items to interact with. In L.A. Noire, I was impressed the by amount of work that had gone into that system, but I didn’t think it was particularly fun. In Mean Streets, the fact the developers got it to work at all is extremely impressive, but it’s a huge burden on the player and not fun at all. In the end, the player is regularly given four-digit “navigation codes” to be entered in an autopilot system that clumsily navigates through the 3D city.

This system just adds unnecessary steps to get to a destination, when just selecting them from a list would have been much more comfortable. Furthermore, the model for the city is ridiculously simple. It’s just a few shapes on a flat map with in extremely low resolution seen from a tiny viewport. Again, the concept was daring and it’s impressive that it worked technically, but the actual gameplay of it brings nothing but frustration. It takes a lot of time to get from one place to the next, and most of the time, there’s nothing to do but watch very slow movement within an environment and a few numbers changing on the screen.

In the story, the 3D world is navigated with a 3D car. It is possible to fly the car manually and go anywhere. But the controls are so awkward and complex that it is in fact almost impossible to get anywhere by doing that. A fully-polished flight simulator in a rich, detailed world might have been a fun games, but it would not have been an adventure game, at least not in 1989.

Mean Streets allows free input dialog

That’s part of the dream for adventure game developers: allow your player to have rich, detailed, subtle conversations with your characters. Mean Streets goes further and, like Maupiti Island, once a characters has answered a question, the player character, Tex Murphy and either threaten them or bribe them for more information. This is most likely suppose to give a strong sensation of freedom. But it’s not what happens in practice at all.

What actually happens is that both in the manual and in in-game dialog, the player is instructed to write everything down, with numerous repeated advice to check for spelling. The instructions to check for spelling are repeated several times in the manual, sometimes several limes per page in bold, capital letters. What this means, is that one has to write down outside of the game any name that is given and type it back exactly inside of dialog text input boxes. Any deviation will cause the characters to be confused. Bribing or threatening hardly ever worked. It actually never worked when I tried it. I can only guess that it does eventually, if not it would not be in the game.

There’s in built-in help system

It’s possible to pay an informer for hints, but Tex has limited money and there’s no way to know if the informer will have any information or how much she’ll charge for it. This makes the whole process random and frustrating.

The intent and the result

The goal of all this was obviously to hide the linearity of the game. One of the buzzwords of the time was “non-linear.” We now know that there’s nothing essentially wrong with linearity in games. Super Mario Bros. is completely linear and is still considered one of the best games of all time. This absolutely extends to narrative games: the games in the Ace Attorney series are mostly linear and are also very highly praised. The way it’s possible (although not practical) for the player to roam around and the way money can be spent on bribes and informants give the impression that one can reach the end of the game in many ways.

In order to add an action element, there are short combat sections, not unlike in the games of Quantic Dreams. I found they mostly lead to a game over and if one had not saved, a lot of gameplay is lost. But it’s not like the combat sections are announced. They can come at any time and the conclusion of a failed combat section is a game over screen. Combat is generally a bad idea in an adventure game, but unannounced combat that interrupts gameplay based on conversation that just ends the game is even worse.

The game also tried to vary mechanics, much like God of War did successfully years later. But what we got instead was what Yahtzee Croshaw would call a schizophrenic interface. There is:

  • a free-roaming 3D interface for the flying car
  • a non-interactive 3D view for autopilot in the flying car
  • a side-scrolling view for combat
  • a face-to-face view with text input for dialog, and another, equivalent one for phone calls,
  • a visual-novel-like themed interface for locations,
  • white-on black text popups for narration

and others that I might not have encountered. Many of those are not bad, again, they’re just out of place, or unfinished, or too numerous, or a combination of the above.

There’s also a huge contradiction between the views of the city in the flying car and in the side-view action sequences. It’s simply impossible that these two worlds have anything in common. Again, not bad as such, but completely incompatible. That is also true of visual-novel-like sections, which have detailed, rich graphics that don’t match either the 3D views or the combat sections.

And, as Tex spends most of his time flying, the title Mean Streets doesn’t make much sense. Tex seems to spend very little time on streets. Yes, the only time the player sees the streets in question is during combat, but that part of gameplay seems so removed from the rest that it seems odd that it would become the titular feature. It’s not like when the title of a work is an deceivingly inconsequential detail, like Slaughterhouse Five or The Perfume of the Lady in Black. It just seems that that title was given because it was a cool title, reminiscent of a cool movie.

The good stuff

There are many, many good things in Mean Streets that are worthy of praise. Many of these have been kept in future games.

First of all, Mean Streets uses technology that was definitely bleeding edge, such as 3D, video and voice. These were very much ahead of their time in 1989. The got in the way of gameplay or were frustrating, but I’m confident that the failure of Mean Streets is what made the subsequent games so good. After their first Tex Murphy game, Access had figured out what to keep and when to use it.

This game also makes me glad for having taken the class Building Virtual Worlds at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center and Jesse Schell’s class on game design. These were specifically designed to avoid problems like the one in Mean Streets. I can’t honestly say I would not have done the exact same thing at the time myself.

My topic: analyzing and extending Frotz

Ah, Frotz. The most popular Z-machine and now glulx interpreter out there… Let’s back up for a while.

Z-machine

The first commercially available text-based adventure game was Zork I by Infocom in 1980. It was based on its almost-namesake Zork, that was made at MIT and only ran on big mainframes. For the commercial version, Infocom needed a very simple and versatile format. So they created the Z-machine format. Its only output was text, so interpreters for it could be made for pretty much any platform — and it was.

After Infocom

To my knowledge, the last commercial text-based adventure game was Eric the Unready. After that time, a new interpreter for Z-machine files ended up being necessary. A few appeared. The most popular ended up being Frotz, a command-line tool for Unix. Frotz was eventually ported to many systems, including Windows and more recently iOS.

Adventure games are not dead. Well, maybe not

Even though the number of people who play adventure games has shrunk and the number of people who play text-based adventure games or “Interactive Fiction” or simply IF is now tiny, a small community remains. New tools were made for creating new pieces of IF. Some were brand new, some compiled to the old Z-machine format. At the forefront of that latter category was the Inform programming language and its accompanying system, both created by Graham Nelson, a British poet and mathematician.

As the Z-machine had never been meant to be used by the public before, there was never a standard for it. Graham Nelson established one, aptly called the Z-machine standard in 1997. It has been updated since to version 1.1 in 2004. These standards are now used by most Z-machine interpreters.

A short note about Inform

Graham Nelson’s Inform language was very simple up to version 6. What made it a very powerful tool is that it came built-in with IF-specific rules. IF does require many rules to for the world of the story to behave in the way we as human players expect. These rules could be overwritten, but Inform did not require the programmer to write them. Example of rules could be that if an object is marked as being a container, it can contain other objects. However, an object cannot contain itself. This seems obvious to humans, but has to be coded in order to be in the world. Inform 7 goes much further and actually reads like English. It can still compile to the Z-machine format.

What I intend to do with all that

My independent study this semester will be the following:

  • analyze the Z-machine, using existing interpreters as well as Graham Nelson’s standards,
  • expose parts of the story inside the Z-machine and
  • display the information I gathered in the Windows interface in the Frotz for Windows interpreter.

I don’t know for sure how much of these I’ll be able to do, apart for the first one. But the Z-machine has such a reputation for being a very simple virtual machine that I hope I’ll be able to do all of them.

Indiecade review and highlights

That’s it, Indiecade is over. This is my second conference ever, the first one was GDC earlier this year. A comparison feels apropos.

First of all, the average quality of the speakers at Indiecade does not quite match the incredibly high standards of GDC. But the mood is a different thing entirely. The mood at Indiecade was all about fun. It’s a lot more relaxed. There are much, much fewer people and they seem to be here much more to be here and a lot less because their profession or obligations dictate that they should. Not to say that GDC wasn’t fun and interesting, but the overall “vibe” was more directed, focused. People came to accomplish something and did it. Indiecade was about trying, wandering, discovering, not knowing what to expect.

At GDC, I carefully planned where I wanted to go. At Indiecade, I let myself follow some sort of flow. Some things seemed utterly pointless while some were nothing short of astonishing. There were astonishing things at GDC as well, of course, but the difference was that at Indiecade, the astonishment came without warning, at any time, in any context. Be it about games, technology, general information or just who happened to be in the audience at the time.

Gorogoa, by Jason Roberts

The first wow moment of Indiecade for me was the incredible Gorogoa. It’s a graphical adventure with a mechanic like no other. The innovative nature of its gameplay leaves Loom in the dust. It’s beautiful, moving, fascinating, engaging, surprising and a lot of other good things. It’s, on the other hand, not close to finish and, at the time of writing, quite a bit buggy. The goal of Gorogoa is, apparently, to help a young boy defeat a monster that’s ravaging a city. In order to do this, the boy seems to want to collect color-coded MacGuffins. Nothing too original so far. What makes the game magical is that rather than control a character or his environment, the sets in the game are made of Photoshop or animation cell-like layers and the player gets to re-arrange them to reshape the world, changing the meaning of each shape as it shifts contexts and the meaning of the resulting image. The graphical style of the game is like a nineteenth century engraving, delicate, detailed, organic and understated. It’s a work that could only exist in its medium and that pushes the limits of what I, for one, would have considered within the realm of a single person’s imagination.

Still, I find Gorogoa somehow reminiscent of the experimental works of the French comic book artist, Marc-Antoine Matthieu. Particularly his Julius-Corentin Acquefacques, prisonnier des rêves series as well as his stand-along comic Le Dessin.

Renga, by Wallfour

On Saturday night, I saw a hundred people play Renga by Wallfour. Wallfour, with Renga, has solved what I believe to be a huge problem with many users sending input to a single screen in a way that’s easy to understand: they used laser pointers. A hundred people joined forces to interact with a single using nothing other than laser pointers. The whole experience was fun and riveting. They used a perfect mix of technology and, of all things, stage know-how and dramatic structure.

Super Hexagon, by Terry Cavanagh

Everyone at Indiecade seemed to be playing Super Hexagon, an extremely simple game that got me hooked even though I’m still not sure why. The gameplay is ridiculously simple but irresistibly engaging.

Prom Week screenshotProm Week and more

The final highlight I want to address here is a project that I believe has a huge future in entertainment in many ways: Prom Week. It was not, however, a surprise because I had tried it before. What was a hugh surprise was that I got to meet Aaron Reed, author of what is probably the most remarkable work of interactive fiction in existence so far, Blue Lacuna. There’s a saying: “don’t meet your heroes.” The meaning is supposed to be, “they’ll never live up to your expectations.” In this case it meant, “He will well beyond your wildest expectations and you’ll make a complete fool of yourself in front of him. Or feel like you did.”

Prom Week has a new interface, which is a huge improvement on the old release. I got to speak with Prom Week team member Ben Samuel whose enthusiasm was infectious. He told me a bit about the engine. I still have high hopes for their engine Comme Il Faut, even though, apparently, it is not available for independent distribution quite yet.

Sill, my main takeaway from Indiecade was to have actually met the author of Blue Lacuna, which, to my great shame, I haven’t finished yet. I should really get done with that.

I’m in print!

My essay, “Time Tech and Tales”, will be in the next issue of Well Played, the peer-reviewed journal on video games, value and meaning, edited by the amazing Drew Davidson. It will available for sale in a couple of weeks, but like all ETC Press publications, it will also be available for free from the ETC Press website.

“Time Tech and Tales” is about the history of narration in video games and its potential future, centering on the example of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and the evolution between those two games. It also briefly covers the recent emergence of “niche games.”

Treasure Your Medium: Agatha Christie and Game Design

Spoilers ahead. Sorry.

I love Agatha Christie. I mean I don’t just really like her work, I LOVE what she does and how she does it. I don’t love all of her works, but when she does it right, she’s among the best the world has ever know.

There are many reasons why Agatha Christie was so good at what she did. But, as far as I could tell, one of the main reasons is that she treasured her medium. She did not write play-like books, or movie-like plays or novel-like plays. When she was working with a medium she took the best she could out of it. Others do this as well, but the topic of Agatha Christie’s novels make her efforts more visible than many others’.

Let me illustrate with a few examples. First of all, Appointment With Death. This is a famous novel of hers, adapted into a wonderful film, very faithful to the book. At the end, Poirot reveals that the murderer is (shock!) the last person anyone suspected. In both the novel and in the film it’s based on, Poirot explains in detail his reasoning and how and why he gets to his inevitable solution.

The first play Agatha Christie worked on was Alibi, based on what is arguably her masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. She was not satisfied at all with that play and proceeded to write her own stage adaptations from then on. For Appointment With Death, she realized that Poirot’s monologues and complex deductions were fascinated to her fans in the novel, but would be tedious to wach on stage: it would then be little more than people standing still while one of them was talking. So not only did she change the solution to the mystery (hint: the only even less likely suspect in the play) but she removed Poirot altogether. In the play, some of the remaining characters, a pair of romantically entangled young people in particular, figure the solution out by talking to each other and comparing views on the events. This is a dynamic, dramatic, visually and psychologically compelling way of presenting the solution, a way that is perfectly suited to the stage. A way that embraces the medium.

Why then did the story of the novel work on film? Films are in many ways closer to novels than to stage plays. Not in every way, of course, but certainly in way that matter here: they can punctuate long speeches with flashbacks (murder mysteries often do that) or with reaction shots. They can emphasize how dramatic a specific part of the speech is with close-ups or camera movements. Plays don’t have these tools. They have other advantages, but none of them would have allowed Agatha Christie to make Poirot’s monolgues enjoyable on stage. So she accepted the limitations of her medium.

Another work by Agatha Christie that stars a young couple as the detective character is one of my all-time favorites: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. In that novel, at the very beginning, our young hero, Bobby, finds in the middle of a golf course (brace yourself) a dead body! In a panic, he searches the body and pulls out of a pocket a photograph of a woman. He finds her rather plain. Later on, there is a police examination and Bobby’s co-hero, Frankie, also gets to see the photograph that was in the dead body’s pocket. But she finds the woman in it beautiful. When the two of them try to figure out what is going on in this complicated story, they actually go so far as to argue over that detail. Frankie goes so far as to accuse Bobby of being too choosy when it came to women, an acccusation that Bobby has to take seriously given the tangled nature of his relationship with Frankie. Much later, it turns out that there were two photographs in the pocket. Bobby saw one and that same one got removed from the body before the police got to it. Frankie saw the other. The nature of the narrative text allowed Agatha Christie to describe both photograph in the same language while sounding specific but in fact being vague enough that her reader did not suspect that she was describing two distinct items.

Returning to the stage, Agatha Christie’s stage masterpiece is certainly The Mousetrap, the longest-running play in the world. In it, the main murder takes place on stage in front of everyone. The audience is in front of the whole thing without any visual obstacle between them and the very crime they’re a witness to, but not only can’t they communicate any of it to the characters, the stage is set in such a way that what the audience does see is no real help at all as who did it. The trick is so simple that I won’t ruin it by revealing it here, but it would not work on film, radio or in a novel: The Mousetrap is made for the stage only and only works on the stage.

As for Agatha Christie’s overall masterpiece, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which has been adapted in movies, TV series, plays and comic books, it too uses its medium to the fullest. Most adaptations try to work around how Ms. Christie takes advantage of the narrated word, but often only attempt to do so in vain. It may work, but it cannot feel as smooth as with simple narration.

Agatha Christie did not just accept her medium but she treasured it. When she set herself up to write a play, she did not try to make it “cinematic” or “like an epic novel,” she made a play that would give her audience an experience that only a play can give. And she was right to do so.

When it comes to games and interactive media, for me, the master of that skill was and still is Ron Gilbert. The way he uses dialog trees creates humor that could not exist in any other way. The two games I enjoyed the most in the recent months, Portal and Braid do similar things. Would Portal, even just its story, work nearly as well in another medium? One trick that works in Portal — whether it is intentional or not — is that, unlike in film, in games we are really usually guided by pre-recorded voices. In that way, the way we are introduced to GLaDOS is perfectly believable. This would not be the case in a film: we would expect a film to polish everything Aperture’s AI says. At the beginning of Portal, the game, we may know that the audio problems of the GLaDOS AI are placed there by Valve, but we are ready to believe that, even within the story, they are just events triggered by Chell’s actions because, well, that’s how games work. The sort of metastory or metastructure that comes out of finding out that GLaDOS scrambles her own messages with static comes as a surprise in the game in a way that would not make sense in the same way in any other medium. Furthermore, this revelation is meaningful in the game: it’s an essential part of how we progressively learn the true nature of GLaDOS, but also, in part, the true nature of what Portal itself is.

If Agatha Christie knew how to accept the limitations of her media and to embrace what made them special, there is no reason why we should not do the same. We may be filmmakers and writers and musicians but when we’re making games, we’re making games and that’s the essence of what we’re doing, just not a cast made after the fact, or an afterthought, but, I repeat, the essence of what we must do.

Get them! They killed adventure games!

Now that I’m at the ETC trying to find my way through Real Life by Building Virtual Worlds, trying not to get lost on a tangent about the whole apparent contradiction of the matter, I find myself looking at my old, beloved adventure games, no longer at some fossilized artifact of a bygone past, but more as a moribund selfless martyr waiting to be nourished back to health so that it can go back to being productive, beautiful and beloved. Is my assessment accurate? And if it is, am I the one to do it, or to take part in that movement?

It’s generally a good thing not to dwell too long on past wrongs and better to focus on future endeavors. So let me be very bad and dwell a lot. Even if adventure games are not, in fact, dead, they are in many respects as good as dead. And I call murder! Murder, I tell you! And I will, just like an Agatha Christie detective, point a stern finger at those responsible. At least according to me.

Games as software rather than entertainment

You’d have to be really old to remember this, but there was a time when video games were sold as software, not unlike office software. The number of lines of dialog, number of rooms in the game, duration of the music included, were listed in bullet points as features on the back of the box. What is a “box”, you ask? Look it up, that’s not the point.

This was not particularly harmful for adventure games. True, VGA graphics did not translate as beautiful graphics, but beautiful graphics existed and did influence games for the better. Where this started to make a real difference in the output is when features started mattering more than content

FMV and 3D

The beginning of trouble came with Full Motion Video. Now some of my favorite games of all time were made with FMV. Full Motion Video was the practice of basing most of the graphics of the game on pre-recorded video. Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within was such a game and is, in my opinion, about as great as an adventure game can be. (From Sierra, by Jane Jensen.) Yes, some of the dialog was cheesy and the background music was silly and some of the effects and the acting were a bit over-dramatic at times, especially during the intro, but this is, overall, forgivable given how young the medium was and how tight the story turns up in the end. But then, FMV became the main selling point of the game, rather than a tool, a medium for great content. Released at about the same date, Phantasmagoria, also from Sierra, by the very person who created the very medium of the graphical adventure game, Roberta Williams herself. Phantasmagoria, while innovative in many ways, did suffer from a repetitive structure and — form my point of view at least — overly gratuitous violence.

A good example of how technology can get in the way of good fiction can be found by following those games chronologically to the third Gabriel Knight title: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned. The 3D engine for that games was clever, versatile, clearly benefited from extensive user testing and despite all that mostly came in the way of a good gaming experience. The story of the game was not bad, but very clumsily plotted. In the previous two Gabriel Knight titles, the backstory was slowly hinted at through the consequences of some of the player’s actions. In Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, the whole backstory is dropped onto the player towards the end of the game in one very long slide show. No 3D in the world is going to make players enjoy that. In the previous Gabriel knights game, Jensen seemed to have put a considerable amount of effort in making her characters as humanly flawed as she could, people the player could relate to, no matter how great they looked or how pathetic they appeared.

Still, adventure games could have lived through that. They could have used 3D in a positive way. Some did, particularly the Tex Murphy series. Or they could have persisted in staying 2D after a while. But the gaming world as a whole evolved in a way that turned out to be terribly harmful to adventure games as a genre.

 The opposition between core and casual gamers

Nowadays, there is a clear split between casual and core gamers. Core gamers play games like BioShock and Mass Effect. Casual gamers play games like Angry Birds and Peggle. Or do they? Do core or casual players play Super Mario Galaxy? What about Plants vs. Zombies? But without getting entangled in that tricky debate, it’s important to keep in mind that in their heydays, adventure games were very much targeted towards core gamers. One of the reason for this was that at the time, there really was no such thing as casual gamers. At that time, if one played video games at all, one was a gamer without that many subcategories.  A funny and very accurate description of how casual gamers somehow recently became a very important demographic for games can be seen in Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation review for Peggle.

But this has changed. People who actually play video games or computer games are core gamers. People who play Wii Sport or Angry Birds are not gamers at all, according to most people you will ask around, including the players themselves. These are just people who happen to play games. And yet they should matter: as of 2009 Wii Sports was the best selling video game of all time. This, on its own should mean something. The vacuum within the very identity of casual gamers is a problem. Let me explain.

The first adventure games were hard. Very hard. Zork was created at M.I.T. for M.I.T. students by M.I.T. students. That is not exactly a broad demographic. As the genre became more popular, many efforts were made to make the gaming mechanics easier and allow more people into the genre. But the change went from “very core players” to “less core players.” Take a game like Plants vs. Zombies. This games is the result of the opposite shift. Pop Cap originally made games for extremely casual players and slowly shifted towards more core-like titles.

Current core-player games focus on using complex graphics systems, themes that appeal to young males, a focus on speed and thrill. The large number of horror games are war games should serve as a testimony for that. They bring out thrill, not thought. Compare BioShock and Loom, for example. They hardly have any themes or mechanics in common. The slow pace of adventure games, the focus on reflection rather than thrill, these rebuke those who became gamers since the late ninties. Those sought more or less the exact opposite sensations that adventure games provide.

I would argue that that means that adventure games have become a genre that should be directed towards casual gamers. And yet, it still carries its legacy identity of being a core gamer’s genre. Trying to sell adventure game to gamers has failed since about the year 2000, mostly because the demographic that is actually likely to enjoy adventure game, casual players, does not even identify as gamers at all.

Lady on the Plane

Casual gamers tend not to care about pixel shaders, 3D sound or fragging in multiplayer. They would probably care more about plotlines being deep and yet flexible, about motivations being complex yet believable, about the world they’d visit being intriguing and yet reassuring. One would feel comfortable escaping to.

Text-based adventure games are an excellent example of an incredibly powerful resource gone wrong. Tools like Inform7 offer a huge ration of ease of use compared to power of creation. It’s a programming language that looks very similar to English and is meant to be used to create text-based adventure games. Yet many of these cater to a small, hard-core crowd; they often take pride in being difficult and they don’t seem to care much about potential newcomers to the genre. As Extra Credits reminds us, easiness in games is generally not a problem is the game had depth. Then, ease is merely a transparent interface to an immersive experience. Again, this is an instance of the potential new audience for adventure gamine and interactive fiction being placed on the wrong side of the core gamer/casual gamer divide, mostly based on what should be an archaic focus being placed on technology. That, right there, is what killed adventure games.

Can adventure games be rescued? I think so. I think the key element if one intends to revive adventure games is to hold on to  a lot of what used to make them great, but to rethink a few aspects of how they work. These might actually be fundamental aspects, such as how they deal with interfaces, introductions and tutorials, or their standard themes and their verbosity, for example. Many of these are symptoms of how they still hang on to their status of core player genre. It is a very harmful misconception that casual players deserve a lower status. (Some successful casual games, maybe, but that’s another issue.)

A couple of weeks ago, on a plane, I showed Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge to woman in her fifties. She looked very curious about it. She said that to her, the experience looked similar to reading, but with interaction. She said she loved reading, which is not a statement commonly attributed to core gamers. She seemed tempted by the idea of giving Monkey 2 a try. However tempted may she have been by the genre as a whole, as themes go, she would probably be more interested in a psychological conflict than in a story about an inexplicably evil villain bent on taking over the world and the axiomatically selfless hero who is bent on stopping him.

Who’s right

It’s important to keep in mind that neither theme is better or worse than the other. The question is more: who does which one address? And can the answer to the previous question be used to save adventure games? Aren’t some big studios (both in film and in gaming) trying to trick their respective audience by selling them technological advances rather than content mostly because the quality of one is much easier to gauge than the quality of the other?

When the iPhone and iPad came out, many reviewers thought they would fail, or be only mildly successful, because most people were not asking for any of the feature in either of the devices. No one wanted all-touchscreen phones. No one wanted a large tablet device. They didn’t know it was an option, except after the device’s announcement, where they only knew about it in theory. But both of these have shown to be extremely popular.

Casual gamers aren’t asking for adventure games. But hardly any adventure game is really catered for them. Trying to impress casual gamers with AAA titles is very likely to fail because the technical or thematic aspects where these titles shine is not something that casual gamers care about.

An excessive focus on technology without regard to its relevance and an strong and yet somehow artificial divide between casual and core players is what killed adventure games. By fixing those problems, we should be able to bring adventure games back.